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.
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.
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:
Create something playable.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
This post is about ownership of the development of a feature or mechanic in a video game. Many companies say that they need people who really own the tasks they have. Ownership is very important but also a little fuzzy concept.
What I understand for ownership is different from what you mean with the same word. It is also different from reality to reality. It is not the same to own the design and development of a secondary feature than to own the core mechanic of a new game.
To me, the secret of good ownership is being able to maintain a vision while adapting to the context. The term ownership can be easily confused with property ownership. If your duty is to own some feature, the best you can do is to build on what you have, leaving the borders of your property open.
In the world of data driven development it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking “data is everything”, repeating the same mistakes over and over or offering the same formula to the Players.
Data is not everything. Data is a resource that has to be translated into information, otherwise everything can be read. Ownership means also to be able in doing this translation. You need to make hypotheses, you need to verify those hypotheses using concrete experiments and then you can discuss how to transform the information in actions.
It is very hard having the right data ready at the start of some new implementation, so that often you need to rely on other elements to form your vision:
Your own personal experience brings inevitably something interesting to the discussion table.
Never forget that game design is also art, you should put something very personal in if you want to really engage your team and Players in your vision.
You need to know the state of the art, breaking down the same feature implemented in other games. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel.
You need to connect with the people playing those games and really understand what it works and why.
It is very unlikely to create the next f2p success with a team of 3 developers and 2 artists and no QA, right? If you have a small team, a feature can take aeons to get right. Most of the times you cannot iterate properly, your manager will pass to the next feature and your work will cripple. This happens in the majority of companies, and it is completely normal. Owning your design means accepting this and move forward. It’s hard, I know.
From the other side, it is very hard to create a fresh core loop with a team of 80 people. Politics, meetings and dispersion of the information will make you struggle to properly transmit your insight with the rest of the team. In that case, it is way better to take a strong base and then focus on improving the experience in terms of UX. Believe me, you will save a lot of stress.
Being aware of the context is very important, the magic lies where you can do the best you can with what you have. When you have the feeling that you can do everything with no limitations, it probably means that the context is not clear to the leadership nor to the team. Red flag. When you own a feature, you should try to clarify:
Goals with all the stakeholders
Concrete deadlines with weekly/bi-weekly intermediate milestones
Concrete quality expectations for the feature you own.
The rise of automation is solving a lot of problems and saving us a lot of time. If we really want to be the professionals of tomorrow, we should focus our attention on providing the right solutions and vision according to the context we work in.
Ownership is one of the most important factors of the future landscape of professional game design.
I was talking with a LinkedIn contact I made recently and he told me that his company is working on a specific platform for a specific place in the US. I asked him why to target just a specific location instead than a broader region. He told me that he wants to build something very innovative and meaningful. It is not necessary to boil the Ocean, he added.
This man is completely right. We often fall into the trap of thinking too big. We know that videogames can become huge and scale tremendously. We often start to argue on scalabilty and growth before of even produce the very first demo. That attitude brings a lot of cursed design problems.
Best games start from the will to deliver the best possible gameplay to the smallest possible audience, many times. Before of 2012 very few realities were thinking in serving mature women with their games. Then the thing became huge. The games of that time scaled. It was because they were very well made.
Few time ago I used to work on a match-3 game for a strong IP. The game never saw the light, but I was working for a company dedicated to design and production of many match-3 games for different IPs.
There was an interesting behavior we observed from Players: many of them jumped from game to game looking for brain training, fun and so on. I had a lot of match-3 games installed on my device at that time. When I wanted to really empathize with those Players, I finished all lives in one game before of jumping to another.
When you run a game app you have to wait 30-90 seconds before of seeing the very first screen. Then you probably receive a lot of special offers and pop-ups distracting you from your purpose: to play a match-3 session.
If I had data and people, I would create an infinite feed of puzzle levels where the Player can scroll and jump from game to game in a quick way, just like TikTok is offering video content.
Today everyone has confidence with the feed metaphor. A feed is fast and offers always novelty. Also, intruding pop-ups can be substituted by feed elements.
Swipe, Swipe, Swipe and Play this
Swipe, Swipe, watch ad to get power-ups
Swipe, purchase the special pack
Mobiles are tecnologically advanced nowadays and can support multiple 2D levels on the same scene with optimization. Corporates like King, Peak, Jam City, Playrix and Zynga have a tremendous amount of Player’s data and can use that to train an artificial intelligence.
Artificial intelligence would help a lot with level design. From one side, AI can help with serve the right mechanics, challenge and visuals to the right audience. From the other, AI can help with the Player Generated Content.
Imagine create your own levels and sharing them with the game's community. Immagine getting all lives and power-ups that the Players use on your levels. I think we are definitely ready for that!
But let’s go in order.
The art of liveops
When you have a live game you constantly work on four main fronts:
FTUE: onboarding and tutorials for every feature of your game
Player Progression: control and balance the growth of your Players inside of your game
Game Quality: improve flows and optimize the cognitive load of your game
New Features: design and deploy novelties to keep your Players engaged
Doing good liveops is working on those four fronts at the same time. A significative workload is taken by the content and level design for every update. Usually, you have people dedicated to create everything using the editors that are provided by the developers. Then every piece is tested intensively, repeating the level or the sequence over and over to double check everything is ready.
The legacy of Super Mario Maker
I love Nintendo. I have to say it. Maybe their business choices are different than we expect, but they have this magical aura to me that surrounds almost everything they deliver.
I think that if you are reading these words you probably know what Mario Maker is. Anyway, I leave you a video in case you don’t:
Create a level for any Super Mario game you know
Beat your own level 3 times
Share it with the Community (become Miyamoto)
Play levels made by other Players
Well played Nintendo! Now you don’t need to create a lot of levels to deliver a new Mario. People will do it, for fun!
Super Mario Maker was a success, people love to create levels for their favorite game. If I imagine to design a new game where Players will create their own levels, anyway, I would have some serious doubt that a new intellectual property can actually generate that impact.
My point, then, is simply that Nintendo managed to save hundreds of man hours in designing levels. When your game is good, people will engage in creating content.
Case Study: Modl.AI
Recently on Linkedin I saw an interesting post by Jamie Clarke:
That reminded me when I was working on a match-3 game, managing a small team of level designers. The process was:
Review the Levels Beat Chart (4 hours)
Decide the mechanics to introduce (4 hours)
Discover all the possible skill atoms and discuss on a new set of levels (8 hours)
Design the levels (24 hours)
Test the new levels and leave comments (16 hours)
Iterate on the levels and repeat all the checks (16+ hours)
Play the levels over and over to estimate the fail rate and the number of movements for the level (16+ hours)
It was a great job and my lazy mind always thought: “can we PLEASE make SOMETHING more automatic?”
Well, maybe now we can with companies like Modl.AI.
Game Pitch: Match-3 TikTok!
Imagine deliver to the Players of a modern match-3 game a level editor using the help of the artificial intelligence. I really believe that is possible to do that, and that should be as easy as sharing a video on TikTok.
Select a type of challenge, mechanics and specific skill atom. For example: Create a 2 boards big level with Chocolate and Licorice.
AI Prepares the level for you and shows you the level automatically generated
A level editor helps you personalize your level, the tiles spawners and everything
Beat the level 3 times to prove that it’s not impossible to beat
Decorate your level: put a background, stickers and some social network stuff that people love to share!
Share it with the community
All the lives and power-ups invested by other Players on the levels you create will be your!
As final note, it would be better to have a successful game already. This can be a feature for top grossing match-3 games out there.
The service games of the future will understand the type of Player and offer a personalized experience to everyone.
A few weeks ago I watched an online conference organized by Deconstructor of Fun, the best known medium of news and opinions on the games business.
There were a lot of interesting interventions, one person made some prediction: Eric Seufert, a digital marketing and freemium expert.
Eric proposed true innovations, he called them megatrends. This post works on the first megatrend which you can watch here:
Ad Networks are no longer able to deliver exactly the audience you are looking for. It must be the game itself that identifies the type of person playing. Depending on the subject, the games of the future will have to offer the experience that that specific person is looking for.
Building on the idea
I have been thinking how it would be possible to accomplish something like this. Acquisition campaigns will focus in bringing in a very broad audicence. I believe that games will need a casual backbone:
A simple mechanic (easy to learn, hard to master) will be at the base of the casual backbone. The mechanic will evolve over the course of the days with new obstacles and features.
How to understand if your player wants more? Offers! We will design offers and try to understand if the player is looking for something more. In which case a midcore layer activates:
The midcore layer is an evolution, but Players should not have to use a spreadsheet to understand how it works!
This layer will add a secondary loop with a more complex progress and monetization system. During this stage, the game can propose to the Players a subscription or an offer that activates the hardcore path.
This is where players who want a more complicated experience come in. At this stage it will probably be possible to put the core mechanics in automatic mode.
The people who pay even a little bit are the ones who understand your game and really appreciate it. They will stay and play over time, for sure. It’s brilliant to imagine a future with games that are able to adapt to the type of audience.
Games like Archero are very close to this concept. Their iterations led them to results similar to those described in this article.
Designing a game of this type requires large investments and a team that really understands how game as a services works. How to get meaningful information from data and work on a vision according to what Players really want.
The casual backbone is pretty straightforward, centered in a single mechanic. A Player should find always content with new interesting mechanics and things to do in short sessions (<15m)
The midcore path offers a new layer of deepness only to people who are willing to dedicate more time per session (15-30m)
And then the hardcore path requires a higher cognitive effort and larger session times (>45m)
During my career years I have realised that I cannot predict exactly where my path will lead me. Anyway, I can speculate, dream and plan.
If I continued in the world of free-to-play , I would like to be able to work on a vision that I have been forming over the years at some point. A vision on a positive way of creating free-to-play games.
This type of game needs a huge number of people to play, as normally 2% of them decide to invest money and help you sustain the business. Here’s why we see fake ads, intrusive pop-ups that block gameplay, dark patterns, and so on. On the one hand, the number of instals will be increased by improving the chances of finding players. On the other hand, we try to improve conversion to payers.
If we carefully analyse the market we see that there are games capable of generating enormous benefits in a short time. There are also other games that generate less benefits in the short term, but that last much longer over the years.
Think of the case of hyper casual games, games that when they are successful last very little (at most a few months). Think now of free-to-play web games like Drakensang Online, which have been on the market for 16 years.
These days I will talk about this vision that I have developed and how I would apply it. Maybe I can move some interesting energy!
At the beginning of each game project there is a prototyping phase. Prototypes help teams to agree on a vision, to have something concrete to discuss. Deciding what goes into a prototype is a matter of experience and, I would say, an art in itself!
In most cases, an exciting idea leads a group of people to want to quickly create something well done. The final prototype then focuses on proving a thesis.
I believe that a football game where the players are books works: we immediately create the typical mechanics of a football game and, instead of the players, we put books on it. It will be awesome.
There are also cases in which a prototype serves to demonstrate what is wrong with the idea. Some skilled designers manage to use prototypes to undermine their assumptions. It is a work of self-criticism, of searching for weak points. It rarely happens in companies, but it happens in independent projects. And it may lead to something truly unique.
Returning to the example, I believe that a football game where the players are the books works. I created a prototype centred on how silly this concept of books playing football is. I don't devote myself to creating the mechanics of a soccer game, I am dedicated to creating the nastiest version of a book by running with a ball.
And very often, magic happens!
Whichever method you use, the important thing is to establish clear and measurable objectives, and be ready to discard the prototypes if they have not all been satisfied.
I assure you that more than one frustration is avoided!
I belong to a generation formed before the advent of content streamers. However, as a game designer, I find the phenomenon really interesting. I personally don’t have the patience to follow a streamer for more than 10 minutes. I prefer the short cuts they make to their videos and I understand why they are so much fun. Some people are a television studio summed up in one person!
When I have to concentrate on practical tasks, for example when I have to design levels in Unity, I like to put a streamer in the background. I choose streamers who do the same thing I do: develop games. It relaxes me a lot, stimulates me and makes me focus on my task.
Maybe it’s survival instinct. Perhaps my subconscious thinks “this person is working and will be more likely to find food and reproduce than you”, so I too get to work more willingly. Assumptions, of course.
Sometimes I think: “why not do it too?”. I believe that one of the great evils that afflicts game designers is the overriding of the ego. This public display inevitably ranks against. This same blog also works a little in this direction.
For the moment I prefer writing. I think writing is more difficult, especially in English which is not my native language. But writing opens more doors and reaches people who are really interested.
I don’t like to exclude anything, but I don’t think streaming is for me. Maybe I would if I was working on my indie game. To get feedback and attention, to create a small community to launch with. To aim for the first 10 positive reviews on Steam.