What is a game designer?

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A game designer is someone who conceptualizes game plots and storylines, levels and environments, character interactions, and other creative aspects. It’s their job to work with other specialists - like developers, artists, and others - to communicate ideas and then project manage those ideas through to game production. 

Depending on the situation, game designers can specialize in a particular game element, and can work among a team of others for a commercial or independent game development company. They can even work on their own, conceiving, creating, programming, and publishing their own titles.  

The evolution of game design

The term “game designer” is used quite generically these days. In fact, most commercial game development companies are made of large teams with many individuals contributing to the game’s success. There are programmers, producers, level designers, modelers, animators, technical artists, testers, marketing and finance specialists, and more. 

Level design, for instance, is the concept of brainstorming what a player will encounter when playing a game. Thus, level designers need to consider a number of different elements to ensure they’re making an engaging game for players to experience. 

Game difficulty is one such key consideration, as level designers don’t want to make games that are too easy, or too hard for that matter—they want to make games that are “just right,” or, said simply, fun! So, their games should be challenging enough to encourage repeat gameplay and evoke the feeling of “I did it!” when players find success. 

This balance in difficulty will vary by game and type of game. For instance, multi-level games can progress in difficulty with each level, with the first level being easy, the next more challenging, and so on. Or, all levels can be of the same moderate difficulty level throughout the entire campaign. 

Conceptualizing a video game in its entirety

As the above shows, there is a whole lot more that goes into game design than just characters and plots. 

Those who are interested in successfully designing a game need to think through these many different aspects, but also need to remain focused as each decision can branch off to smaller sub-decisions that need to be sorted out before work can commence. 

For instance, one of the first major decisions a game designer will make is what type of game they want to create. From action games to sports games, puzzles, simulations, and more, there are a number of different types of video games from which to choose. 

From there, what’s the game’s theme? While the list of the different types of video games is long, theme options are even greater! It’s not meant to be daunting or overwhelming, but more to inspire the fact that whatever idea a game designer is toying with, there is an audience out there who has played and enjoyed something similar. 

The next step could be level design as explained above, and in which game designers will want to create level blueprints in order to plot ideas and plan how a developer can bring them to life. This blueprint can include the different places available for characters to explore, from houses to cities, dungeons, and more. 

There are many other steps to follow, but from this, you can see the level of detail required to plan and create a game that others enjoy playing. 

Video game industry outlook

Industry trends over the years have shifted dramatically. Indie games, casual games, social networking games, and mobile games have become crucial (and still rapidly growing) segments, adding to the massive presence created by consoles and personal computers. 

With this shift, the barriers for creating, publishing, and distributing games digitally have been removed considerably in recent years, spurring astonishing levels of creativity and opportunity to reach the masses via the internet. 

A career in game design is also a smart move in terms of stability and earning power—video games generated over $35 billion in revenue in the US in 2019. 

The takeaway here is that, no matter what, games have to be conceived, coded, tested, and sold. There is room for top talent—talent with solid, proven portfolios. 

Game design facts

To help illustrate the huge difference a game design decision can make in a title, check out these facts of what-ifs and almost-nots! 

Sonic the rabbit, no, armadillo, no, Hedgehog!
Programmer Yuji Naka started with a simple concept—players would control a character inside a ball that rolled through levels in long tubes. Eventually the character evolved to be a rabbit—and like Mario, he could stop and pick things up.

However when it was determined his rabbit ears would be too difficult to animate and stopping to pick up items would slow the pace of the game, developers looked to animals that would roll up like balls to retain the style of game and fast action they were going for.

A hedgehog (proposed by designer Naoto Ohshima) was eventually chosen—over an armadillo—and he was first called Mr. Needlemouse.

That huge, industry-defining moment that almost didn’t happen
As is so often the case in video games, last-minute additions can define a legacy.

For Goldeneye 007 for N64, the dev team (without the approval of developer Rare’s studio directors) created the multiplayer component in the last few weeks of development. This massively popular feature was literally an afterthought.

The game went on to help define and establish the first-person shooter genre on consoles, signaling a transition from Doom-like games to more realistic ones.

Put a mustache on it!
Video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto gave Mario his iconic mustache so players could see his nose. Because of limited graphics capabilities, Miyamoto made other design shortcuts too, giving the plumber a hat because hair was too hard to draw and animate, and having him wear overalls so players could see his arms move.

Getting started

Have a kid or teen wanting to take their first step towards designing a video game? Consider any of our cutting-edge game design summer camps or learning options below! Programs are held at 150+ locations including Stanford, NYU, Caltech, and others. 

Scratch coding courses
Minecraft game design
Game creation and AI with JavaScript
Game design and development 101

A photo of Ryan

Ryan has been in EdTech and with iD Tech for 13 years—building experience, expertise, and knowledge in all things coding, game development, college prep, STEM, and more. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn

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