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Month: June 2022

Tools come later

During the development of a videogame you will notice that many activities are repetitive. Activities like putting texts into a dialogue system or assigning sprites to your boosters.

Game developers use to develop tools to make our life easy in our repetitive activities. So that we can focus, as designers, on what really matters.

From the other side, we should assure that the things that are being developed really matter! Game development, otherwise, will focus the efforts in developing tools.

Here’s a new tool that permits to easily download a PNG icon from our servers so that in our live events we don’t need to make another build for our players. Great idea. And then you discover that no one plays that kind of live event, so waste of time.

We develop a game for Players to have fun. We don’t develop a game for you having an easier life. Our focus should always be on the Players, tools come later.

Dreaming the dream

I dream of making my own game someday. I have a lot of ideas well organized and stored, for someday do them. There are a lot of indie games there. With indie game, in this case, I mean a game that is not conceived to generate revenue or attract some specific kind of player. With indie game I mean, in this case, a game where I want to tell something.

On Sunday I went to the concert of a supergood rock band, the Schellac. Steve Albini, producer of Pixies, Nirvana and so on. Their rock is minimal, super well played and they keep the rhythm like a clockwork. They are very mathematic while they play. They have really something to say and they seem not to give a damn about making huge revenues and so on.

That concert made me think a lot. In fact, we can consider a gamedev team like a rock band. Everyone has a role and an ego. When you have a team of three people really good at what they do, you can really build something meaningful.

I am a game designer and I have a technical background. So that I am not afraid of using engines, script a little bit and so on. I think that with a supergood artist and with a stellar programmer we could have a good base. Then we need at least one person dedicated to marketing and at least one dedicated to QA. And that’s it, then we can be the Schellac!

Dreaming the dream is not living it, I know. But it’s what I have at the moment.

What successful game companies have in common

I have noticed in those years of carreer three main things that all successful companies share.

When we are joining a game company, many times we are just looking for a job. We study the companies and we look at their games. The most probable thing is working on a game that will not be successful. That’s a fact, there are statistics for that.

The first thing is that they have a great administrative department. They know how to keep the bills in order, how much the company is spending and what is the revenue. They are tracking their burn rate and the house it’s in order.

The second thing is that there is at least one person dedicated exclusively to quality assurance. Testing the game every single day, reporting bugs and creating processes to improve and automate the process of finding bugs. QA people save games. Games without QA will most probably just be bad games.

Ultimately, there is at least one person dedicated to community management and marketing. Games nowadays work a little like a service. Even a small indie game when published receives feedbacks and reviews and devs have to iterate inevitably. You need people dedicated exclusively to the sales, external communications and support.

If you are about to join a project with no QA people, or no administrative people or no sales/support/community people believe me: red flag! If it is your first project it may be OK according to its scope, but not expect quality, security nor players satisfaction.

New game designers, pick a starting point

When looking for information on how to become a game designer the results are quite confusing. There is a famous video from years ago that claims that a game designer must know everything.

That video is right but scary!

In my opinion advices included in this video does not help those who are trying to prepare for the future. Rather, it helps those who are already on the way to feel very very cool!

Learn to design games

Getting started in game design is hard. There is no single path, but all paths have two things in common:

  1. Create something playable.
  2. Let people try it out by observing how they interact with the artifact you create.

It is very difficult because on the one hand you have to arm yourself with a lot of willpower and time to be able to get something done. On the other hand, it takes a good dose of cheek to go and ask people to try a game and be observed.

In my opinion, however, it is the only real way to learn. A lot of people, for example, suggest joining game jams to get started. Game jams are great for the first point, but they lack the fundamental component: the players. Players are by far the most important part of a video game, from a game designer’s perspective.

This article is for people who want to join a company as a game designer. To be a game designer, you don’t need to join a company. You can create and publish your own games. And you will be a great game designer if you insist. But companies look for other things: they pay you to solve practical problems. To learn how to solve them, you should start your journey from another starting point.

Generalist or specialist?

Game design is a very broad discipline and normally people tend to recommend specializing in a game design area. Industry is also looking for more and more specialized professionals. However, if I think of having to take care of only one thing for the rest of my life it is intolerable to me. I understand the needs of the industry, I understand the advice of the experts, but they are not for me. So there will be other people like me. I will never recommend specializing.

The starting point of all achievement is desire.

Napoleon Hill

My advice is, instead: pick a starting point. After, your career will advise you on whether to specialize or remain a generalist like me. Time puts everyone in their place.

Game design consists of four fundamental areas: level design, system design, narrative design and gameplay design. These areas in the mobile world are called level design, game economy design, content design and UX design. It is inaccurate, I know, but what I observe is this.

Choose one of the four areas, scan the companies you would like to work for and their games. Remember to study well the business model behind, try to get an approaximation of their team dimension using LinkedIn, game credits and public information. The business model influences the game design a lot.

Professional game design puts in relationship the Players with the business model, the game theme and the game itself. It’s creating a language between the business, the team and the people playing. A language to deliver stories and experiences.

Level Design

The level design relates the mechanics with the theme and the game experience in a way that is logical and that offers the right degree of complexity and challenge to the players at every step of the journey. It is a very profound art, to really master it it takes years. At first it may seem like a mountain, and it is.

To get started, I recommend to take games that allow the creation of levels. You don’t want to start directly from handling engines like Unity or Unreal Engine (you’ll get there, just don’t start from there), but you better start from other games that already have their metrics and skill atoms well defined. Plus you can connect with their community of modders and grow with your peers too.

  • Get a game that allows the creation of levels
  • Learn the creation system of that game
  • Study and document all the mechanics and the skill atoms for that game
  • Place the skill atoms in vertical and the mechanics in horizontal on a spreadsheet and make a beat chart with the original game level design to understand its philosophy
  • Connect with the modders community
  • Create your own levels and have them try
Great starting point for mobile level designers

If you are interested in the level design of smartphone games, however, you will hardly find level editors. In the Unity engine, however, very often you will find a complete game of that type in the asset store. I recommend that you pay less than 50 euros to have the asset and be able to work on it. In that case you have to start from the engine, yes. Prepare your match-3 or endless runner levels from there!

I may also suggest you to join Steve Lee and Max Pears communities.

Narrative Design

The narrative design connects the theme and game mechanics to the story. It’s about designing how the story is delivered to people through the game. The best way to learn is to create fan fiction about popular games and implement the dialogue in some way: in the game or by recreating parts of the game itself.

A narrative designer reminds a little of a dungeon master when you start
  • Choose the game and create fan fiction
  • Have a few fans of the game read your story and try to improve it
  • Create a version of the game that allows you to receive the story as it is delivered, using Twine or rapid prototyping tools
  • You can also consider of creating a role playing game based on that game
  • Let someone try the new dialogue and watch their reactions!

System Design

System design is the branch of game design that relates the theme to the mechanics at its base, in the invisible part of it. It focuses on the connections between all the atoms of the game. Normally you need to know how to use tools such as spreadsheets well. However, the best way to really learn system design is by creating board games.

  • Choose a game you like
  • Create the tabletop version of that game
  • Try it if possible with fans of the game, but also with normal people
  • Iterate and improve your board game
  • Translate the rules to digital documents and spreadsheets

Gameplay Design

The gameplay design also relates the game’s theme to its mechanics, but from a more player-oriented perspective. It deals with the most tangible experience part, it is one of the most difficult branches and has many ramifications. The best way to really learn gameplay design is to start by researching and watching players interact with existing games.

Learn here how to research games
  • Take a game and have people who have never played it trying it in front of you
  • Take note of all behaviors, beautiful moments and struggles
  • Take detailed screenshots of the entire game and organize them in a file, as shown in the video above
  • Chooe a component of a game and try to create a variation in the form of a prototype
  • Let someone try the variation and see the differences

It takes a lot of willpower to start this profession. There is no single path, this is the one I recommend. Companies look for portfolios, especially in the more junior profiles. If this portfolio is created by working on existing titles, and if these titles are theirs, that’s even better!

Few people, in fact, have the necessary talent to create some work that really stands out from the others. We normal people have to look for shortcuts. Better to work an existing game yourself than to create the “wonderful adventure of the boy in the woods” that everyone creates.

The value of failing games

When I started this profession my dream was to participate in some really successful game. A successful game is a game that generates revenues, resonates with a community of Players and brings fun to the World.

Reality is that when you work as a game designer, you are not in charge of a whole project. You hear constantly a lot of success cases and great stories in the indie, AAA and f2p industry. But that is not the normality. The most common situation is you working on a game that is not working and will probably fail. That is the truth.

The temptation is to constantly look for a new job, especially when you clearly see that your game will never be published or will never be viable and sustainable.

But there is a value also in working for failing games. You can inspire people, you can improve processes and you can do something meaningful everyday. It is a struggle, and it’s very hard to resist. And yes, you probably have to look out for a new gig. But try to not stress too much: remember that it’s the most common thing.

Our job is not to design the next hit. Our job is to understand the context and provide the best solutions for that contest. Our job is to own our tasks and do the best job we can do.