6 methods to help you figure out if you want to be a game designer

Photo by Fredrick Tendong on Unsplash

Maybe you really like playing video games. Maybe you’re really interested in how games can make education more fun. Maybe you’re just curious to see what you can make. Do you… maybe want to be a game designer?

As a professional game designer, I have variations of the same conversation with lots of people who are dipping their toes into game dev for the first time. Sometimes it’s people working their way through a related degree in college, sometimes it’s established professionals in other fields looking to swap industries. They say that they’re interested in game design, but aren’t sure yet if it’s the right career path for them.

And hey, it’s a big question. Game development (and creative work as a whole) isn’t a monolithic field — it’s a broad collection of professions and skill sets. You might start down the path of game design or a related field like concept art, animation, or writing, then decide that your true passion lies elsewhere. What if you spend two years in grad school trying it out, then realize it’s not for you? And you do want to get a chance to try it out before you commit to it; a career choice can be paralyzing if you haven’t gotten a chance to get a feel for it.

If that didn’t make it hard enough to pick a career, game design’s a difficult field to get into. It’s competitive and it usually involves a non-trivial amount of either collegiate training or self-education.

The good news is, while it can take a while to suss out if game design feels like a good fit, you can try out game design on your own before you make any decisions. Even better, you can get started before you commit to a full load of coursework or apply to a pricey grad program.

In this article, I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the game industry, pay scales, and other job-specific details in this article (though those are definitely things you should look into if you decide you’re interested in pursuing a career there!) Instead, I’m going to focus helping you figure out whether or not game design’s even something you enjoy doing.

A quick word on definitions

Before we dive in, let’s talk briefly what a game designer does.

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

While it varies from studio to studio and project to project, a game designer’s usually responsible for three things: game mechanics, game systems, and content.

Game mechanics are the actions that a player can take in a game. Game systems are the architecture that holds a game together: the level-up system, the weapon and combat system, or the story progression system are a few examples of features that a systems designer might own. Content is all of the puzzles, levels, story, and other activities that a player experiences while they’re playing the game. There are tons of sub-fields in game design (e.g. level design, narrative design, UX/UI, combat design, puzzle design, game balance, and educational design, to name a few.) In most cases, though, designers will be:

  • (1) in charge of coming up with and refining mechanics
  • (2) designing and supporting the implementation game systems
  • (3) generating and implementing content
  • (4) helping with some combination of the three

6 methods for trying out game design

So, the big question: how can you try on the Game Designer Hat on your own time? Here are six methods that I’ve seen work well:

  • Make a game during a game jam
  • Start a passion project and try sticking with it
  • Commit to publishing a side project (even if it’s a small one!)
  • Work on a project with a partner
  • Make a mod for a game
  • Make some work in related fields

Participate in a game jam

If you haven’t participated in a game jam before, it’s a bit like a hackathon. After the organizers of the jam announce the theme of the jam, individual creators and small teams take a day, a weekend, or sometimes a week to build a game based on that theme. Game jams can take place in person or online, they can be aimed at digital or non-digital games, and there are hundreds of fun themes that make each game jam its own unique experience.

Global Game Jam 2012 by Laboratório Criação Digital

Game jams are great for trying out game design for a number of reasons. At a game jam, you can:

  • Try out a new genre or mechanic: Let’s say you’ve always wanted to work on a card game, or maybe you’ve got a great idea for a visual novel. Give it a shot at a game jam! You can spend a few days playing with the idea, then decide later if you want to work on it long-term.
  • Try working with new teammates: Most games are a team effort, but it can be hard to find people you like working with. Heck, it can be hard to find people to make games with, period. Game jams are a great place to get a try out a new partnership without needing to commit to a months-long project.
  • Try out a new engine or pipeline: Want to see what you can build in Unity in 48 hours? This is a great time to do it! (Caveat: if you’re new to a development pipeline and you’re working on a team, make sure your team’s cool with trying it out. You’ll almost always get less done using a tool that you’re not familiar with, so it can be frustrating to your team if you don’t clear it in advance.)
  • Drop it like it’s hot: So you got to the end of a 48 hour jam and discovered that you never want to look at the game you made ever gain. That’s okay! One of the best things about game jams is that they’re low commitment. If you don’t want to keep working on the game for any reason, after the jam’s done you can just walk away.
Global Game Jam is a great international jam that happens once a year

Sound like fun? Look for a game jam near you! Global Game Jam and Ludum Dare are some of the big ones, but there are literally dozens going on at any given time online. If you’d rather work with a team in person, do some digging to see if there are any local game creator meetup groups that run game jams in your area.

And hey, there’s no rule that says you can’t just jam on a game on your own. If you’ve got an idea for a game you’d like to work on, carve out an afternoon to see how far you can get on it!

Start a passion project (and stick with it!)

With few exceptions, games take longer than a weekend to make. If you’ve done a game jam or two and are still interested in pursuing game design, try starting a passion project. Pick something small and work on it whenever you’ve got some free time: in the morning when you wake up, for an hour or two in the evening, or in a coffee shop on the weekends.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

The trick is sticking with it. Committing to a game project from start to finish is a LOT harder than it sounds. It’s super easy to start a new project when you’ve got a cool idea. It’s a lot harder to keep working on it six months later when you’re knee deep in annoying bugs.

If you tend to leave a trail of half-finished projects behind you, know that you’re not alone. Especially when new game designers are starting out, they tend to overscope their projects and start on a huge idea that they have very little hope of finishing. That’s okay! It’ll probably happen a couple times (or several) before you start getting an idea of what you can comfortably finish. Keep cutting down on scope until you’ve got something manageable, or table your Big Idea and commit to making something smaller first.

If you can make it all the way through a passion project, call it done (or at least close enough to show people,) and you still want to be a game designer, not only will you have a sweet new portfolio piece— you’ll also have a ton of valuable, marketable skills that you only get through experience.

Commit to publishing a side project

Want to take a passion project to the next level? Find a way to publish it. Again, this is super hard, especially for people early in their design careers. It’s amazingly easy to over-scope a project, then run out of steam on it before you even get halfway done.

So start small. Pick the smallest project you can imagine, then cut it in half. It might seem like overkill, but you may find that even after picking something so small that it seems a little ridiculous, you still struggle to get it out the door.

itch.io is a great place to publish your game

That said, if you can (1) finish that project and (2) publish it somewhere, it’ll tell you a lot about whether you want to work on games in the long term. It’ll tell you if you can find joy in the mundane and annoying details, or at least find a way to push through them. It’ll teach you a lot about the nitty-gritty of game design and about how to take your vision through to implementation.

If you’re making a digital game, publish it to itch.io! If it’s a tabletop game or RPG, try to get to a point where you can post it somewhere like Gumroad and tweet out a link to it.

Work on a project with a partner

It’s definitely possible to make games by yourself. There are tons of indie creators out there who do everything on their projects from programming and systems design to 3D and animation to writing their own music. It’s a path that gives you a lot of control over the creative vision because you’re making the final call about everything that goes into it.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

That said, working on games by yourself can take you only so far, especially for digital games. Making a game involves work in a huge set of sub-fields. Game design’s an important one, but there’s also gameplay programming, production + scheduling, art pipeline, music + sound effects, visual effects, shaders + graphics engineering, and quality assurance, to name some of the most common skills you need to make a game.

Even assuming you’ve got a really deep understanding of all of the fields you need to create a digital game (and most people don’t,) you’re still just not going to move as fast by yourself as if you were working as part of a team. Teams let developers specialize in a single field.

More than that, they let devs divide and conquer on different parts of the game in parallel. Games can take a long time to build; a game that would take three developers six months to build would take you a year and a half (or more) to build solo. This is especially true on larger projects, where you start getting teams ranging anywhere from ten or fifteen to thousands of people working on the same game. Once you reach a certain complexity level, some games go past being difficult to make solo to being impossible to make without a team.

So if you’re interested in becoming a professional game designer, what does this mean for you? It means that you should find opportunities to work on games with teammates. You don’t have to start big; maybe work on a game jam with a friend or two. If that goes well, see if they want to keep working on the game after the jam’s done.

I’ll admit, it’s tough keeping personal projects going when everyone’s working on them in their spare time (you often see pretty big drop-off in contributions after the first few weeks,) but if you can keep the project moving toward a common goal, not only will you learn a lot about how to communicate with people in other disciplines, you’ll learn if you enjoy working on team projects or not. While it’s not a perfect replica of working on a paid project with other professional devs, it’ll give you some idea of whether or not you’d like to continue pursuing it.

Make a mod for a game

A lot of professional game designers got their start in game dev by modding an existing game. The cool part about modding is that rather than making something from scratch, you’re contributing your own design to an existing game. If you want to get a feeling of what it’s like to work as a content designer on well-known title, a AAA game, or a pre-existing code base, modding’s a great way to do it.

Minecraft has a robust modding community

Modding also gives you some interesting design constraints to work with. Since you’re working in a pre-existing design space, you have to get your ideas to mesh well with the existing gameplay. This is usually further constrained by the tools that the game’s team has left exposed for the modding community. Some games are easier to mod than others — depending on what tools the team have made available, you might be able to get started right away or you might need to dive into some deep systems programming. Depending on your point of view, it can be an exciting challenge to dig through documentation and existing code to try to add a new feature.

So: if you’ve got an interest in content design or programming and want to try your hand at adding a feature to a larger game, try modding an existing game. Here’s a great Reddit thread on games that you can get started modding like Minecraft and Kerbel Space Program. If you do a little Googling, you can often find active communities and tutorials that can help you get started.

Make work in related fields

So far this article’s been focused on game design, but we’ve touched on some of the other professions involved in game development. Maybe game design sounds like fun, but so does game programming. When you’ve got so many options, how do you know which one to pursue?

If you’re torn between a couple different creative or technical fields, know that you’re not alone. It can take a long time (sometimes years!) to make a decision about what field you’d like to go into. Even after making that decision, a lot of people shift to different fields several years into their careers.

Photo by call me hangry 🇫🇷 on Unsplash

If you’re just starting to look into games as a career, you might be asking yourself: Do I want to be a game designer or an animator? Or a writer, or a concept artist, or a UX designer, or a thousand other related fields? It’s incredibly common in creative work to know that you want to make something, but you’re not quite sure what yet.

The nice things about making games is that until you start looking for jobs, you don’t have to pick just one field.

You can treat creative work like a buffet: try a few things and even mix and match until you find the direction that’s right for you.

The best way to figure out if you want to focus on game design specifically is to dip your toe into a lot of pools. Learn about game design, but if you’re interested in concept art, spend a lot of time studying that as well. Talk to both game designers and concept artists about their work. Learn all you can about the work in each field, the language people in that field use to convey ideas, what people love about their jobs, what makes them challenging, and what applicants need to do to get hired. Above all, spend time practicing both crafts. Over time, if there’s a clear winner for you, it’ll start to crystallize. Otherwise, you might find that there’s a sub-field that lets you combine your interests in a new way.

Even if you’re sure you want to go into game design, related fields are definitely worth exploring. Game designers will often work closely with artists, programmers, producers, and other professionals while they’re working on game together. The more you can learn about the different fields of game development, the more effectively you’ll be able to communicate with teammates in other fields.

Wrap-Up

Game design’s a fun field, but it’s also a lot of work. Early on, it can be tricky to tell if it’s the right career for you. There are a lot of ways to help answer that question, but one of the best ways to find out if you want to be a game designer is to design games. If you put yourself in situations where you’re doing a lot of game design, learning about the game creation process from start to finish, and working with teammates to build a game together, you’ll start to get a feeling for whether it’s for you or not.

And hey, that feeling’s a gradient! You might find that you love making tabletop RPGs, but really dislike working in a game engine. You might discover that you love solving programming problems and are perfectly happy to leave the game balance to your teammate. You might come away realizing that while you want to focus on another career, you really enjoy game design as a hobby. These are all perfectly valid paths.

Got any thoughts about these suggestions, or got some of your own? Leave them in the comments below!

Game Designer & Storyteller. Narrative + XR + location based + emerging tech. Indie game community organizer. Twitter: @marlenaabraham