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LESSON #14:
ALL ABOUT THE JOB OF "GAME DESIGNER"

NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.

Originally written April, 2002. Last update Dec. 29, 2016


"Game designer" is a job title. The implication of that is that most game designers are employees of a game company. At the risk of bursting bubbles, let me point out that when someone is an employee, one is working. At a job. But it's a great job! I should know, since I've had that job.

I've been asked frequently about the details of the job, so herewith is "FAQ 14" (although I've been calling them "Lessons" they're actually [answers to] "Frequently Asked Questions") - All About the Job of Game Designer. Most of the details below are global, but some of the specifics are peculiar to U.S. companies (wannabes from other countries probably won't even know what the heck a 401(k) even is!).


Starting out - "Game Designer" is not an entry level position. That means that if you do not have any experience working in a game company, you won't be getting hired to fill the title "Game Designer" right off the bat. You'll need to have a college degree (see Lesson 3) first, then apply for any job with a game development company or game publishing company. Game designers usually start out in Level Design, Q.A., Production, Programming, Graphics, Audio, Customer Support, or Marketing. I know one guy who's now the president of a big game company - he started out driving a forklift in the warehouse, moving boxes of games! The upshot? -- Just get in the company to start.

Salary - According to the 2001 and 2002 salary surveys of Game Developer magazine:

[*Note: in case you didn't know, "k" refers to "thousand" and the salary figure is "per year."]

Want the latest word on salaries in the games biz? Go to gamecareerguide.com and type "salary survey" in the site's Search box. Also check the IGDA site.

Hours - Normally you'll have to work a regular 40-hour week. You can expect to put in longer hours at some point, on just about every project. The entire project hinges on having a complete game design, so the game designer is always under pressure to get it completed as quickly as possible. Not to say that your work is done once the design doc is written... [Note: you will not become a game designer by putting in a mere 40 hours per week, and you will not become a successful game designer if you put in a mere 40 hours per week after gaining the title. You have to be willing to go the extra mile, not just put in the minimum required effort. See Lesson 9 about Professionalism if you do not understand this point.]

Overtime - No. You'll get a flat salary. No extra pay for overtime. Testers get overtime because they're hourly. But designers are salaried.

Office - You may just have a cubicle, or you may be lucky enough to eventually get an office with a door. You'll probably get a phone, a computer, a game machine, and a TV. Depends on the size of the company and/or the office space the company resides in. Japanese companies are a different story entirely - forget the luxuriant privacy of a cubicle if you wind up working in Japan.

Company car - No. If a hot new game company was to offer you a Testarossa or Lamborghini, be advised that your job there probably won't last long (they're going to go out of business very quickly, because they're wasting money big time). No reasonable game company will provide a company car for a game designer.

Relocation Expense - Unless the newly hired designer is experienced, the company may not pay relocation expenses. If they do agree to pay for you to move, make sure you negotiate details in advance.

Health insurance - Depends on the size of the company the designer works for. Big game publishers do indeed provide health insurance benefits for game designers who are their full-time employees. Smaller companies may or may not provide health insurance benefits.

Paid vacation - Just about every employer has to provide vacation benefits, else their employees would all burn out and go nuts!

Sick leave - Everybody gets sick once in a while, so every company's policy covers some amount of sick time.

Jury duty - Depends on the size of the company. Most companies keep your paycheck coming for up to 2 weeks jury service.

401(k) - Depends on size of company. Small companies probably don't have any 401(k) plan. Most big publishers do.

Retirement - This is covered in the 401(k) benefit. Nobody has pension plans in the game industry.

Advancement opportunities - it's unavoidable that after you've been designing games for a while, at some point you'll be moving up. Typically, a successful game designer might move up into a creative director role or a producer position (and eventually even higher), or might strike out on his own and start his own game company.

Stock plan - If the company is a publicly held company, there may be a program for employees to chip in a little from their paychecks and purchase stock in the company. It incentivizes everyone to work to make the company successful.

Stock options - Big publicly held companies may well offer employees stock options (the option to buy company stock in the future at the price at time of hiring) to incentivize them to work to make the company successful and to stick around for a long time.

Bonuses - Most game companies will share profits with the employees in "up" years. Each company has a different way of determining bonuses (may be based on longevity, on job title, on level of contribution to successful products, etc.).

Royalties - Most game companies do not let their employees have any ownership in the intellectual property created by the company, thus there usually aren't any royalties to go to employees. Extremely successful designers may be able to work something out along these lines (but first you're going to have to get yourself included in the "Top Ten Designers" list of an influential game magazine). For those of us below the top ten, our creations belong to our employers. It's called "work for hire."

Job description - Come to work every morning. Communicate effectively with producers, programmers, and other creative personnel. Participate meaningfully in meetings, cooperate with company requirements in terms of filling out timesheets, filing reports, and a lot of boring stuff like that. When you are assigned to work on a project, you have to put aside your pet ideas (which nobody ever seems to want to spend time and money on) and work on the assigned project. Most of the work of a game designer entails writing lengthy documents, attending meetings, soothing frayed nerves, using salesmanship skills, and writing lists. The game designer's job is probably not what you imagined, I suppose (see the game designer fantasy day as portrayed in Lesson 9).

Here's a very well-put view into the work of a game designer from a game programmer whose opinions I respect and admire:

Design Tools - I am often asked what tools (programs, software) are used to design games. I imagine that most folks who ask this question are not aware what a "game designer" actually is and actually does. Professional game designers like me use Microsoft Word to write design documents. I use Excel to create my tables and graphs, and I use Microsoft Paint to make most illustrations for my game design documents. You should definitely learn how to use Photoshop, but I don't use that so much myself. Besides Paint, I also like Paint Shop Pro by JASC (it gives me additional functionality not found in the simplistic Paint). You don't have to be an artist to be a game designer, but it helps if you are able to draw and use art utilities. You don't have to be a programmer to become a game designer, but you do need some sort of skill set that'll get you hired at a game company. You DO have to be a writer to become a game designer. So the most important tools of the game designer are those that help him produce game design documents.

The Common Misconception - We often hear from guys who say, "I wanna be the guy who comes up with new ideas for games and characters!" Yeah. Well. There's a problem. Game designers do not always do that. Ideas for new games do not always come from a game designer. Read the other FAQs, like for instance #s 1, 7, 9, and 10.
And as for the characters, those are usually generated from the game itself. It may be a writer or an art director who decides what the characters should be. If what you want is to be the guy who gets to decide what games to make and who gets to boss everybody else, you'll need to be a high executive in a game publishing company. How do you get to be an executive? Get an MBA and a law degree first. Then you'll know even better than I do what to do next. (I can't help you beyond that.)

So in conclusion...

The title of "Game Designer" is a highly sought-after position, requiring a high degree of trust.

It must be EARNED, one step at a time.

Game designers are not what most people think: the guy who comes up with a brilliant idea for a new game, the guy who gets to tell all the programmers and artists and marketers what to do. That's not how it works. If that's what you want, you need to become a top executive at a game publishing company. Get an MBA and a law degree and maybe you can swing it.

Although game design is an intensely individualistic and creative profession, it's a profession that demands selfless collaboration.

It's WORK. If it wasn't work, they'd call it "super crazy wonderful fun time."

Then again, maybe they DO.


Designers must be good presenters. Check out "Presentation Zen" at http://www.presentationzen.com/.

Guy Kawasaki's "10/20/30" rule for pitches could be useful too! http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2005/12/the_102030_rule.html

More on what a game designer does - Patrick Curry's Thoughts On Making Fun for Fun and Profit and Patrick Curry's Thoughts On The Playerís Advocate.

From the Q&A bulletin board...


So you wanna be a game designer? Read http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/491/designer_advice_a_beginners_.php.

The Oct. 3, 2008 article "How To Hire Good Game Designers" is also extremely worthwhile. http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=20373. Codemasters principal designer Phil O'Connor outlines 10 different ways hirers can spot a "real game designer" during the resume and interview process, so hirers can avoid hiring ineffective or unqualified applicants, or posers.

See this website's Game Biz Links page to find sites where game jobs are advertised.

Got a question about this FAQ? Email webmaster at sloperama.com, and the response will be posted on the Video Game Q&A bulletin board. You'll get answers! Like those above.

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© 2002-2016 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.