What Should I Know?
Game design implies a very broad range of knowledge. While everything is ultimately useful, there are some pretty important things you should know in order to be a better designer. Remember, this is not an easy path, but for sure a fascinating and challenging one.
What Should I Study?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions about how to become a game designer. The answer is not that simple, though. First of all, does an aspirant game designer need a university degree? I’d answer yes, definitely. But let’s be clear on this matter. A good game designer should have a wide general knowledge, plus some kind of in-depth knowledge about a few topic. This means that even if you didn’t attend a university, in order to do this job you will need to have a personal knowledge at least comparable to the one provided by a university degree.
Now, which topics are the most important for a game designer? I guess that pretty much everything counts. But if I had to choose, I’d say literature, art, history, maths and media studies could be the most useful topics.
Then there are the universities offering specific game design tracks. I’ve got mixed feelings about those. While I’m certain that a specific game design competence is almost mandatory, these courses don’t often offer so much more than a good book on the matter. If you want to follow a game design course, I’d suggest to carefully select the ones focusing on guiding you through a complete project. Look at the course portfolio to see what projects came out in the previous years and try to stick only to tracks that put you in charge of actually accomplishing something. Game design is mostly learnt by making games, so, if a course could help you in that quest, it can’t be bad for you.
Bottom line: you have to study a lot if you want to do this job. You’ll need both to learn game design theory and to improve your general knowledge. Everything will be useful sooner or later. If you lose interest in the world and in all of its marvels, you just can’t be a good game designer.
Do I Need to Learn How to Code?
Hell, yes. DON’T RUN AWAY, COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW. First of all, you don’t need to be a coder. But your work will dramatically improve if you’ll learn at least the basis of a coding language. This is obviously true only if you want to make digital games. But I’m going to assume that yes, sooner or later you’ll be interested in that.
With a basic coding knowledge you will be able to do more alone, without having to rely on other people: you will be able to write and complete basic prototypes, and be ready to show what’s in your head in a more efficient way.
Then, you will be better at scripting, and you’ll be able to fine tune the game faster and see immediately the results of your changes. You’ll even be able to understand the code written by others and to propose changes or tweaks in a more rational way.
Last but not least, you will communicate better with coders, you’ll be able to write documentation in a way that will be more useful and understandable for them. You’ll make their job a lot easier, by describing each game element in a way simpler to be translated into code. And you will be more aware of the limits and the opportunities raised by your design.
Sure, you won’t have to be able to write the low-level code, but you will be able to put your hands under the hood and make changes to the game on your own. And that’s a really precious skill.
Do I Need to Learn How to Draw?
Hell, yes. Wait a minute, why aren’t you running away? Art is something that some game designers just love to ignore. After all, a game is made up of mechanics, and art is just a superstructure, right? It’s the artist’s job, right?
As much as the hard work in art and asset development is responsibility of the artists, a good game designer should at least be able to sketch or visualise ideas in some way. Remember: Shigeru Miyamoto, possibly one of the greatest designers of all time, started his career as an artist.
Your job as a game designer, especially if you occupy a lead position, is to have the aesthetic vision of the game: this element is not at all detached from game mechanics, but works in sync with them to generate emotions. That doesn't mean the art director and the lead artists have no word in this matter, but you have to be able to work with them in the most efficient way to get the best possible results.
So, if you can at least sketch something you will be even better at communicating ideas. And when working in teams, communication is extremely important. Plus, a basic art knowledge will greatly improve the quality of your prototypes.
Finally, like code knowledge will help you communicate with coders, art knowledge will make your way of working with artists smoother.