How Much Math (And Everything Else) Do You Need To Know To Make Video Games?

MathAn elementary school teacher in New York recently asked me to write a letter answering the following questions from a 9-year-old-student named Matthew:

What math do you use in video games and how do you use it? What do you have to do to become a video game designer? Do you need to be in a special college or high school?

Here is my reply:

Dear Matthew:

Thank you for sending me your very interesting questions about video game design.

There are several ways to become a video game designer. You can go to a school that teaches video game design, like the one where I teach. However, many game designers I know have majored in other subjects in college –English, history, film, philosophy, science, art, music, or computer science, which was my major. You see, you need to know a little bit about all of these subjects to become a good video game designer.

It also helps to play a lot of different games of many different types. As you play them, stop to think about why their game designer’s decide to put in the rules and challenges that they did. Why did they make these choices, and would you make different ones?

Now, to actually get a job as a video game designer, you need to actually make some games on your own. You can make board games using pen, paper, and dice, or you can download some free game making software such as Scratch of GameMaker. A good game designer doesn’t just like playing games; he or she must also like making games.

Even once you have designed a few games on your own, it can be very difficult to become a game designer as your very first job in the game industry. You may have to start as a game tester, an assistant producer, or a marketing intern. This will give you opportunities to meet other people in the game industry, and find out when new game designer jobs are opening.

Once you get a job as a game designer, then you can start making games professionally. You are right that all games start as an idea. However, that game idea may not come from you. Instead, that idea may come from your boss, a co-worker, or a client that you are working for. Anyone can come up with great game ideas. That’s the easy part!

It’s the game designer’s job to take that idea and turn it into a complete game design. That means coming up with the game rules, the player’s goals, resources the player has to collect to help him or her meet those goals, the obstacles that make meeting those goals difficult, and the different ways the game can end. It also means coming up with the game story, including all the character, dialog, and environments (or levels) that the player travels through. The game designer needs to write this all down so that the rest of the game development team (the programmers and artists) knows what they need to make. The game designer writes the game design as a Game Design Document, which for some large games can be hundreds of pages long!

A game designer needs to be very good at writing, a little good at drawing (for sketching out how games screens and levels should look), and also a little good at math. This is because math is the language that computers (including the ones in game consoles and smart phones) speak. Everything in a game needs to be represented as numbers and mathematical equations.

The very first game I made was a Star Trek game in which the player was the captain of the Starship Enterprise and had to travel around the galaxy destroying enemy Klingon ships. I represented the ship’s position as two numbers – the X and Y position on a graph. I also represented the ship’s energy, shield strength, phaser strength, speed, and arsenal of photon torpedoes as numbers. To figure out how far away an enemy ship was from me, I used a formula I learned in Algebra for determining the distance between two points on a graph. I also came up with a mathematical formula for determining how much weaker my phasers became, the farther away my target was.

Now, because I wanted the player to be surprised by the enemy’s actions, I used random numbers to help decided what the enemy ships would do. I would have the computer generate a random number (equivalent to rolling dice) and then use a table to decide what the ship would do based on that number. A game designer creates lots of charts and tables when making a game, and also needs to understand probability and statistics to have the computer make surprising but realistic choices.

Everyone on the development team uses math – including the artists, who need to understand geometry and proportion. The programmers use math in writing the computer code that allows the computer to understand the game rules, while the game producers uses math to figure out the schedule and budget. Math is used everywhere in game development, but it really isn’t that hard, especially when you get to apply it to something fun like making a game.

Now, once the game you’ve designed is programmed, the game designer needs to test that game out with actual players to make sure that it is fun. If players find some part of the game to be confusing or frustrating, the game designer needs to figure out what the problem is, fix it, and then test the fixed game to see if any more changes to be made.

Being a game designer is like being the host of a party. You plan out what food you are going to serve, what music you are going to play, and what decorations to put up. Then you invite your guests in and make sure they are having a good time. The game designer’s job is to create fun experiences for others to have.

I hope this answers your questions. If you have more, just tell your teacher, and I will be happy to answer them for you.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on December 15, 2014, in Career Advice. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. what symbol in math do i need to qualify for game design.

    • I don’t know what you mean by “symbol”, but game designers should have a good grasp of linear algebra (since many game design rules are represented as mathematical formula), probability and statistics.

      • ohh sori what i mean is what grade in maths should i get to qualify for game design.

        On Tue, Jul 14, 2015 at 3:35 PM, David Mullich wrote:

        > David Mullich commented: “I don’t know what you mean by “symbol”, but > game designers should have a good grasp of linear algebra (since many game > design rules are represented as mathematical formula), probability and > statistics.”

      • Most game industry hiring managers are far more interested in whether you have a portfolio of work that demonstrates your talents than what your grades in school were.

  2. It’s tough work and not that easy as it seems.

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