What’s a Game Designer?

I’ve achieved an important milestone in my ongoing campaign to ruin the youth of today, for the crime of no longer counting me amongst their number despite me having continuity of experience from a time where I could eat constant junk, barely sleep and experience no ill effects: I’ve been invited to a university board gaming group to tell them about being a board game designer.


So now I just need to work out what to tell them to increase the chances that one day they’ll create something that I really enjoy (I don’t generally subscribe to enlightened self interest, but as a paradigm it’s sometimes valuable). I’m going to shoot out a few ideas here as part of helping myself work out what’s important – I’ve got a few weeks so I’m in no rush – but I’ve written ~300,000 words on the subject so I need to do some filtering.

Take a moment to consider it yourself, let me know in the comments if we wound up highlighting the same thing or if we saw different things as important.

Alright, on with my list, I reckon the most important thing to do is talk about what a game designer is. A game designer is someone who produces game designs. A game design is a fully specified description of everything that’s in the game and how it’s played. It’s not an idea for a core mechanic. It’s not a empty file with “Write cards here.” It’s certainly not a notion of how to play stored in the designers head that they’ll get around to articulating some time later maybe if we’re lucky.

hyperbole internet forever

What a game designer does is pretty important too. Most people know that a game designer writes a game, maybe plays it with their friends a bit, then at some point money. It’s probably worth mentioning the hours of playing the game against yourself until you hate it with every fiber of your being, persuading total strangers that they should play it and then treating them to some of your level best absolute silence while they enjoy it without you and money only if the stars are right and you’ve sacrificed the right sort of goat on a very specific starry night.

Perhaps a short break from ruthlessly crushing any form of hope would be in order too. There are a lot of rewarding things, some of which you wouldn’t automatically assume were there. Getting to create something great and leave it behind as well as watching people enjoy themselves and having a hand in making that happen are wonderful, that’s a given. Also there’s a lot in working with the sort of people you run into doing game design, I’ve speculated that it’s because it’s not a fantastically profitable industry, but there do seem to be a huge number of people doing what they do for the sheer joy of the thing. Professionals in all sorts of roles that I didn’t even know existed (I knew I needed artists, I didn’t know I needed an art director) have been an absolute treat.

Break done, back to crushing hopes and dreams. A lot of game design is the realisation that you’re wrong about everything. It’s easy to get caught up in an idea of how a game *should be* and be blind to how it *is*, even with playtesters screaming until they’re red in the face, artists pointing out that a style doesn’t work and editors crying tears of blood. It’s vital for a designer to have a vision and to ensure that the project sticks to it, but it’s equally important for them not to get caught up in it to the point that they become unable to listen. If there’s one skill that’s more valuable than any other it’s listening.

Hmm, these things are probably worth talking about, but some of it might be a bit abstract. Perhaps it’d be better to focus on something more practical.


Fail faster is a good place to start, getting an idea into a playable prototype to start the testing and refining stage as quickly as physically possible is important. Trying as many different things as possible in as short a space as possible is vital to honing the design in less than a million billion years. I do enjoy probability and various sorts of mathematical analysis and they have helped me catch some problems that would be impossible to catch without them, but there’s nothing better than “Try it and see if it works” for evaluating an idea.

Practical playtesting seems worth covering too. If all writing is editing, all game design is playtesting. Running a good playtest is something of a science. Or an art form depending on how much poetry the speaker has in their soul. Inviting negative feedback from people who (generally) don’t want to make you feel bad is a vital part of eventual success.

Playtesting relies on prototyping, so a few words on how to go about this wouldn’t go amiss. I never liked arts and crafts, it was amazing how much I learned about how to make okay looking prototypes in the first few months of doing this thing. Perhaps a lot of people are already aware of these things, but a quick tricks and tips section couldn’t go amiss.

Publishing is worth touching on, but more than that game design needs to be goal oriented. Publishing options matter in so much as making sure that the design is suitable to a target audience and doesn’t lack viability because the ten richest kings of Europe couldn’t afford the components you want. However if the goal isn’t to publish and make a profit it changes the constraints on the design. A good design handles its constraints well, which starts with knowing what they are. Sometimes the goal is to get published, sometimes it’s to make an individual person smile, sometimes it’s to build something for your personal collection that you will never share with another person no matter what.


The most important thing is to remind people to have fun with it. This isn’t something we do because of the wealth or status it brings, you don’t get into this business unless you love it. Keeping that in sight is pretty damn important.

So, for now those feel like the main things to impress upon new designers. Once I’ve actually written and run the days activities I’ll do a post about what worked and what didn’t (and perhaps an overall “getting started in game design” megapost to link new people to).

So how did I do? Do those things match up to the decision you made about the most important thing right back at the start of the post or am I going to doom these students, sending them running off in the wrong direction? Let me know in the comments 😛


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