The Secret to Being a World-class Video Game Designer

Who wouldn't want to be world-class? The trick if you're a video game designer? Stop playing so many video games

Who doesn't want to be extraordinary in whatever they do including video game design? I mean, who doesn't want to be the goddamn Batman? There's actually a significant body of work about achieving world-class behavior popularized by Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" and Colvin's "Talent is Overrated". Its the 10,000 hour rule - to be world-class at something, you need to practice it for 10,000 hours.

Unfortunately, the takeaway from the research often gets misunderstood. The point is not whether talent is irrelevant. The point is not to log the hours. The point is that the quality of how you practice something is likely the single most important factor in determining whether you are simply capable - or truly great.

This is intuitively obvious - otherwise, everybody who worked full time at a job for five years would be world-class. Or everybody who logged a lot of hours playing video games would be a fantastic game designer. Playing games is necessary but insufficient to being world-class. That's because playing games only teaches you to play games. To be great, you have to take it the next level.

What makes for the quality you need to be world-class?

  • Practising the core skills of your discipline in a way specifically designed to improve performance. You can't phone it in - you have to practice at becoming a better designer. And, yes, this means as you get better you have to take on bigger challenges. 
  • High repetition of the core skills - you must do it over and over and over again. 
  • Clear and unequivocal feedback on when you are - or are not - succeeding. You can't just shoot and pray - you need to see whether you are actually hitting your target.
  • Coaching to address specific defects in your skills and improve them. 

So how does the above apply to being a world-class game designer?

Get a notebook. To start, carry that notebook with you. All the time. Use that notebook. All the time. It is insufficient to have good ideas, you need to realize them in some fashion. You need to put ideas to paper. You need to try and work them out, struggle with and (eventually) wrestle them to the ground. Personally, I favor a graph paper notepad with a multi-colored pen, that way I can scribble down ideas, sketch out rough interfaces, illustrate concepts, etc.

"Play" games differently. That notebook I mentioned? It should be filled with your critiques of the games you are playing. You should have a different process from the average user when playing a game. You should note what does or does not work. Note what you would do to improve it. Scribble down the ideas it inspires. And most importantly, you must write it all down. Yes, you are no longer a passive audience member, simply enjoying the pleasure of a game. This is the price you pay. Do you think Spielberg just watches a movie - or does he tear it apart and put the pieces under the microsoft?

Make a lot of games. The most important thing you can do is make games. A lot of them. I don't mean working on a three year development cycle make a lot of games. I mean, crude little games. The kind of stuff you bang out with ActionScript or Python. The kind of thing you make with paper cards and dice. Whatever it takes, you should aim for high volume of game production. Ask yourself if you could make 10 games this year. 50. 100. They don't have to be perfect (or even, really, good). They don't have to be finished. They can be crude. But the act of making the game will teach you an enormous amount. I try to drive this into the heads of my designers, make a prototype as quickly as you can. Index cards, scissors and a sharpie marker are your greatest tools. Good game designers build games.

Watch other people play. Do the above - and then get other people to use your game. Sure, you have walk them through. Sure, it's likely to be painful. But it will be educational. You need to see how everyone else will view your creation. You need to see if the magical dream that lives in your head actually works in practice. I once asked a designer to imagine a new piece for Chess. He visualized a complex series of interlocking steps - until we put it on a board and realized he was just describing a Bishop in a different way. Real-world use of a game design by real users is vital. Your spouse may get tired of you forcing them to play your crummy little games - but you'll be a better designer for it.

Get mentors and guidance. You need to find other game designers, ones who you respect their opinion, and you need to play with them. Their insight is going to be very different from "normals". Find the best game designer you can and get them to play your game. Get competitive with them. Get into a relationship where you are forced to bring your A-game or suffer the ridicule and mockery of your gaming peers. Lennon and McCartney were successful because they both were talented and they forced each other to always be better. You need to find your equivalent. One of the important things I did in my development as a game designer was play RPG games with other game designers. We tried different systems, tweaks and experiments. The results were often not pretty - but I learned a lot about game design in the crucible.

Does all this sound like hard work?

It is hard work.

Does it mean games are going to be less fun?

It depends on your definition of "fun".

The fun you get is the fun of being a person who creates.

It will be the fun of working with an obsessive level of fanaticism your every waking hour and honing your skills to a razor's edge until you are the pinnacle of your craft

Just like the goddman Batman.

- Sean Dugan is The Boss Monster’s founding editor and all-too-frequent contributor.

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  1. Great stuff and I cant agree enough. I have learned more in the last year of designing Board Games than I did in the last 15 years of designing video games for big companies like Blizzard and Gearbox. I have note pads filled with notes, scribbles, and indistinguishable glyphs that only I could call an idea. I have also started documenting my design process in a blog which has helped me stay on target,

  2. I think maybe the talent of a game designer is proportional to their love of graph paper (which includes battle maps, of course)

    Yeah, you're totally right - blogging is a great way to track ideas. There's nothing like a good internet rant to sort out your thinking! ;)

  3. Something I find myself doing that I think is an important part of "'Play' games differently" is "'Play' games outside your comfort zone." That is, play games that are "bad" or that don't interest you. I've bought games just because I saw an upcoming release that seemed like it had an intriguing design, and it got bad reviews for design-related reasons. I played to see how the developers failed to fulfill what I saw as design concepts having a lot of potential, and, of course, figure out what they should have done. The other part of that is play games in genres that you don't enjoy and/or are aimed at different demographics. (This is why I can be found eying games in Steam that have the word "ponies" in their description, I swear.) Play successful examples of game types you dislike and understand why people might enjoy them. Be sure to play multiple examples of games that are based around the same sorts of core mechanics - it's important to see how games based around the mechanic can differentiate themselves, and how a particular label or context can constrain design. It's helpful to see how particular mechanics work (or don't) in the context of different sorts of game designs.

  4. Interesting one about the game programmers. Looking for acareer in game development to design new and interesting games.