So How Do I Become A Game Designer?


It's nice and trite to say that all games begin with an idea or concept, but where does the idea or concept come from? What magic potion must one drink to BE a game designer? The fact is, if you have ever played a game and changed a rule, for whatever reason, you already ARE a game designer.

I have played Monopoly at least 500 times, and by now I figure I have found all the ways to lose. But one thing that stands out is that every place I have played Monopoly has its own "house rules". Some of these house rules are so common they are printed in the small rulebook that comes with the game. All these house rules came from people who looked at the game and thought of a way to increase their enjoyment with a lil rules tweak.

Some of you may remember a SEGA Genesis add-on called the Game Genie. This was a blatant attempt to allow players to become designers and change their favorite games. I think it goes without saying that Neverwinter Nights is successful due in part to the fact that players can edit existing levels, or create their own from scratch.

Ideas for games, or game concepts come from a spark of an idea. Although there are plenty of exceptions they usually fall into two categories, "There's never been a game like..." and "This book/movie/other media source would make a great game!".

Licensed Games have to be described quickly and easily to catch the players' attention.

I believe that games have to be described quickly and easily to catch the players' attention. I recall all too clearly that Star Trek Voyager was described to me as Star Trek meets Gilligan's Island. It's called a tag line, and it can be a great way to focus your creative energy. Keep the tag line in mind and you won't go off track.

Of the two categories I tend to think "This book/movie/other media source would make a great game!" is a bit easier. Sure there are constraints -- Star Trek games have to have no blood, for example -- but generally you have fewer things to worry about if your game is licensed from another source. The downside is that sometimes the licensor gets to approve your product. I think the animation for Taz walking, in the GameGear version, was redone four times before it was approved.

The best way to look at a license and determine if there's a game hidden inside, is to answer the question: "Is there conflict?" and assuming a positive answer follow it up with: "Is it really obvious?", and the last one "Are there clearly defined sides to the conflict?" I watched the movie Underworld (the first one), and saw a game before the movie was over. Less than a week later my friends (see my previous article that shows that friends ALWAYS love your games), and I were playing the game. The parts were that obvious.

There HAS to be conflict or there isn't going to be a player to champion that cause. And if there's one champion there's got to be an opposing champion who either wants to stop the first player, or get to the goal before the first player. Think of the movie "A Room With a View". Is there a game there? I highly doubt it. There's no obvious conflict. (Though I might have picked a bad example there as I have this funny feeling that the audience for that movie, and games, are really different.)

So lets pick something closer to home, "War of the Worlds". Is there a game there? Certainly there is conflict; it's really obvious. There are even two clearly defined sides, humans and Martians. But is there a game? I'd say yes, but not a very fair one. All it really takes is someone with a good head cold and the Martians lose (If you recall, the Martians die because their immunity system was not able to handle our viruses). So maybe you need to tweak the premise a little. Maybe there is a second wave of Martians who have figured out that they need to wear gas masks.

The point is, we answered yes to our first two questions and still didn't have a fair game. But since we did get two "yes" answers, we could maybe massage what we have into a game. Don't give up after you have something close.

Original Games

...much more risky but the payoff is much higher.

The other type of game, "There's never been a game like..." is much more risky but the payoff is much higher.

The number of combinations that make up these original games is beyond the scale of this article, and maybe this website. Maybe you want to do a game with Elves that uses a dice mechanic. Maybe you want cards, but you want players to write on them. There are just too many ideas out there to cover them all well.

Given that, let's try to create a framework on which you can hang your idea. As a general rule, original games are harder to communicate. If I say "baseball," most of you have an idea of what I'm talking about. If I say "Humgerwatalic," you have no idea what it is. (Frankly, neither do I. Send me some ideas and maybe we can create a cult following.)

My advice is to pick a name that INSTANTLY says something about the game. If you can make a name that can do it faster than instantly, even better! I once dreamed of writing my own computer language, and a friend said: "OK great, call it Bob. Who'd use it and for what?" There was a reason "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" had such a long name.

Your goal is to create the interrupt, and get the question back to "What's it about?" That's where "Star Trek meets Gilligan's Island" comes in. Your tag line is the answer to this question. This may sound like it's more about selling your game than creating it, but really they are the same. If you can't SELL me on playing your game, why are you bothering to create it?

I applied this to my podcast name, "about (making) games" When I tell someone the name, rarely do I get asked: "What's it about?" (I used to say never, but someone asked me last week).

...knowing the rules can help you understand when and how to break them.

Is this a golden rule that must be followed? No. But knowing the rules can help you understand when and how to break them. And although riches and fame may not be your goal or motivation, certainly creating a game that people WANT to play must be a factor. And part of getting someone to play your game is getting their attention long enough to explain how wonderful it is. The first step is a compelling name, the second is your tag line.

As a designer the name and tag line keep you focused. If it's a game about pirates, don't make rules about laser sights on cannons. Unless we're talking far future pirates, keep the design in context. You do that best by keeping your focus.

Don't worry if the entire game doesn't hit you in a week like Underworld hit me. I used to say: "I don't know how long this will take because I can't schedule a time to be brilliant. I know I need a brilliant solution, but I can't say it's going to happen on Tuesday at 3pm." Get something playable, and let your players tell you what works. They can tell you by just saying it out loud, or by avoiding situations that require them to use that rule or mechanic.

When I was playtesting Crown of the Emperor, a TCG, a tester held a card in front of my face, ripped it into little pieces and said: "That's what I think of that card". I think he could have been more subtle, but I got his point and removed the card. I also put the test cards in plastic holders to make them harder to rip.

Take in every bit, positive and negative, and make changes that you feel fit the design. Keep all the comments because you never know what will come in handy later on in the development cycle.

So keep playing, working on your title and tag line. And if you're wondering how much of this also applies to video game design... ALL OF IT. The difference being, there is usually more money at stake in video game development.

Mac Senour is a 25 year veteran of both paper and video game development. He can be reached through his podcast site, "about (making) games", at host at aboutmakinggames dot com. He is busy working on whatever the heck "Humgerwatalic" is and other such things.

Interesting article or should i say disussion point, as a budding game designer myself i comprehend the complexity and frustration in coming up with a 'new' original idea and have been labouring away like the preverbial squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter for about 4 years or so now..
I've always personally thought that the single most important things are the basic concepts, themes and flavour of the game your looking to build.
pbviously including factors such as the simulation' / realism of the mechanics of the system...
anyways just thought i'd drop my two penneths worth in :)