It’s no exaggeration to say that video game designers can be considered the gaming industries jack of all trades.
A game designer, often seen as the ideas person at the very top of the game development team, will partake in many game design disciplines. Most people think game designing is about creating great gameplay ideas and then “ordering” teams of developers to create your game. A monument to your creative prowess. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Game designers have much more to do than just come up with ideas.
That’s why I want to write this article. I want to answer the question, what does a video game designer do?
To answer that question, I’ve split this article into multiple sections, each of which touches on a tiny aspect of a game designer’s tasks and responsibilities.
Let’s get started with the first section: Brainstorming.
A Game Designer comes up with new game ideas.
The first task that game designers do is brainstorm new game ideas.
Before a game ever has a bite of code written, a game designer will first get a spark of an idea in their mind. As with all creativity, this spark can ignite into life anywhere, anytime. In the shower, in the middle of a meeting, or while walking the dog.
Game designers know that every game design starts life as an idea in somebody’s mind.
Therefore, most game designers are ever-ready to jot down potential game ideas with their phone’s notetaking app.
Most ideas will be forgotten, and many will never make it past the initial review of that first scribbled note. But 1 in 100 ideas, that single spark that burns brightly in the mind, causes a raging fire of creativity to burst forth.
A Game Designer fits creative ideas to business needs.
Harsh fact for you here: game designers need to make games that make money.
Game designers work for businesses whose primary goal is to, you guessed it, make money. Sometimes this means that market forces dictate what game idea a company will make next. After all, you’ve got to make games that enough people want to play to make your game profitable.
That’s why game designers must fit game ideas to business needs. For example, the first Saints Row game was made by Volition simply because Grand Theft Auto was so popular. They thought they could make a similar game to GTA and make a profit. And it worked.
Game designers develop the overall game’s vision.
When early in the idea conceptualization period, most games burst with possibility. The game designer’s job is to reign in all the ideas, cast off all the needless ideas, and create a vision that concisely explains the game, who will play it, and why.
Game designers storyboard a game’s overall experience.
Early in a game’s design process, game designers storyboard large sections of a game’s story, levels, and gameplay loops on paper before a single line of code is written.
This is for one simple reason: you can tell very quickly and cheaply if a game will be fun and if it will work by designing on paper.
For example, you could design a Mario level on graph paper in minutes, compared to the hours it would take to create in Mario Maker. In those few minutes spent mapping the level on paper, you’ll be able to tell if the level works or not.
Expand this storyboarding design style into a whole game, and you have a relatively simple, cheap method of testing game ideas before they are made.
A game designer develops the story and main characters.
One of the main tasks the game designer will undertake is developing a game’s story and characters.
Yes, some games will rely less on stories and characters than others. Tetris, for example, has no story or characters at all. But most games rely on characters and a well-structured story to draw players into the game.
The game designer might have a rough idea of how they want the game’s story to play out. They will then work with a specialized team of writers who take the game designer’s initial seed of an idea and create a story from it. This process involves a lot of back and forth between the game designer and the writers as they slowly formulate a finished draft for the game’s story.
A game designer delegates many tasks to sub-designers.
Most game design tasks are delegated to sub-designers specializing in different game design fields.
For example, a game designer may have ideas for the game’s levels but won’t design or make the levels themselves. Instead, interpreting the designer’s level and world ideas falls to a specialist designer called a level designer or world designer. The game designer will then work with the world/level designer to create the game’s world.
A game designer spends a lot of time persuading others of their ideas.
This might be hard to believe, but most game development teams are not dictatorships. Game designers spend a lot of time persuading team members of the validity of their ideas. The game designer can’t order the rest of the team around. Instead, the game designer must have many conversations with team members to create two-way design conversations about particular areas of the game.
Game designers use an iterative feedback loop to improve game design.
Game designers only have some of the answers. Often, it’s only after a gameplay mechanic has been created that the game designer realizes that it doesn’t work or needs to be changed.
The game designer has to embrace this iterative design method.
They need to accept that change is the norm in game development. And that the final game design may change significantly from what the game designer envisioned.
Game designers help develop the game’s graphical and sound style.
Game designers help to develop a game’s graphical and sound style. For example, very early in the game development process, they will sit down with concept artists and explain their vision for the game’s graphics. The concept artists will then interpret the game designer’s instructions, creating initial art.
This conversation between game designers and concept artists will go back and forth over many iterations of art until the desired art style is tied down.
Game designers design gameplay loops and then test them.
A game designer’s most important job is designing gameplay loops and systems and testing them.
A gameplay loop can be as simple as pulling the controller’s trigger to make the ship fire a laser. Or it can be as complex as a Final Fantasy: Tactics inventory system.
Regardless of the complexity, the game designers will take responsibility for all of these gameplay systems. And like so many game design elements, these systems will first be designed with humble paper and pen.
After multiple rounds of iteration, the pen and paper systems will be programmed into the game and tested.
Game designers document all design ideas and processes for a game.
One of the most critical aspects of the game designer’s job is to create design documentation. You’ve probably heard of the game design document. This document holds all the information needed to design the game.
This game design document should be very detailed. So detailed, in fact, that you could hand it to a game development company on the other side of the world, and they could create your game.
In reality, this is often not the case. It’s much more challenging to communicate ideas on paper than in person. However, the game designer should still try to document as many of the game design ideas they come up with as possible. This is so that other people on the game development team can refer to a single source of truth when turning those design ideas into actual gameplay.
Game designers help develop the User interface for the game.
One of the most critical aspects of the game, but often overlooked, is the menu system and in-game heads-up display. If you’ve ever played a game of FIFA’s Ultimate Team, you know how bad a game menu can be. EA’s online moneyspinner, Ultimate Team, has one of the worst menus in games I have ever seen. It’s slow, and it’s confusing. Game menus should be the exact opposite of this.
It’s a game designer’s job to work with UI and UX designers to create user-friendly, quick menu systems that gamers barely notice.
Game developers help design how controls will be implemented.
Finally, game designers help develop how the gameplay elements on the screen translate into controller inputs by the player.
These days, designers have many controller features that can be used creatively with controllers such as the PS5’s Dualsense and Microsoft’s Xbox controller. For example, the Dualsense’s haptic feedback motors can create detailed and nuanced rumble feedback. They can make it feel as if there’s rain falling upon your hands or as if you’re walking through mud.