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A lot of what you do with this course depends on what your ultimate goals are. What do you want to do with games, and what do you want to become? What kinds of games do you want to design (if any)? All of you may have started here, with this summer course, but there are many directions to go from here.

If you just wanted to learn the basics…

Maybe you’re a professional game programmer who just wanted to learn enough about design to be able to understand what those strange designers are saying to you when they’re yapping about feedback loops and game balance. Or maybe you’re a parent or grandparent of a game designer, and you were curious about what this person does professionally. In that case, you may have learned all you wanted to, and you don’t need to know any more. And that is fine.

In this case, the next thing I’d recommend is to look for parallels between the topics covered in this course, and other things in your life that have meaning to you. Game design is about managing tradeoffs, understanding decisions, breaking down complex concepts into simpler ones. It is about working within the limitations of constraints, and layering successive constraints on a project. It is about adding and taking away. It is about the human experience. Surely these are things that exist in other areas of your life. How can you apply the lessons learned about game design to improve the areas of the rest of your life?

I have no answers for you, but I guarantee that the answers do exist. This is a personal journey that only you can go on, and I wish you good fortune.

If you just want to make your own custom board games to play by yourself or with your friends…

You already know how to make your own prototypes and playtest them. When I was in high school and college, I did this with my friends over summer break, just for fun. We did not have the formal tools to understand what we were doing at the time, the way that you do now, so your prototypes will probably be much better than my early work.

If this is all you want to do, and that is fine if it is, then go forth and design. The more you practice, the better you'll get.

If you want to become a published board game designer…

One thing I hope you’ve noticed through this course is that there is no shortage of ideas. You should have many of the skills you need. All you are lacking now is experience, and the work that it takes to take your ideas to the next level. Maybe your Design Project is complete and you’ve taken it as far as you can; or maybe you ran out of time, and you feel that you could do more with it. If needed, iterate on your idea some more, in exactly the same way you’ve done this past month, until you have taken it as far as you can.

And then… well, that depends on what you want to do with that game.

You can submit your game to a publisher. There are several wonderful articles on the Protospiel website (click on “Articles”) game development and publishing for non-digital games. There’s also a post on the Board Game Designer Forum that talks about the process. There’s another article here. There’s a blog that just started about board games from the publisher’s perspective. A Google search will probably turn up even more resources, most of which will give similar advice.

Keep in mind that this is extremely competitive. Board game publishers receive dozens or hundreds of submissions for every one game that they publish. So be patient, and choose carefully.

You can try to self-publish your own game. The Protospiel website also has articles related to this. The obvious down side here is that you’re spending your own money (expect anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 US for an initial print run of any decent size, depending on cost of components). The other down side is that you’ll need to make yourself aware of a lot of things that have nothing to do with game design: business, accounting, printing, marketing, and distribution. I know some board game designers that swear by this method. I know some others that wouldn’t touch it, preferring to spend their time designing games and not dealing with these other aspects, or simply saying that if you can’t convince a publisher that your game will sell then they are probably right.

A third option is print-on-demand. In the middle of the summer when this course was first run, a company called The Game Crafter launched. The idea is that you upload all of your files, pick your components, and set your price. When a copy of your game is ordered, it’s produced at that time, so there is no “initial print run” at all. I cannot speak to the quality of this particular site, and I don’t know if there are other similar services out there, but this may provide a happy medium between courting publishers and self-publishing.

Update: I've just been alerted to another similar site, Board Games Now. The primary difference is that The Game Crafter is not moderated (anyone can put up any game they want, even if the quality is poor or the rules are incomplete or unplayable), while Board Games Now actually reviews your submission before making it available. Board Games Now also starts your game off as print-and-play (i.e. people can purchase a PDF and print their own copy), and upgrades your game to a fully-published in-print version under certain conditions which are listed on their site. By contrast, The Game Crafter does not appear to offer a print-and-play version, but just prints and ships the components to any game that is ordered.

If you want to make your own video games…

If you ultimately want to make your own custom video games (on your own as a hobby, not as a career), you will need to get involved with programming at some point, because computers do not understand design documents.

Video game creation tools are on a continuum. There is a definite tradeoff between power and ease-of-use. The easier a tool is to learn and use, the more limited it is going to be in terms of the kinds of games you can make with it, so choose the most complex and difficult tool set that you can understand.

If you’re not very tech-savvy, search for rapid-prototyping tools that are easy to learn, include most of the game logic on their own, and just require you to fill in the content. Examples include Game Maker (best for 2D top-down or side-view retro style arcade games), the RPG Maker series (for computer/console role-playing games), FPS Creator (for first-person shooters), and so on. Do your own Google searches to find the latest tools that fit your needs.

If you have some programming experience, there are a lot of scripting languages out there. These are not graphical drag-and-drop (you’ll need to write actual code), but a lot of basic game functionality is baked in to the commands. I’ve heard good things about Torque 2D, BlitzBasic, Dark Basic, GameBrix, and of course Flash. You can also mess around with general scripting languages like Lua and Python; many of these have some game-specific add-ons that make game programming much easier.

If you’re a hardcore programmer, you probably already have a language you’re comfortable with. You can learn some other languages to broaden your palette of tools, or you can dive deeper into your favorite language to learn the game-specific stuff. Start off by figuring out the answers to these questions:

  • How do you draw graphics to the screen?
  • How do you capture player input in real time (that is, you’re not just waiting around for the player to do something – you’re polling the input devices to see if the player is doing anything, and if not then other stuff still happens in the game)?
  • How do you check the system clock to keep track of time, so that you can have timed events?

If you can do these, you can probably write the code to handle most of the games that you’d want to design. At least, if you can reach this point, the only thing stopping you would be project scope and not lack of information.

If you want to be a professional video game designer…

Video game design is an incredibly competitive field. Lots of people want to do this, and very few get the chance.

First, learn a bit about the industry. Understand the realities of what you would be doing. Educate yourself. Read the ea_spouse letter. Read Tom Sloper’s advice on becoming a game designer.

Professional game design is not about coming up with “Great Ideas” for games all day. It is a lot of hard work. You work long hours for lousy pay. You may work on a small part of a large game, just a cog in a machine, and at the end of three years you release a game that is terrible because the company ran over budget and had to cut half of your brilliant features. It is a soul-crushing industry where the average worker is burned out and leaves in less than six years. I spend most of my time in the classroom trying to convince my students to not go into the video game industry. I do this because I do not want to feel any personal guilt for what happens after they graduate.

So, you may think you want to be a video game designer, but really you don’t.

No, really, I want to be a professional video game designer!

Once, one of my students asked me: “What’s the good news?” I asked what he meant. He said, “you’ve spent the last ten weeks telling us why a game job sucks. Is there any good news? Is there any part of the game industry that isn’t bad?”

Yes, there is. You get to work on games, and you get to work with great people. If that’s enough for you to outweigh all of the other bad things, because this is your true passion, then it is the best job in the world.

So, if this is really the path you want to take, and you’ve read everything above, here are the things you should know.

First, expect to get a four-year college degree. Your degree might be game-related or not, but be sure that you will be competing with other people with four-year degrees, so not having one is a great way for your résumé to get eliminated in the first round.

Be careful of game-specific degrees, especially game design degrees. Any game degree is much less useful if you decide at a later date that your Uncle Frank was right and you really should have gone into corporate finance. Game companies can respect related non-game degrees (like a game programmer with a “normal” Computer Science degree); non-game companies have a much harder time looking seriously at a game degree.

With game design in particular, I’ve noticed that a lot of schools call their degree “game design” or some related term, when they are actually teaching game programming or digital game art. As you are no doubt aware by now, game design is its own field with its own unique sets of skills; sadly, you now know more about game design than the vast majority of people who create game curricula.

So, caveat emptor.

Another problem is that there are a lot of people who want to be video game designers, and relatively few positions. Most open jobs require former industry experience. This isn’t just a game company being mean; a game design mistake requires fixes from both design and programming (and sometimes art, and often production), so mistakes bleed across departments. Game designers are very dangerous and are in a great position to completely destroy the schedule and budget for a game, so these positions are generally only given to individuals who have earned that trust.

This is not to say that entry-level game design positions are nonexistent. There are a few of them, and they are highly competitive. Personally, my first game design job was entry-level, no-experience-necessary… and I applied with three years of game industry experience and seven years of professional programming experience, plus a double degree from a competitive university with a pretty decent GPA. Expect to compete with people like me, and you’ll see why this is rare. Apply, by all means, but thank your lucky stars if you actually get the position, and whatever you do don’t rely on finding your dream job right out of college.

And what if you can’t find one? Have a backup plan. The most common entry points to the video game industry are art, programming, and QA. If you have art or programming skills, major in something related to that, and apply for those positions; then, if you can’t find something in game design, at least you can work on a team with designers, and you can transition to game design in mid-career. It’s far easier in the game industry to move between fields than to break in that first time. For QA, I consider that a last resort; QA positions are typically part-time (so they won’t pay the bills long-term), they are temporary (so you’ll have to keep looking for new work every few months), and they are thankless and tedious for most people.

I want to learn more about game design! What other books can I read? What else can I study?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of really bad books about game design, and only a few good ones.

If you haven’t read the recommended books for this course (McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Koster’s A Theory of Fun), those would be a great place to start.

There are also a lot of chapters in the required text, Challenges for Game Designers, that we did not cover. There’s a chapter dedicated to making puzzles. There are some chapters on creating dexterity-based (“twitch”) games, and luck-based games, and a chapter on finding the balance between luck and skill. There are chapters about working with licenses and sequels. There are chapters on special topics that may be of interest to some of you: games for education, serious games, casual games, and social-network (e.g. Facebook) games. And of course, there are five detailed game design challenges and ten short challenges at the end of each chapter, if you want more practice making games.

Before writing Challenges, I used to use Fullerton et al.’s textbook, Game Design Workshop (currently in its second edition). The first part of this book details the formal elements of games, and the second part includes practical advice on playtesting and the iterative process. Much of this was already covered in this course, but if you want a second opinion or a different way of looking at things, this book is a good read for that.

Schell’s The Art of Game Design: a Book of Lenses makes a great companion to the topics we’ve covered. Once you have a game (or a game idea), this book gives you many directions from which you can analyze your game to make it stronger.

If you’re interested in game criticism, analysis, and game studies, a great book to get you started is Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play. This is not exactly a fast read, and it won’t tell you much about the practical aspects of designing great games, but it is a suitable starting point if you want to be a game critic, or if you want to study games as an academic researcher. This book also contains references to many other seminal works in the field of game studies, so you can start with Rules of Play and then continue on to the other stuff.

If you want to get more depth within a narrow game design topic (such as core systems, game balance, level design, design within a specific genre like RPGs or turn-based strategy games, nonlinear storytelling, and so on)… unfortunately, you will have a hard time of it. Game design is a broad field, but it is a niche topic as far as book publishers are concerned. Sub-topics relevant only to experienced game designers are hard to come by, and most of the narrow-topic books I’ve seen are either not that great, or they cover a topic I’m not familiar enough with to comment. For special topics, I’d recommend instead doing a search online for articles, blog posts, and other shorter works that are written by practicing designers. You might not get the exact coverage you want, but you’ll get something.

If you are at a college or university, they may offer some courses in game design. As with schools in general, be careful. Some schools (and some professors, and some classes) are great… and others are simply not worth your time, let alone your money. Being a game educator myself, I really hate to say this, but it is the unfortunate reality right now.


Comments (1)

agj said

at 8:52 pm on Sep 3, 2009

For video games, 'The Industry' is not the only choice, though. Going independent seems to be much more rewarding, and there are several channels for this. All major consoles have an online store where it is relatively easy to get a game published, and there are many ways to sell a game online for computers. There is also the iPhone/iPod Touch, and Flash games can make money out of sponsorships and ad clicks. Of course, getting noticed is not a walk in the park when you're managing things by yourself, and getting rich should not be your 'priority' if you take this path. TIGSource is a good place to get started. http://www.tigsource.com/

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