Game Designer

Game design is a popular and sought-after job, possibly second only to a Game Tester when the average person thinks of a dream job. It’s an essential part of game development and the point at which it all begins. Game designers lay down the foundations that the next months and years of development for a great number of people. So how do you become a game designer?

Most gamers have an idea for a game, whether it’s an entire concept or just a way in which a game could have done something better. Very few people actually take it and develop it to a stage that a game designer needs to. Everything needs to be explained in an easy-to-understand way so that anyone on the team can pick up your document and get to work.

What Does A Game Designer Do?

The game designer’s job is to figure out how the game and the elements that make up the game are made. It can involve the high concepts of exactly what the game will be like, such as the genre and how the game is played, right the way down to the smallest details such as how much gold the player finds in a chest or what powerups a player can get.

A game designer’s job is essential to balancing the game and making sure it ‘feels right’ to the player. Nothing has a bigger effect on the end product than the initial design and the development of that design over time. A game can sink or swim before production has even started based on the design, it’s the backbone of the entire experience.

Much of what a game designer does is take the very best ideas of other projects and work out if they will work for your game and if they can, exactly how they can work. The aim of the game is not plagiarism, obviously, but working on other people’s ideas to create a unique experience is an essential part of the job.

Level Designer

A level designer’s job is to build the environments the players will be exploring. Depending on the project needs they will have to make the level fun, engaging, interesting, difficult, or puzzling. If you are making a competitive multiplayer shooter then you will have to make the levels balanced without being boring. If you’re creating an open-world RPG then you will need to make the environment interesting to explore and believably real.

Overwatch 2 – Blizzard Entertainment

During the early part of the development of a project, you will most likely be planning and ‘white boxing’ the environment. This involves going into the engine and building the level before the assets are made, placing down plain white boxes or other basic shapes to plan out where things will go when they are made. Later in the development, it may fall on you to place the assets created by Artists into the environment, and tweak it as needed where it’s changed from your original design.

Not every game will need a level designer, but it is essential in some shape or form for most projects. On smaller projects, the level design may be handled by the main game designer. Other times you may need an entire team of level designers to take on the task. Generally speaking the bigger the project the more likely you are to need a dedicated level designer. If this is the career path you’d like to aim for then your best bet is to aim for large AAA studios.

Content Designer

A content designer’s job is to design the story, quests, and activities that the player may come across while playing. This can range from the main story to side quests. Mini-games to loot systems. Everything that the player does will need designing at some point so there is plenty of work to be done.

Red Dead Redemption 2's poker mini-games.
Red Dead Redemption 2 – Rockstar Games

This role can be broken down further depending on the project. For example, an open-world RPG game like Skyrim might require content designers who work primarily on the main storylines, whilst other content designers work purely on the side quests and others working on crafting systems.

Much like the level designers, it is not a required job role on every project. They are more likely to be needed on bigger projects whereas on smaller projects they may be handled by a generalist game designer.

Systems Designer

A systems designer has a lot of overlap with other professions. Similar to the content designer, they are responsible for how certain elements of the games play. They work closely with Programmers to make sure the systems in place for everything from missions to fighting mechanics work correctly, are balanced, and, of course, fun.

Dragon Ball FighterZ, a game that requires a strong systems designer team.
Dragon Ball FighterZ – Bandai Namco Entertainment

Systems designers will also work closely with game testers when balancing and refining the game, particularly in the latter stages of development as the QA team will know how the game plays better than anyone. Part of a systems designer’s job will be to take on board the feedback of the QA team, work that into actionable tasks and then pass them on to programmers for them to work on.

Much like the other denominations of designer jobs, the role is vitally important to the project but may be handled by an overall game designer depending on the needs of the project. If you are looking to be a generalist game designer rather than specializing in a more specific role it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with all areas of game design.

What’s It Like To Be A Game Designer?

Being a game designer means you get a large amount of control over exactly what the game is going to be like. This can seem exciting at first but it can also be hard work. You’re responsible for setting out all of the ins and outs of the game and that means you will also be a large focus on criticism. Most problems that people have with a game, beyond bugs, are with the design, so you have to have thick skin to be able to deal with this.

Most of the time, a game designer will be writing design documents. This is essential to the game development progress as it gives the team a place to start. Designers will also spend a large amount of time in meetings where they will pool their knowledge and spitball ideas to make your project as unique as possible.

How Do I Become A Game Designer?

The most traditional way of becoming a game designer would be to take a course on game design. This could be a university or a recognized online game design course. Any other course in video game development can work as well, such as art or programming, although they won’t be as focused and perhaps not look as great on your resume as it looks more indecisive on what you want to do.

Other useful courses to look at when applying for game design jobs would be psychology-related courses. This is because a large amount of a game designer’s job is to understand how players think and behave so that they can craft the right experience for them, whether that’s to make the game as fun as possible or to make sure players come back time and time again.

It’s not essential that you get a formal education though. A different way to become a game designer which can work, although is not always guaranteed, is to first get your foot in the door through another job such as a game tester. If the company is good then it will allow its employees to flex their abilities and work their way through roles as they grow. Not every company will give you this opportunity though so you will have to be lucky with the place that you end up.

What Skills Do You Need?

There are a number of skills that are important as a game designer. One of the biggest skills is communication. This is because a designer needs to be able to get all of his ideas along clearly, even when they may be describing something that has never been seen before. This is a challenging task for anybody but you also need to have the patience to work with people to get the ideas right.

Creativity is another very important skill. You will have to come up with ideas and rework others to develop something that is original and gives the players something that they cannot get elsewhere. As well as being unique they need to appeal to potential customers. This is a more difficult task than it may originally seem.

Critical thinking is essential when working to overcome problems that may occur throughout the development cycle. Many ideas that seemed bulletproof when you came up with them may, in fact, have a myriad of issues and you will have to work swiftly to plug the gaps.

How Well Does It Pay?

Whilst salaries will obviously vary greatly due to a number of factors, such as location, experience, and position, you can generally expect to earn in a similar ballpark to Artists and Programmers at the same level as you. This will generally be more than game testers but less than producers and managers. Entry-level pay will usually be quite low, due to the number of people looking for those positions, but as you gain more experience you will become more invaluable and will get a high wage to reflect that.

As the pay is on par with most of the other staff you can expect to be treated much the same. Game designers are known to be an important part of the process of making games but they are one of many cogs in the machine and as such should be expected to be treated as well as other staff. Whether that is good or not depends entirely on the company.

Where Can You Work As A Game Designer?

Generally speaking there isn’t much work as a contractor or freelancer when it comes to design. Whilst it is certainly possible to get a job such as this many of the bigger studios will want their own in-house design teams and many smaller projects will start with a design in mind first and so will often not need too much design work on top of that.

As such the best bet for finding employment will be to aim for the bigger companies with an extensive design team that can take you in and shows you the ropes. Smaller teams and outsources that provide an entire team rather than specialize in one area are also possible avenues of employment although due to the team sizes they may need people with more experience.

If you want to look at what positions are available then check out this article all about how to find open positions and get hired for your first game development job.

This is part of our making games series which breaks down all of the different career paths that are available and how you can get your journey started.