Category Archives: Game Design

The Secret To Becoming A Game Designer

The question I am asked most often is, “What to I need to do to become game designer?” That answer to that is both simple and obvious. It comes down to two words. Are you ready? Really? Okay, here is the big secret: design games.

Seriously, that’s all there is to it.

I began designing my own board games to play throughout my childhood — I also wrote short stories, drew comics and illustrations, made home movies, performed magic and puppet shows for the neighborhood kids, and built haunted house attractions in my garage. I was always creating, but the last two things I listed were especially important because game design is about creating experiences for others, not just entertaining yourself..

When I learned to program in college (which, at the time, the late 1970s, was the only way to learn), I created my first computer games. One of my professors was impressed with how I was using the university computer for creative purposes, hired me to work in a computer store he owned, and there I met a game publisher to hired me to design and program games for him to publish. Thus, I became a professional game designer.

So, again, you become a game designer by designing games. This will allow you to develop the needed skills and portfolio to get a job. There are also many resources today that I didn’t have access to when I started — books on game design; free, downloadable game engines; video tutorials; access to amateur and professional game designers for advice. If the best way for you to learn is in a classroom setting, many schools and colleges now offer game design, development, and programming degrees — but if you go that route, just be sure to pick one that has had success with its students actually getting jobs in the game industry.

If you are interested in being a board or card game designer, there aren’t many job openings for those positions. I did know a few professional board game designers when I worked for the Spinmaster toy company, and they all had degrees in industrial design, since they had to be able to professionally design the game components.

Most likely, if you want to be a professional board game designer, you are going to have to raise money to develop and possibly publish your game by yourself. So, you’ll also need to learn about running crowdfunding campaigns, attending board game conventions for networking and pitching, manufacturing, and possibly online sales and advertising too.

If you are interested in being a video game designer, be aware that it isn’t an entry level position, except perhaps on an indie team of other novice developers. More than likely, you will enter the industry at some other position — junior programmer, junior artist, level designer, assistant producer, or tester — and after a few years move over to a game designer position when you are presented with an opportunity to do so. So, that means you will also need to pick up skills in programming, art, level design (using a game engine) and/or project management to get that first job in the game industry (except, perhaps, a tester job, but it can be tough to get recognized for advancement when in the testing department of a large game company).

And always be designing games to add to your portfolio, if nothing else.  Just like a programmer is always programming and an artist is always creating art, a game designer should be always creating games.



Analyzing Your App Using Game Thinking: Part 4 – Replayability

In this series of articles, I am taking a look at how innovators and entrepreneur developing non-game apps and other products through the application of Amy Jo Kim’s Game Thinking process can analyze their work using some of the factors that game designers use to determine that the games they are developing are delivering the desired player experience. Last week I discussed how to analyze an app in terms of its Depth. This week I will focus on its Replayability.

Replayability: The ability to find enjoyment in a game after playing it multiple times.

If you played a game only once and had no desire to return to it again, either it took a very long time to play through to the end (such as with an online role-playing game that can take weeks or months to play), or it just wasn’t fun enough the first time through.  Game designers want their games to be so fun that players play a second time, a third time, a fourth time, and if the game is sufficiently deep, a hundredth time.

In Game Thinking terms, we want apps to be sufficiently experiences that users will want to return to the activity loop during the Habit-Building Phase of the Player Journey so that Newbies become Regulars.  In non-game apps, replayability can be referred to engagement, 

Engagement is often measured by how frequently users actually use an app and is defined by the average number of sessions per Daily Active User. Every time any user, not just a unique user, opens your app, that counts as a session.  If a user is very engaged in your app, they will open your app several times a day.

The essence of an app being engaging is that users find value in it; that is, it actually does satisfy the users wants and needs.  But beyond that, there are a number of tips we can take from the world of game design about how we can make non-game apps more engaging:

  • Keep your core loop tight, so that users get value quickly through short session lengths.  Triggers, actions, and feedback should be combined into a smooth and cohesive system, so that users getting constant deliveries of value, and therefore constant hunger for more.
  • In games, successful actions will often trigger a sequence of colorful graphics or other musical fanfares congratulating players for their skill, when those actions may be owed to dumb luck. Similarly, you can provide players with such positive reinforcement when they use your app successfully, particularly when done in unusual ways.  However, remember that infrequent rewards are much more effective than frequent ones, so be careful not to overuse any over-the-top feedback.
  • Find ways continually provide new content for your app, so that users never feel like they’ve experienced it all and will keep coming back for more.
  • Allowing users to customize their app or the assets produced by their app will allow users to experience a feeling of empowerment as well as greater ownership in the app.  And if they can share their customizations with other users, then they can experience the Peacock Effect — dressing to attract the attention of others.  Attracting such attention can provide the additional feelings of accomplishment and social influence.
  • If your app’s business model is based on microtransactions, allow the user to still use the core loop for free but pay for other features, such as customization or additional functionality.  Otherwise, if users are frequently confronted with a payment demand that cannot be bypassed, they may feel like they are being shaken down and will bail out without building that habit of using your app.
  • Provide resources so that users can learn how to use your app more effectively while they are not using it.  In game design, this is called metagaming, where players study game strategies to become more skilled players.  If you’ve designed a path to Mastery in your Player Journey, then consider putting online some tips for achieving mastery with your app so that users will become engaged simply through the goal to of optimizing their skill progression.

In summary, you need to design your app so that your users get value from it quickly, feel good about developing the skill to achieve that value, and can have additional content, information, features and uses to keep them coming back for more.  Of course, there is the danger of turning off some users by providing them with too much information to absorb or too many decisions to make quickly, and so, for the next and final installment in this series, we will look at the factor pace.