How To Become A Game Designer: The Nontraditional Path

Remember when you were a kid and you were (or still are) captivated by the different worlds and stories that film and video games portrayed? Whether you know it or not, video games have been around for decades, and since the initial release of "Pong" back in 1972, children and adults alike have delved into the unique, interactive worlds that video games provide. The immersion of games, whether it's for competition, creative exploration or simple relaxation, has inspired one of the most robust industries in entertainment. According to Statista, as of May 2014, more than 1 billion consoles have been sold worldwide — a historical statistic reinforcing the health of an industry that's projected to have more than 135 million PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles sold by 2018.

Video game development, like any other career, requires a lot of dedication, but as technology continues to evolve, it's a terrific time to enter the industry. Whether you're at the beginning of your career and wondering what a game designer does or how to become a game designer, or whether you're looking into how to change careers, there are tailored resources available for all types of students and professionals.

Schools.com spoke with Greg Kasavin, a renowned game designer responsible for critically acclaimed games such as "Bastion" and "Transistor" about how he was able to make a professional change and pursue the career he had dreamed about since childhood.

Greg KasavinMaking a career change

When did you get your start with games?

Depends on how you measure that! I've been playing games from my earliest memories as a kid, and wanted to make them since I was 8 years old. But I only got into development when I was close to 30. Prior to that I was writing about games professionally for a large gaming web site called GameSpot, where I worked for more than 10 years.

You made a career change from being a game critic to a game developer. What was that transition like?

My transition from being a game critic to a game developer was a full-on career change that brought with it a number of changes to my life and livelihood. The most difficult aspects were personal rather than professional. Professionally I felt pretty well prepared, as my first development job was as a producer, and I'd been doing similar work as editor-in-chief of GameSpot, since there I led a large multidisciplinary team as my primary responsibility, in addition to my work as an editor. On a personal level, it was something I was very determined to at least try, knowing full well I might fail. I had fallen in love with writing about games, but I was still hanging on to this childhood dream of one day making them.

"It's never too early or too late to start making games, especially now ... So if you want to make games, go do it!"

What are some common elements of being a game designer that you enjoy the most?

I'm very fortunate to be able to develop and produce games based on original ideas. I love coming up with the world in which a game takes place and the characters that inhabit that world. I love thinking about how all the different pieces of the experience, from a simple button on a menu to a piece of music to a particular game mechanic or game system, contributes to the sum total experience and becomes part of a cohesive whole.

More practically speaking, I love doing writing for games and integrating that work, whether it's in text or speech. I love working with audio, and I love building levels and encounters for the player. I like making games better, by fixing little issues and fine-tuning everything as much as possible.

What makes a successful game designer

What do you think it is about the medium of gaming that sets it apart?

The interactive nature of games is what sets them apart, and makes them capable of creating very memorable, exciting, absorbing, or emotional experiences. Games are also wonderful in their formlessness, as they are in many ways far less constrained than other media. I think for a lot of people the gateway into games is that they can be fun and engaging. But they can be much more, and provide very personal and empathetic experiences that couldn't be had any other way.

All game designers are different, but do you believe there are particular qualities that make great ones stand out?

I think game design is such a broad field that there are many different paths to success through it, and many game designers are wired very differently. I do think there's a tendency among great game designers to be great visual thinkers with strong imaginations, because as a game designer it's important to have a clear mental image or model for what you're trying to make.

I also think capacity and willingness to do hard work, and having strong discipline around that work, are very important traits. The fun part of game development is not always the majority of time spent, and it can be very difficult to finish something that you start. Great game designers come up with strategies to make it happen. They're resourceful and think big but within their means. An ambitious but unachievable idea has little value in comparison to one that can be made real.

"For a lot of people the gateway into games is that they can be fun and engaging. But they can be much more, and provide very personal and empathetic experiences that couldn't be had any other way."

Becoming a game designer

What advice would you give a student wondering how to become a game designer?

I'm reluctant to give blanket advice as everyone's circumstances are different, and what's more, there's no clear path into making games. If I had a good answer to this question I suppose I would have gotten into making games much sooner than I did.

Here's what I think, though: It's never too early or too late to start making games, especially now, when there are so many great, free resources available. So if you want to make games, go do it! Download GameMaker Studio, or Unity, or Twine, or modding tools for your favorite game, look up tutorials online, and just start. The vast majority of game developers working in the industry are self-taught. But the other side of this is to not pursue game development to the detriment of everything else. Game development is about balance. Someone who can't balance getting good grades at school or maintaining other aspects of their life while pursuing game development may not be cut out for development anyway.

The last bit can be a hard pill to swallow but it's important to understand that a love for playing games does not necessarily correlate to a love for making games. I think it's important to keep an open mind about that and be very honest with oneself when searching for and developing their talents.

"I love coming up with the world in which a game takes place and the characters that inhabit that world. I love thinking about how all the different pieces of the experience ... contribute to the total experience."

What advice would you give to a working professional thinking of making a career change and becoming a game designer?

I would say the same thing. Best to be careful and introspective, be prepared and willing to make sacrifices, and be realistic and firm about which sacrifices you aren't willing to make. Circumstances may make it impossible at certain times, but circumstances can be changed. Perseverance is important, both to playing games and making them.

If you had to outline any particular steps in the decision process to becoming a game designer, what would those steps be?

I think if someone has the impulse to become a game designer then that person should not hesitate to start making games using any means available, even if it's scraps of paper to make a card game or board game. Constraints are a challenge not an excuse. After going through that process, one can then ask oneself if it was fulfilling and worthwhile. Games require players. By making games you come into contact with game players. Do it for long enough and some of them may end up being collaborators, and together you can grow your ideas, if you want.

Looking back

You've been very successful in your game developing career. Looking back on it all, and when you were just beginning your journey, what would you tell yourself now?

I would tell myself not to expect the result of my efforts to affect my sense of self worth over the long run. Game development has been a trial for me, and the successes I've been attached to feel abstract to me, and I spend much more time living with the failures. Learning to avoid pinning my entire sense of self on my work is ongoing, and difficult, and necessary.

Thinking about the future

There's a lot of focus in the media about women and STEM careers. Women already contribute tremendously to the gaming community, both as gamers and designers, but how do you think we can go about incentivizing even more women to pursue careers in game design?

I think as more women get into game development, more women [will] get into game development.

Games certainly have benefited and continue to benefit from the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives of the people who create and play them.

I don't believe much in contriving incentives, because motivation comes from within, becoming possible through environmental factors. I think everyone should have the opportunity to play games and explore making them if they want to, and today, if they have an Internet connection then they have that opportunity. They may need a little education on it too, at least in the form of exposure to games, but games are so universal now that exposure to them seems likely at least for those fortunate enough to be living in developed countries…

In game terms, consider the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. When you spend hours collecting flags or something because an achievement says you should, at the end of it you feel a hollow fleeting sensation of accomplishment for the little badge you got. On the other hand when you're playing a really great game and uncovering every corner of its world or discovering new interactions, you're doing it for its own sake. Great game designers do it for its own sake.

"Great game designers do it for its own sake."

What are some resources that are widely available that you think would help any prospective game designer?

I think GameMaker Studio and Unity are great, widely-used tools that are well worth exploring both for aspiring game designers and for veterans. There are many free tutorials out there for both these tool sets, catering to all ranges of experience. Twine is also a wonderful tool for creating interactive fiction and game-like experiences using text.

Final thoughts

Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

I feel very lucky to have been able to make a career out of what I love, and to have worked with so many talented men and women over the years whose work helped bring out the best in mine. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about my experience.

Greg Kasavin works at SuperGiant Games and in addition to creating games and actively participating in discussions about video games with many outlets, writes about his experiences in detail at kasavin.blogspot.com.

1. Greg Kasavin, Interviewed by the author on Feb. 13, 2015
2. "PS4 to top Xbox One in sales through 2018, analysts predict," Adam Westlake, Slashgear.com, Feb. 21, 2015, http://www.slashgear.com/ps4-to-top-xbox-one-in-sales-through-2018-analysts-predict-21369955/
3. "Lifetime global unit sales of video game consoles as of May 2014," Statista, Accessed Feb. 23, 2015, http://www.statista.com/statistics/268966/total-number-of-game-consoles-sold-worldwide-by-console-type/