So You Want To Be A Game Designer / Programmer / Artist etc?

I'm frequently asked for the 'inside track' on how to break into the games industry.  Sometimes it's a parent whose teenage offspring wants to be a game designer and they want to know what to study; sometimes its a random person I meet at a party who loves (--insert name of mass market game here--) and thinks they could do better.  The following is a version of how I respond -- I hope you find it useful if you are pondering this also!


Like anything in life that is worth doing, this requires work.  There is no easy way in, no magical qualification.  For this discussion, I'll assume you have a teenage child who wants to be a game designer - but the principles here apply equally to aspiring artists, programmers or producers, and anyone of any age.

The best advice I can give is this – if you want to be a game designer, then be a game designer.  Start now.  The great thing about growing up in the connected age is that you have so many resources at your fingertips should you choose to use them – and your son/daughter really should be starting to make his/her own games (if they aren't already) if this is going to be his/her chosen career.

My suggested starting point is to design a board game or two – that’s right – it’s not digital!!.  This step will also be very telling for you, the parent.  Very important that he/she do this with as little help from you as possible.  Advice is OK, a joint contributor is not.  Here is what he/she needs to do:

  • Figure out a board game he/she would like to play, let’s say with friends or family.  It can be a variant on a favorite, but I would suggest something quite different for this step to be useful.
  • Write down the rules – theme, objective, win conditions, loss conditions, how turns works etc.   Use an existing, commercial board game that he/she likes as reference for what these look like.  

There – he/she has designed a game!  Yes, that took some work but the job has only just begun…

  • Now, build the board, the spaces, the playing pieces.  (Yes – make the physical object).  Start really simple. Keep it simple.

  • Next he/she needs to test the design and go through a process of perfecting it to make it more fun, fix problems he/she hadn’t thought of etc

  • He/she should do by himself at first, playing the game using only the rules written down.  He/she should update the gameplay and pieces after each game as needed, to make gameplay improvements

Wow!! – Now he/she has built a working prototype of their game!

  • Next get friends and family to play the game
  • Everyone should only play according to the written rules he/she has given them - no questions allowed
  • Everyone will tell him/her they like the game - people want to be nice and offer encouragement, while this is nice it's a tough world out there and to be useful we need brutal feedback
  • So as they play he/she needs to see what they really think by watching their faces, see at what points they get confused, see how often they laugh because of the game.  See how long the game lasts when they play. And see who voluntarily wants to play again.  Take all of this feedback, make changes as necessary, and repeat this process again with a new group of volunteers until all of the problems noted no longer exist

With the above done, your son/daughter has now truly designed a game, built aworking prototypedebugged it, iterated on the design, taken in user feedback, updated the design and prototype and gotten something he/she can truly be proud of.  Take pictures of it, and package it away safely as when he/she is a famous games designer it will be worth a lot of money!!  Seriously, never throw away early designs. Never!

This step of making a board game will be telling for you - the parent - as it should demonstrate a couple of things:

  • Is he/she really committed? 
  • Can they follow through on this quite boring set of steps (which entail thinking about the creative, gameplay rules, human interaction, scoring and game state, winning, losing, the end product, reacting positively to feedback to improve the end result etc)?  

Bluntly it’s a really cheap way for you and he/she to discover if they are cut out to be a game designer. The above steps take time, energy, passion and careful thought.  It is the basics of what all professional videogame designers do (we do it with digital media rather than physical media).  In much the same way the best videogame artists rely on their paper or canvas skills and knowledge to really deliver their craft digitally.  If your son/daughter loves the board game challenge and sticks with it, cajoling you into playing endless games, it’s a great sign!  If the weeks go by and you don’t hear anything, much less see prototypes, then you both should think about something else for her/him to do as a career. People always need doctors! :-)


Assuming we have gotten this far, and we know we have a budding designer on our hands, now we can begin to think about videogame design.  

  • Which games are her/his favorites?  She/he needs to make a list and document...
  • Find out who the designer was for each;
  • Find articles or papers that designer has written, presentations they have given. Start to understand their ideas and process;
  • Write a critique of each favorite game – break it down;
    • What genre is it?
    • What elements make it better than others in this genre?
    • What are the gameplay devices/mechanics that you use as a player to interact with the game?
    • What are the rules? Winning conditions, losing conditions? 
    • Does the game get harder as you play?  What is causing that?
    • What emotions does the game cause you to feel as you play?  What causes those?
    • What do you really like about the game?
    • Dislikes?
  • If you had to make a sequel to each favorite game, what would you change?  How would you improve on this?  Why would players care about these changes?

These steps are now getting into game analysis and deconstruction.  If all you can do is recognize greatness or weakness, then be a critic.  If you think you could improve on them, be a creator!


Now as a new designer, you're ready to find other people close by to collaborate with.  Other designers are fine to brainstorm with, but really you’ll want to find people who are just as passionate about making games but who want to be programmers and artists, maybe even someone who wants to compose game audio.  Guess what?  It’s just like forming a band if you were a musician – now its time to make something together, and learn how to collaborate in a creative endeavor.  So – design a game, get the team’s feedback and buy in, and make your first videogame!

Sure - you can make a game by yourself using game making tools if you have the right skills - there are many tools out there you can use – ones that have pre-baked code elements, a library of art assets etc – by all means experiment with these too, as you will get a better understanding of the different elements.  Better yet, use these skills to create digital prototypes (yep –just like the board game in stage one!) that you can use as a way to express what you want, how you want your character to jump etc.  I'll let you find these tools on the internet - new ones crop up all of the time, and this process should lead you to some great forums where you'll find feedback about which ones are best for which tasks, scope etc.

However I really encourage collaboration as the next step as it will get you the experience you need, however daunting it might seem at first.

  • Find local groups that meet to talk game development – eg IGDA, local high schools, universities etc – attend their meetings.  Here you’ll start to meet other game developers who have experience.  Ask them for feedback, listen to their critiques.  These folks are either students or employees at game companies – and being part of this community is the beginning of networking, a skill which will create important opportunities in future
  • Enter game development competitions – eg the Global Game Jam.  People like me go along and help make a game in 48 hours. Everyone is there to have fun, and experience ranges from none to very experienced - a great melting pot


Notice so far, I haven’t talked about schools or qualifications.  The point is, if you want to be a game maker, you can be.  You don’t need a job or a degree to be a game maker, just as you can be a musician without a recording contract.  *Being* a game maker is the first qualification you need.

Game industry jobs are few and far between and everybody wants them.  So you’re up against a lot of people, the majority of whom have solid degrees but often little valuable experience.  Their dream begins by landing a job.  I say that your dream should have started a long time before the pay check – and if you follow my advice here, you could turn up for your first job interview with not only a solid degree, but ten years of games you have made for yourself under your belt.  That experience is priceless in the games industry.


With all of the above noted – here is some further reading:

I am an advisor to universities about their videogame degree programs, including University of Utah and Utah Valley University and I can personally recommend both programs -  U of U for engineering, design and production, UvU for art and design.

Good luck and do comment below to let me know of your progress if you take my advice here!

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