In a few short decades, video games have grown from the hobby of a few to a global market worth $152.1 billion. As they've become more advanced, game design has evolved into an exciting career path offering unprecedented scope for creative expression through exciting storylines, compelling visuals, and mesmerizing sound.
Good design and stunning visuals, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice won Game of the Year and Best Action/Adventure. (Image: From Software / Activision)
Even if you specialize in this one area of the pipeline, becoming a successful Game Designer requires a broad wealth of knowledge and an understanding of the game development process as a whole. Increasing your knowledge base will enable you to better apply your skills to your piece of the puzzle, and create higher quality work. (Of course, if you're a one-person band, you will need to wrap your mind around all aspects of development anyway.)
Here are 10 game design tips to give your career a power-up:
1. Have a Plan
For those of you with a creative bent, it can be a lot of fun to start with a blank page or project and see where the Universe takes you. This is great for getting creative juices flowing and can serve as an excellent way to come up with new ideas. But as a long term plan it’s rarely an efficient approach.
The first of our game design tips is to have a plan.
Whether you are responsible for a whole project or just part of it, first take some time to sketch out (literally or metaphorically) what you hope to achieve. Having a plan can significantly reduce creative blocks down the line. This is particularly true if you are also taking care of the more mechanical aspects of development—such as programming.
2. Don't Neglect the User
There is a long history of developers becoming frustrated with the people who would be playing their games. While this may be an understandable reaction to having changes thrust upon your creative vision, if you want to succeed in your game design career you need to remember that gamers are ultimately the ones paying your wages.
It is perfectly acceptable to make video games for fun—as many do—or to go it alone and not be beholden to things like user experience testing. But more often than not you'll have to play to the audience.
3. Remember the Fun
Dove-tailing with the previous game design tip, it's essential to remember the point of a video game—enjoyment. Gamers are looking for entertainment and escapism. The majority of people just want to switch off and enjoy their experience.
The average age of gamers in the US is 35; working adults approaching middle age, often with children, whose free time is a precious commodity. If they don't enjoy your product, they'll play something else. The desire to get your message out through your work is admirable, but you need to find a way to do it that is palatable to your audience.
You'll find out pretty quickly during the testing phase whether other people find your game as fun as you do!
4. Respect the Sound Design
Sound design is sometimes overlooked in game design, and not just by small studios and indie devs. Excellent sound design can feel like a bit of a thankless task, as sometimes only a trained ear may genuinely appreciate your work. However, lousy sound design will stand out like a sore thumb and negatively affect the player’s experience.
If you're inexperienced in audio production and have no interest in learning, consider hiring or partnering with someone who can take care of it. If you're handling your own sound, be sure to maintain consistent levels and have all the different audio components "sit” in the mix so to speak. Having a sound effect or piece of dialogue stand out because it is poorly mixed or too loud is very jarring to the user.
5. Make Your Controls Intuitive
Much like sound, intuitive controls are often under-appreciated when done right. When done poorly, it can be a deal-breaking flaw in your game. The controls should be as intuitive as possible.
Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all control scheme. If you are creating an MMORPG, there is only so much simplifying of the controls you can do before you begin to slice away at the core mechanics. On the other hand, for a casual mobile game, your control scheme should be as simple as possible, even if it means sacrificing some gameplay mechanics to achieve it.
6. Choose an Artistic Style
It cannot be overstated just how vital a distinct artistic style is to a video game's success. With more developers—and thus more products—entering the market every day, having something that sets your project apart from the rest can be the difference between popularity and obscurity.
Don't be afraid to look different. As long as your artistic choices don't adversely affect the gameplay, a distinct style can help you stick out in your audience's mind. But beyond merely standing out—be consistent. A random assortment of assets that look as though they were designed for several different games will give your game a cheap feel, which will put many players off.
7. Don't Be Afraid to Delegate
This can be a particularly hard pill to swallow for the one-person shows out there, but sometimes help is good. Few people can pull off every aspect of design and development to a high standard. It's an unavoidable reality that most of us have to live with. But you shouldn't allow that to bring the quality of your work down.
If you are working alone and can't afford to hire others to take care of the areas that aren't your strong suit, consider teaming up with others. In this fertile industry, there are many talented folks out there prepared to join you. Just be aware that this may mean relinquishing some of your creative control—your new partner(s) need to feel as though it is their project as well.
8. Know Your Audience
Beyond making a game fun and intuitive, it is essential to understand your target audience. Are you playing to the casual gamer market? The competitive eSports scene? What about the open-world survival crowd?
Whatever your audience; certain elements will be expected from a game in that space. Not delivering on those expectations is a surefire way to disappoint. Pushing boundaries and defying expectations can undoubtedly work if done right.
But for the most part, players want what they are used to. If you’re an experienced designer, you can choose to go against expectations, but for less experienced designers, perhaps stick to the program initially.
9. Marketing Your Product
Whether you are an indie developer, part of a small team or working for a large AAA studio, marketing matters. You should have pride in your work and be eager for people to see your product. Share it on social media, tell friends and family.
If you have a budget for advertising, do some research into the best places to advertise. The ultimate reality of your labor of love is that if no one knows your game exists, no one will play it.
Consider contacting popular YouTube and streaming personalities about review videos (you will likely have to offer theme review copy). If you're confident in your work, you’ll want to get it out in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
10. Ask For Help When You Need It
Making a video game is no easy task! Long nights, stress, frustration—these will almost certainly affect the quality of your work. Whether this is a passion project or your career, be mindful of burn out. If you are working solo, set realistic goals for your project.
If you are part of a team or working to a deadline, manage your time efficiently, take breaks, and ask for help when needed. Pushing yourself too far will eventually lead to burn out, so take care of yourself!
Game design is about finding balance. You need to put out the best possible product that you can, while not working yourself into the ground to do so. We can offer all the tips on game design known; you will still need to decide where your lines are.
The key takeaway of these game design tips is to decide whether you're willing to give up a little creative control and partner with someone who will help bring your dream to life, or would you rather toil away alone?
As with many things in life, your situation will be different from any others. Only you can decide where your balance lies and where compromises can be made.
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