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What Are the Best First Steps For Becoming a Game Designer? 324

Posted by Soulskill
from the find-door-insert-foot dept.
todd10k writes "I've recently decided to go back to college. I have a lot of experience with games, having played them for most of my adult life, and have always toyed with the idea of making them one day. I've finally decided to give it my best. What I'd like to know is: what are the best languages to study? What are the minimum diploma or degree requirements that most games companies will accept? Finally, is C++ the way to go? ASP? LUA?"
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What Are the Best First Steps For Becoming a Game Designer?

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday July 02, 2009 @11:34AM (#28559229) Journal
    Disclaimer: I am a developer though I don't work nor have I ever worked for a game company. In my free time, I enjoy reading The Game Programming Wiki [gpwiki.org].

    What I'd like to know is: what are the best languages to study?

    Hmmmm, I'm not sure this is going to be a fruitful discussion. It's not too clear to me what kind of game development interests you most. The truth is that games have been written in many languages [gpwiki.org] and developers often scoff at any guideline to restrict them from writing a game in -- say Java -- when there are more efficient languages. Assuming you want to get into console games and/or PC games, I would suggest starting out with simple authoring tools [gpwiki.org] and just tinker with them. Download GameKit [brown.edu] and get it building on your development machine. Then set weekly goals for yourself to modify the Space Invaders game by changing graphics, sound, maybe even mechanics. Once you've done that and are bored, move on to another kit/sdk.

    You see, I doubt the importance is that you know how C++ or Lua works ... they are both great languages for different tasks. It's more important that if you want to be a graphics engine guy you understand how major APIs are laid out to implement tiles and shaders and renderers ... Go here to start thinking aobut what aspect of the game interests you most [gpwiki.org].

    What are the minimum diploma or degree requirements that most games companies will accept?

    This is a topic I could drone on for hours about. Enjoy life, man. They'll take you with a 2 year tech degree or less if you're built for coding. But don't do that. Enjoy the college expereince, go to a four year liberal arts college. Explore math, physics, chemistry, biology, literature, music, etc. I took enough music theory to major in music but I didn't. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

    Finally, is C++ the way to go? ASP? LUA?

    You should really concentrate on one of three types of games: web, console, PC. While the last two are related, the idea of catering to hardware probably has an effect on games. Is a PC developer going to care about Sony's Emotion engine while a console guy might live and breathe it. Honestly, fool around with Allegro, SDL and OpenGL if you're looking to do serious game coding.

    You've got a long difficult road ahead if you're going down this path. You're going to have your heart broken by Blizzard and end up over worked and underpaid at EA. Game programming seems to find you, you can only prepare yourself for it. Read John Carmack's story in Masters of Doom or just wait for the upcoming movie about it.

    I've also heard -- and I can't verify this -- that it helps to have a notebook full of sketches, stories, game mechanics, ideas you've had in relation to games. You keep this and bring it to an interview. You pass the technical aspects and then you let them know that you really want this and that you are also creative and not just technical.

    Don't forget to have fun and good luck!

  • by smackenzie (912024) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @11:38AM (#28559301)
    You'll get a lot of decent answers, and I won't try to duplicate any of them here. My addition: amidst many mediocre books about Game Design, there are a couple that really stand out. The first one to come to mind is "The Art of Game Design":

    http://www.amazon.com/Art-Game-Design-book-lenses/dp/0123694965 [amazon.com]

    While you are perfecting everyone else's good suggestions, give this one a read...
  • by Lilith's Heart-shape (1224784) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @11:41AM (#28559359) Homepage
    See a competent therapist. No rational person would willingly sell himself into indentured servitude in exchange for a salary, and that's exactly what you'll be doing by becoming a game designer.
  • Play becomes work... (Score:3, Informative)

    by dr_wheel (671305) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @11:55AM (#28559661)

    Just because you have "played games for most of your adult life" doesn't mean that becoming a game delevoper is the best career decision for you. I am also an avid gamer. And like you, I also had aspirations of someday becoming a game developer when I was younger. I started out by tinkering with mod tools and working on game maps and such.

    I decided to take the next step and pursue a degree in CS. I quickly discovered that it wasn't for me. It's not that I couldn't do the work; I just found programming to be tedious. The amount of work involved to write even the simplest program was frustrating for me. I came out with a higher respect for programmers, and a degree in IT.

  • wrong question? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 02, 2009 @11:57AM (#28559707)

    Sorry if the paragraph breaks end up jumbled here; Slashdot is being weird for me.

    Disclaimer: I am a professional game developer

    Why are you asking how to be a game designer, and then turning around and asking about programming languages? Decide which job you want.

    Truly, the best way to immediately become a designer is to start your own company. Outside of that, nobody will want to hire an unknown to design things, unless you somehow have an extremely impressive portfolio. No matter how many games you've played and how great that experience is, it is an entirely different beast than designing a game.

    The best experience for designing, if you still want to continue down that path, is to read about it constantly, and actually do it, also constantly, and get lots of people to tell you how you're a bad designer, until they stop saying that. Get a subscription to Game Developer Magazine, read books on game design, and by all means design your own games. Start simple and write a complete design document for an existing game such as Pac-Man. Maybe even figure out how to make it better and incorporate that into your design. Join the nearest IGDA chapter and go to meetings. Form relationships with people in the industry and ask them to critique your design documents from a professional viewpoint.

    Now, you asked about programming languages, which is totally not what a designer should be asking. But if you want to go that route and be a game programmer, then consider what platforms you want to target, and learn the languages appropriate for that. For the iPhone, learn Objective-C++. For consoles, C++ is generally the way to go. For websites, probably ActionScript in Flash, or you could try lua in WildPockets. And if you have aspirations of being a level scripter (much easier than arbitrary game programming), then you should learn to make a mod in a variety of engines using their native languages: lua, python, UnrealScript, QuakeC, etc.

    For any route you want to take, the most important thing for you to learn is everything. By that, I mean study all kinds of topics that you might think are completely unrelated to game design: history, fashion, languages, art, avionics. After you've gotten yourself into the habit of learning with great breadth and depth, and hopefully applying your new varied knowledge to your ideas, the best way for you to get a job in the industry is to meet and hang out with people who are already in it. To that end, join your local IGDA chapter, as I mentioned two paragraphs ago.

  • Re:Quick advice (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 02, 2009 @12:03PM (#28559809)

    Although humorous, the grandparent makes a solid point. Watching movies or television episodes for ones entire life does not prepare someone properly to direct a movie or television episode. It's a good start, but only the tip of the iceburg.

    Wikipedia has a solid description of what is involved in [wikipedia.org]game design.

    Some types of game design involve integration of many varying disciplines. Video game design, for example, requires the co-ordination of:

            * Game mechanics
            * Visual arts
            * Programming

            * Production Process
            * Audio
            * Narrative

    If you don't have a firm grasp on these things, then you might end up with game design ideas that sound like this:

    Dude, I'm going to make a brand new FPS game... and It's going to have a bajillion polygons. There's going to be real time reflections on every surface! Thousands of ambient sound files playing at a time. And It's going to have "REAL" artificial intelligence! It's all going to run on an XBOX 360 too!

    Or here's another popular one:

    I'm new to game design. I want to design a MMORPG. It will be kind of like World of Warcraft, but with .

    I think the best first steps to becoming a game designer is to read. Read, read, read. Get yourself nose-deep in Gamasutra and Gamedev.net. Understanding the technical limitations of each discipline in "Game Development" will help someone who is interested in game design.

  • by Xest (935314) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @12:20PM (#28560199)

    The question is horribly muddled.

    I want to be a game designer and then... "Finally, is C++ the way to go? ASP? LUA?"

    Sorry, lets start from the beginning. Do you want to be a game designer or a games programmer? If it's the former then language isn't really important, you should be focussing on being able to create a good interactive story so you probably really need to study something like literature or perhaps even a screenwriting class would help if you can't get an explicit game design class. Don't expect to get far though, really there's a lot of people who want to be game designers, in fact, probably too many, because everyone wants to be in control of a team that will make their dream game for them, very few actually come up with ideas that everyone else thinks is awesome too. You have to be able to develop games that everyone will enjoy, not that you think would be cool which isn't as easy a skill as many probably assume. Programming will be a help to some extent, but it's not the first thing to worry about if you want to be a designer.

    If you in fact want to be a programmer, then you need to get some basic knowledge of programming, the fact you suggested ASP is puzzling, I'm not even aware of any web based games written in ASP - I've only ever seen them written in PHP. I can only guess then that you're just throwing around terms you've seen about the net to make it look like you're anywhere near close to even beginning to work towards your ideal career. The issue is you can't even get started as you don't even seem to have a basic idea of what you want to do, or what is involved in these roles.

    So here's the best advice anyone can give based on your question - go read some places like Gamedev.net or Gamasutra.com. Actually figure out what you want to do first. Don't come back and say I want to be a programmer, come back and say "I want to be an engine programmer", or "I want to be an AI programmer" or whatever else.

    If you're wondering why a lot of responses here seem hostile, it's because you seem to be expecting answers without even bothering to put as little effort is required to even figure out what you need to ask first. If you had at least done that and figured out if you want to be a designer or a programmer you'd probably find better responses.

    Still, the Slashdot editors should've at least picked that up, I'd like to think they vet questions to see if they make sense first but judging by this one it seems like it was streamed straight from their inbox onto the front page.

    I hope this response will in itself give you a good start though as again you really need to figure out what it is you actually want. When you do finally figure out what you want, may I suggest you start by working with an indie or a mod team to at least get an idea of the facets involved in building a game first hand. I'd suggest you also read some books and so on, but most importantly perhaps - just get involved in a community like that at Gamedev.net or somewhere that produces indie focussed engines like Garagegames or the C4 engine community at terathon.com or perhaps even get involved with an open source rendering engine like ogre.

  • Re:Quick advice (Score:5, Informative)

    by scubamage (727538) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @12:25PM (#28560313)
    No offense, but if we keep chalking up video games to being the realm of "pre-pubescent boys" we're going to keep seeing our rights eroded away in the name of "protecting the children." Comments like that are the reason why entire nations are banning video games deemed "dangerous."

    To the OP, if you want to program video games, then start programming them. Get together a portfolio, and save your cash. Digipen institute would be your dream school, because its entirely dedicated to the development of video games. Full sail institute in florida has a number of simulation programs. Most trade schools offer interactive simulation and design specializations now as well. However if you have no portfolio to show potential employers, you're never going to get anywhere. Also, bookmark gamasutra, there are always jobs posted on there from video game companies looking for employees.

  • Re:Go indie (Score:3, Informative)

    by nathan s (719490) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @12:40PM (#28560633) Homepage

    One of the most useful pixel art tools I've found so far is mtPaint [sourceforge.net] - I did a lot of little isometric drawings for a game project I'm working on (e.g. this one of a park [natesimpson.com]) entirely in this program. Far easier than using paint or a full-fledged image tool (although I did use GIMP for compositing layered tiles into final images at times).

  • by cliffski (65094) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @12:43PM (#28560691) Homepage

    I'm a game developer, having worked at Elixir and Lionhead, and now running my own indie show --> http://www.positech.co.uk./ [positech.co.uk] Parent poster is right, most people who now work as game designers started young and worked for years. i wrote my first code in 1981, aged 11, so that's about 28 years to get to where I am now (albeit with some major detours, you can do it much quicker).
    Key points to be aware of are these:

    1) The competition to be designer is harder than any other role, so the chances of getting work as a designer are way way lower than getting a job as an artist or coder or tester, so you need to be uber-good.
    2) What most people consider to be game design is being 'lead designer' or even better 'concept designer'. These roles are even rarer. You need to run/own a studio or go solo to get this job.
    3) 50% of the coders and artists at each game company also harbour design ambitions. They are also ahead of you in the queue.

    Having said all this, you can do it, I certainly have. I've even designed games for Maxis (SimSocial) as well as my indie stuff. The key thing is, that I did it through the route of programming. I didn't have to persuade a coder to make my idea, I could code it myself, which is 90% of the battle. I have to employ an artist or three, but at the start, you can get away with coder art.

    In short, if you are one of the game design wannabes who aims to never learn any code and is afraid of C++, you are very likely doomed, unless you get in through the route of game testing, and then work your balls off or show incredible ability. Even given that, you are looking at 5+ years minimum before you get to really design. Thats 5 years of checking that barbies new riding game doesn't crash with a French keyboard and other exciting tasks.
    On the other hand if you are happy to learn some code, and willing to start out small, you can do everything yourself. With platforms such as wiiware, iphone, the web (flash and PC downloadable) there are many opportunities to get to be a game designer on a smaller scale.

    Indie dev may not sound as exciting as working at epic, but today I spent my working day fine tuning the circumstances under which AI-controlled space cruisers retreat to engage auto-repair systems*. It beats working in a call center :D
    Good Luck!

    *that was for this -> http://www.gratuitousspacebattles.com/ [gratuitous...attles.com]

  • by Drafell (1263712) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @12:59PM (#28561031)
    You might find my own story interesting with regards to this subject. I more or less fell into game design, and although I still don't get paid for what I do, I get a great amount of enjoyment and satisfaction from it.

    As for languages: a familiarity with C++ is a must. Once you have down the basics, most other "C" based languages will be pretty easy to pick up.

    The project I work on has also recently released the source code for the Medusa Engine SDK, a fully featured MMO development platform. the same one we are using to create the game DarkSpace.

    Medusa is being licensed under one of three different licenses depending on how you want to use the source code. In a nutshell, If you want to make money off the source code, then you will have to pay a fee. If you just want to make games and release them for free or just for fun, the source code and engine is free of charge. Download it at http://www.palestar.com./ [www.palestar.com]

    The following text is an except from my blog on http://www.mmoprg.com/ [mmoprg.com] (http://www.mmorpg.com/blogs/Drafell/022009/3337_DarkSpace-Development-Blog-Introduction), giving an overview of how I got into game design.

    I hope you enjoy it.

    - - - - -

    First, I would like to introduce myself to you all, and explain my role in the DarkSpace community.

    Several years ago, I was idly rambling through cyberspace,looking for a new game to play, when I stumbled across an odd title called DarkSpace. Although not your classic MMO, something about it appealed to me, so I downloaded the client and got sucked into losing the next few months of my life.

    The initial introduction was bleak. There didn't seem to be a great number of players, and I was a little confused to start with as to what exactly the aim of the game was. I was on the verge of quitting when a clan offered to teach me the ropes and learn the basics on how NOT to die. I realized that a small community did not automatically mean that a game has no future, and I soon became an avid supporter of the game, administering the DarkSpace arm of a clan fleet called the Shattered Star Confederation. Six months later I was asked if I would like to join the DarkSpace Moderation team - a group of player volunteers who help police the community, dealing with player queries and helping to prevent exploitation of the game system.

    Naturally I said "Yes," and real life was postponed for another couple of years.

    As time passed, I gradually took on more and more responsibility whilst seeing the game evolve through many variations, and just helping out where I could, or where I saw a need for assistance. Note that I have had no training, and no formal education with regards to community management or public relations. This is probably very apparent from my particular style of communication, and I have a tendency to ramble into totally unrelated topics, such as now...

    As time passed, I started to get more and more into actual game development. I had an interest in music, and so made a few, somewhat questionable tracks (you have to admire anyone that can actually write and produce music. It is not as easy as it may look, or sound). I also developed an interest into graphics, and through playing a multitude of other games, I got interested in the concepts of game balance and design.

    Eventually this coalesced into me and a friend (Jack) submitting a general balance proposal to the owner of the DarkSpace game and head of development, Richard Lyle, and despite having few coding or development skills between us, we were given access to the source code and development environment for the DarkSpace game. I was getting into LUA scripting, and had messed around with creating my own little DarkSpace themed HTML game, and somewhat cheekily stated that I would probably be able to learn C++ in a few weeks. Ignorance is bliss, and a few years on my "C" skills are still questionable, to say
  • Re:Quick advice (Score:4, Informative)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @01:17PM (#28561353) Homepage

    I also hear rumors that game developers earn far less money and work far more (life-destroying) hours than, well, any other sort of developer or IT worker.

  • by GaratNW (978516) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @01:33PM (#28561625)
    That is a very good book. And as one of the few posts that isn't raging negativity, I'll add the following.

    The games industry is one of the least degree centric fields around. A degree will not get you a job in the industry (usually). It might land you an internship, which in turn might land a job, but in and of itself, it will not be the thing that suddenly gets you in. Focus on fields of study that matter to design. Human interaction. Psychology. Math. Statistics. Get some coding and tech skills as well (C++ will always be a good basis to have some understanding of the work you're doing).

    As has already been stated, there is no "path" into games. QA is a good place to get some experience, especially if it's embedded QA (as in, the awesome guys who sit in the dev team area, work hand in hand with the team, handles build process, and team communication about problems, etc - publisher side QA gets a lot less chance to get involved in those sorts of things).

    Know what types of things you want to work on, and start to work on them. Engine technology is lightyears ahead of where it was even 5 years ago. Engines such as Unity3D, Blade3D, Torque, among others, will allow even a non programmer to start to prototype ideas, see how things work together, and attempt to bring their own ideas to life. For someone who has no industry experience, modding and private projects are the way you have to differentiate yourself, and show you have the skills to get the job done.

    After being passionate enough to do work on your own, the next most important thing is understanding what makes a good game from a bad game. If your interest is shooters, what sorts of things set one aside from another? Why is Call of Duty 4 awesome, and random misc. shooter that sold 100k copies considered a failure. What about Halo 3 makes people play the MP aspect obsessively. Start by asking the questions, and then go through the mental exercises of breaking them down. There's no one formula that makes great games great. But there are common elements that make all games good or bad. That is the first part of understanding. If you're a relatively intelligent person, once you can understand the questions you need to ask, as well as the answers, you'll start to understand how to build good games from nothing.

    Read everything you can. Start with Jesse's book. Look for websites, get involved with online communities that are passionate about modding and indie projects. Design is both an art and a science. There is no one path, but there are commonalities that provide cohesion to the overall profession. But when you're reading, remember those guys dont' have all the answers either. It's most more ways of looking at things that in turn will allow you to better breakdown your own work into understandable and implementable chunks. One word of advice though: start with small scope ideas and work up from there. A great game is made up of usually just a few core, simple conceits that come together to make a great experience when finally wrapped in graphics, FX and audio.

    Best of luck. And ignore the haters - find your own passion. I've been making games for over 10 years now, after years at places like Intel, Hewlett Packard and Microsoft that drained my soul. It's exhausting at times, but you're making something your passionate about (hopefully). Don't do this thinking you'll get rich. If that's your goal, become an investment banker and then once you've swindled the public for 10 years, then start your own game company.
  • Re:Quick advice (Score:5, Informative)

    by IronChef (164482) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @02:30PM (#28562717)

    I am a game designer. And whenever anyone tells me they want to be a game designer, I tell them what a cop once told me back when I was in high school and wanted to be a cop. "Be a fireman instead." You like games? Maybe stick with playing them, instead of seeing how the sausage is made.

    Game designer is a job that has the potential to become extremely crummy. It also has the potential to be extremely rewarding. You'll hit both extremes. In a good job, the highs outweigh the lows. Good design jobs are hard to come by. Most games aren't finished and shipped.

    How do you become a designer? The question is hard to answer neatly, because there are many different "design" positions in the industry. My company has design specialties that don't exist at other companies. A highly marketable designer is flexible.

    Many, even most designers have NO developer experience. You don't need to know C++ to create a good first-person shooter level with the Unreal editor. If you are designing a game system, like how some kind of a card game works, or the way your shields regenerate, you don't necessarily need to know programming for that either.

    But for any designer, having familiarity with programming is VERY useful though. When you work with an engineer to bring a system to life you have an understanding of what is realistic to ask for.

    Though you don't need to be a programmer, most design jobs do require some kind of scripting, or at least content creation using hacky, ugly, unfriendly tools. You don't need to be an engineer, but you do usually need to be technical.

    That all said, if you are a whiz designer who is also a developer, that is an excellent skill set to have. Even so, you might not do much programming in a design position. It depends on where you are and how they do things.

    A company local to me does mostly FPS games. I know someone there, and he says that basically all the designers are level designers. That means grinding away in a 3d editor plus scripting language, making playable spaces. They do not seem to have designer/developer hybrids. Seems like you are one or the other there, mostly. Other places might not have such a division.

    Then, take a company that does MMOs. They have designers who just do the game's story. You sit around and dream up factions and NPCs and make flow charts of missions, and collaborate with level designers to make the whole package work. Maybe you write the NPCs' lines, too, and collaborate with concept artists. No programming there.

    In some companies, the engineers don't have much to do with the design. The design staff says, "it works like this" and the engineers make it happen--if it's reasonable. If the engineer is design-minded, it can be a fun collaboration. Or, management can keep devs and designers apart with barbed wire. I have seen it work both ways.

    Then, sometimes there is that guy who is a designer and is fully capable of implementing his designs in executable code... if the company structure allows for it.

    So in the end, programming games does not necessarily mean designing games, and designing games definitely doesn't mean you have to be a programmer. It depends very much on the team you are in.

    Back to the original question... what should you do?

    Make games. Use the editors and mod tools that are out there, and create some playable stuff. Or start doing paper games and making friends play them. If you are not doing something online, try to get a paper game in print, even if it's a small run and self-funded. Like an artist, you need a portfolio. If you can create material that is fun while you develop your technical skills, you are on the right path.

    What technical skills are useful? At my office I see C++, ActionScript/Flash, and SQL stored procedures. Scripting languages I see a lot of include Lua and Unreal's Kismet, but there are many options.

    Your "build" can emphasize either design or programming, but honestly being a whiz at both is the best. Helps if you can write, too, but it's rarely sought after.

    Then, you just need to find a way to get to the top of the resume pile... but that's a different story.

  • I tried and gave up (Score:2, Informative)

    by thygate (1590197) on Thursday July 02, 2009 @02:41PM (#28562939)
    I started out programming some OpenGL applications for visualizing realtime complex data sets. After the project was over, I continued playing with it because it was fun. I then got to the point of making an application to animate some machines and robots I had made in a CAD package. Later I got to the point of rendering a model from Poser/DAZ. Then i got into particle effects, played some with shaders ... etc etc... All very good fun. Then i got it into my head that i wanted to make a full 3D game, and got to the point of matrix palette skinning a mesh of a character. Off course I wanted next-gen graphics, so I kept the polycount very high. and here's where i started realizing this was not for me. Getting a mesh to an acceptable polycount and still have it looking good is hard enough. But skinning a high poly mesh is not just A LOT of work and very time consuming. It is also very hard. Just like Sierra And Lucas Art back in the day could get beautiful (for then) graphics in QVGA with 256 colors, it requires a special breed of man to take a high poly model and downsample it to acceptable levels, both for the eyes and for the available processing power. You also need an arsenal of 3D software (many of it commercial) And you need a very good basis in higher math, so that you can at least understand some concept by reading about it.

The key elements in human thinking are not numbers but labels of fuzzy sets. -- L. Zadeh

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