The Perils Of A Game Design Course

One thing that strikes me, as I talk to people of many disciplines at a gathering of AIE alumni, is that certain professions in the gaming world have a Plan B they can fall back on. Game Design is not one of those professions.

Design is often associated with management and production, even though that’s not always the case, due to it requiring a vision. It’s a somewhat glamourised, romanticised role in which people imagine themselves as the “ideas person”, seeing the scene in their head being created in real life.

That may be true for the Cliffy Bs of the world. But you won’t always get to dictate what type of game you’re making, and you won’t always have a job.

There have been quiet periods in the games industry before, and as developer after developer answers questions here, it’s clear that they’ve dealt with it, too. Graduating into a stagnant period means that they might have to go overseas, or move into a different medium. Artists and animators can move to the screen, be it big or small. Coders can choose to create apps, databases, or anything else. It's quite normal for them to dip in, and dip out of the games industry, as necessity dictates.

But designers? They’re a little bit screwed.

More and more gaming schools are offering Game Design courses, and given the quiet period we’re in, it might pay to be honest with these folks and let them know the odds of being hired. Outside of actual games, advertisers are always looking for people who can help design an end user experience, and you might find a corporation looking for someone to gamify their KPIs. But these are hardly as solid as the backup plans mentioned above.

The Academy of Interactive Entertainment tries to mix in business knowledge with the Design theory in their course, but the teacher of this new course, Megan Ralph, acknowledges that it’s a tough time for someone whose fate is so intertwined with the one industry — or indeed anyone seen as a “jack of all trades” type. A designer might have some coding knowledge, but probably won’t been out a dedicated coder for a position in that field.

But as Ralph points out: If you really want it, nothing will stop you. It’s a hard slog for someone just starting out as an indie, and you’ll basically have to support yourself in your formative days. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

[Design] via Shutterstock


    It gets worse. If you're looking to do an indie project, you want to keep your team as tight as possible. For the most part, it seems far more likely that you'll have people that major in code/art and minor in design, than it is you'll have people that major in design and minor in code.

    After all, the basics of design can be picked up by experiencing games. It's largely soft skills. For example, if I play enough FPS games, and look at them analytically, I'm going to get some insight into how levels are designed, what weapon archetypes there are, what health/shield/scoring systems there are, etc.

    However, no amount of looking at a pretty game is going to make me a decent artist, and no amount of gaming experience is going to give the slightest bit of coding insight.

    Further more, lets say you want to advertise your indie team with a website. You're likely to inhouse it, which means you'll need artists for site design, and programmers for html/js. Game Designers offer no overlapping skills.

    Of course, as you trend towards larger teams, designers increase exponentially in importance. But given how much of the game dev industry is indies now (esp. in Australia), a small team can easily get away with 1 or fewer dedicated designers, but the same cannot be said for artists/coders.

      Soft skills? Picked up from playing games? If you mean by knowing 1 + 1 = 2 is the basics for knowing and learning quantum physics, then yeah sure, maybe you're right.

      I played a lot of games. I thought I knew heaps about designing them.

      Then I did a game design course.

      I found that I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did. There is a LOT more to designing games than what you will learn by looking at games analytically. You need to know how to get a firm grasp on your vision, write up design documents, explain your game to people who have never really played a game before, know how to communicate to both artists and coders about what you want from them, balancing levels, balancing abilities, balancing weapons, know where to put lighting, audio, the type of audio, narrative, semiotics... I could go on for a long time.

      It is true though that we have a very specific skill set that is kinda useless outside of making games. But if we love what we do that much then we will make it work

        sirmeglin, all the above mentioned are skills learnt either as a minor when studying Game Art or Code (in any course worth its weight), and are again reinforced when working with designers (who are generally senior former coders or artists) when working in the industry. Game design is not something that really warrants being a major, as many don't like to hear.

        Last edited 03/06/14 6:43 pm

          I'm sorry but experience both as a developer in the industry AND now an educator tells me that you're wrong about game design not warranting being a major. Very simply, to be a GOOD game designer, you need to have a solid grasp of a wide varity of things that you can't just easily pick up 'industry ready' skills for - Things like applied psychology, user experience, design process, and a bunch of technical skills as well so you can apply.

          There are actually 5 sub-branches of game design:
          - System Design
          - Narrative Design
          - Level Design
          - UI Design
          - Content Design

          Each one of these in turn requires other pre-requisite skills to do well, and these things can be taught. This is what good game design courses teach.

          As someone who actually worked as a designer in a AAA studio, and still designs indie now, I did ALL of these things, and frankly, training up front would have made me better at these things. I personally had proactively taught myself some of these things myself before I worked in a studio, but if you don't think you can make a full course trying to get your head around doing all of these things WELL - Then you're simply underestimating how much is required to be good at the job.

          Also - Your notion that designers are 'senior' from artists and coders isn't true. Typically, you get cross discipline teams and designers, coders and artists work as equal peers most of the time. The designer may be responsible for creative direction, so they will have creative veto rights, but when you have a decent number of staff, producers are honestly 'the boss' - They have final say on approving what work gets done.

        Report writing, communication, etc are soft skills.
        Narrative and Semiotics is not part of game design as much as it is part of story writing, which I would more lump with the Art department (who're also responsible for sound. Visual Art is not the entirety of art).
        The only thing you've mentioned that is unique to designers is balancing, which is definitely a skill that can be grokked to a basic degree. You'll never be a David Sirlin, but you can learn enough for a simple indie project.

          so both of you have either got a game design degree and/or work in the industry?

            IT04 / Bachelor of Games and Interactive Entertainment, QUT, 2008-2010
            Software Engineering major, Design minor.

            None of the designers in my course that I know have been hired in the games industry or in any industry that uses what they learned in any meaningful way. I think one or two got some experience in QA, then got dumped.

            Meanwhile, all the programmers I kept in touch with are working as programmers (many in the burgeoning web-app industry), same with the artists. Even the soundies.

            Edit: Actually, one of the designers has gone into doing indie board/card game design. That's the closest case I can think of.

            Last edited 06/06/14 8:58 am

              Further, once we all graduated, a bunch have tried forming indie teams over the years. I've been invited to join a half dozen different teams, often by design majors who need others to work with.

              But if I wanted to, I could easily do a solo project w/ programmer art and just sub in an artist or two at the end to pretty the project up.

              Again, this isn't to disparage designers, because they are important, but just more at the top end of the industry.

      FYI - As someone who has been in the industry in various roles for 20 years now, including 7 as a designer at Creative Assembly, I can attest that the years of game designers using soft skills only are well and truly behind us, and any school focusing just on these skills is not offering a useful course at all. They are not training you for industry expectations.

      Designers need to script at the very least, and get their hands dirty in both code and editors to be a part of making things work in game. REAL game designers don't wait for a programmer to help them test ideas - They actively go learn what they need to do to prototype ALONE. Anyone serious about game development now needs to become more of a generalist than they used to in the past. This is even true for artists and programmers - Most employed artists are writing scripts, and programmers without some game design understanding tend to not be picked up by studios.

      Also - From observation, playing games does NOT teach you the basics of design at all. Design is a discipline unto itself, and being able to break down how an existing design works is NOT design. Design is all about iteration to achieve a goal. You don't get ANY insight or practice doing that when you're playing games. Frankly, game developers do a LOT of facepalming reading the comments of avid gamers online, who think they know a lot and are very opinionated about game design and development, but are entirely clueless.

    I just have to laugh because this is exactly what I tell everyone and usually I get a lot of hate for it.

    The problem is that Game Design is a SENIOR role, and you can't expect a university degree or other educational course to prepare you for that. Unless you're specially brought in or have a proven track record that may provide an insight, you're just not going to find an entry level position.

    You should also know unless you are very skilled and willing to move for the work, as well as constantly work for free to build your portfolio, the games industry isn't for you. You're just as likely to go to the AIE and end up working in a call centre, there's plenty more of that type in Canberra than there are those who graduated and worked in the industry.

    To the above posters: I am a VFX specialist seeking to transition from film work to games, forgive my lack of knowledge of your industry.

    The AIE game designer course seems alot like the "Directing" courses at film schools, selling qualifications for entry into a senior role which (in the real world) you actually need to fight years for and transition to from other more technical jobs.

    Is the Game Designer analogous to the Director of a film? Is the real auteur the lead programmer or someone else on the team? Is there an auteur in the games industry?

    I do agree that it can be tricky getting hired as a game designer. I've worked at two major studios in Melbourne (Bluetongue and Firemint), and it wasn't that easy getting jobs there. And many of the big studios are now gone, and with a lot more game designers trying to get jobs these days, there's very little to go around.

    Everyone thinks they know about game design... generally people DO know about game design, at least on a gut level. I've known plenty of coders and artists with a great sense of game design, and a wealth of great ideas.

    Studying game design can definitely develop your game design skills. But it's far from being a guarantee of getting a job. I'd agree that the artists and programmers have a far greater change of direct employment in a company, purely by looking at the facts and figures: the majority of employees at game studios are artists and coders! They have specific skillsets which need to be brought to bare on specific problems, and these make up the majority of the work-hours needed to get a game out the door.

    The real challenge for designers, I think, is proving to OTHER PEOPLE that you are AN AWESOME DESIGNER... that you have experience, knowledge and opinions that really stand out and offer an employer POWER if they hire you, that you are a fountain of awesome ideas and solutions in a business that's constantly changing and evolving. I think this is very difficult in an industry that is increasingly driven by metrics and trends, seeing as these elements are in the domain of the statistician and programmer as well.

    That being said, there will always be room for enthusiastic and talented game designers who really want to put their all into it. And I like to think the skills of a hard working game designer could become increasingly transferable to other industries for those people willing to network and explore these other industries, and look for ways they can apply their skills outside of standard games, whether it's in marketing, advertising, the web, usability, educational games and applications, school curriculum, training, etc. Game designers can also be quite entrepreneurial and go about creating their own products and companies that don't have to be traditional software games - but going it on your own obviously has it's own risks and challenges associated.

    I think that ultimately, if you're passionate about games, and want to study game design, you should do it. And you should go hard at it, trying to learn as many practical skills as possible along the way, whether that's 3D modeling and texturing, scripting and programming, using Unity or GameMaker, and generally increasing your breadth and exposure of knowledge in all areas, whether it be psychology, written skills and documentation, producing and team management, story and character, history, politics, literature, filmmaking, etc. And make games! Lots of games! I'd suggest making lots of small games that can be played on the web on your portfolio page. That way, any potential employer, collaborator or friend can see your work loud and clear online. Proven, hands-on fun.

    And to some extent, I think it helps to have one additional stand-out skill, whether it's video editing, composing, art, or code. Because it's still true that a designer can be dead weight if there's not much design work to do at a given time, and you have nothing else to offer as secondary skills. Countless times over the years, I've called on my abilities to do video editing, sound editing, using 3D packages and Photoshop, all within my roles as Game Designer.

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