Why Studying Game Design is (Largely) a Waste of Time

Presumably, it’s not enough to just get a job as a video game designer. You probably want to be a successful game developer. 

Maybe you even climb to the point where you’re directing your own eager minions what game we’re all making. To ascend to the rarefied summits of game design, you figure you’d better have the right skills. Naturally then, you want to study all the game design theory you can lay your hands on, right?

Wrong – because overall success in game development relies on skills outside of game design.

Look, you need to know games. If you aren’t a game player, what are you doing in game design? It’s like being a nun and wanting to run a bordello – you might be confused about your career priorities.

So I assume you’ve played hundreds of hours of games. I assume you can point to games you love and tell me why. I presume you’ve got a passion for video games that has driven you to bang on the often unwelcoming doors of the industry.

But the esoteric theory of game design that tends to fill a lot of books isn’t going to get you that far. Game development is usually very pragmatic – and best learned by actually doing. And let’s face it, it’s going to be a while before you have to come up with your keynote speech for GDC or a TED conference.

Ultimately, the genius rock-star game designer who lacks key skills won't go as far as the mere mortal who rounds out their skillset. Success  is going to depend a lot on some skills you’ve likely been ignoring:

Writing like HL Mencken
It’s great if you have a brilliant idea for the world’s most compelling game mechanic. If you can’t communicate it in writing, you might as well go home. The majority of what a game designer does day to day is write stuff down. Emails, design documents, etc. I might be a bit biased, but I think the best practice you could get is some journalism training – it teaches you to communicate specific information clearly, directly and under pressure.

Interface design worthy of Steve Jobs
Oh, did you want someone to actually play your game? Well, until we perfect neural interfaces, they’re probably going to need an old fashioned graphical user interface. No less than Miyamoto – the game designer, not the swordsman – starts a game design by spelling out the user controls. Designing your own website and information hierarchy provides a quick education in this area.

The people skills of Bill Clinton
Are you sullen and withdrawn? Do you talk over people? Intrude on their personal space? React to criticism with personal attacks? Say bitingly sarcastic things in a forum other than your personal website? Well , stop it – you’re annoying everyone. Game development is largely a team sport and it helps if you can get along with a variety of people. Learn how to put people at ease, make them laugh and feel heard. Your best training here is probably growing up in a big family – or failing that, go convince someone to marry you.

Presenting like PT Barnum
Can you stand in front of a group of people and pitch a game idea? Well, you’d better learn how because that’s what it is going to take. Written design documents provide a blueprint – but you’re going to need to sell ideas in person. If you’re reduced to a stammering, sweaty mess when speaking in a group, then the most significant career investment you’ll ever make is to take a Dale Carnegie course, joining Toastmasters or getting a part time job as a used car salesmen.

Success in video game design is about more than just being able to come up with a game. And it’s the skills most designers ignore which actually prove to be the most valuable in the long term.

- Sean Dugan can put you into a sweet game previously owned by a little old lady who only drove it to Church on Sunday.

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