Choose Your Games Career: Game Designer 

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In the first of a series of articles, we ask Red Thread Games’ Ole Andreas Haley about his role - and how you can follow in his footsteps

Like most positions within the games industry, one of the most persistent misconceptions around the job of a game designer is that you’ll be spending the bulk of your time playing games, and that the ability to play games well is a necessary skill. 

The other big misconception, of course, is that you’re essentially the ideas guy -- the person solely in charge of coming up with exciting game concepts and ensuring that people execute your vision. 

To find out more about what this job really entails, and how you can chart the best path towards being a successful game designer, we spoke to Ole Andreas Haley, Senior Game Designer at Dustborn developer Red Thread Games.

Can you share a little about yourself?

My name is Ole Andreas, and I’ve been working in the games industry for about ten years. I went to school and studied as a games programmer initially, but had other courses around game design, film-making and animation as well. I’ve been working as a producer for a while, and as a game designer and product designer for ten years. 

I worked on games like Among the Sleep, which is a first-person horror game where you play as a small child. I also worked on weirder games where you play as a fly, which is called The Plan. I’ve worked on gamification and learning applications as well. [One of them is] an application called Capeesh, [which is] intended to teach immigrants the language when they’re in a new country. Now I’m working on Dustborn at Red Thread Games.

What does a game designer do? How does it differ from the work of a narrative writer, producer, developer or programmer?

Game design is such a broad field and it can be many, many things. It’s usually about working on implementing the game -- that is, using the tools written by programmers, building out events, dialogue and the content for the game. It can also be building systems for the game. 

Currently I’m working on the combat systems for Dustborn, so [I’m] figuring out how resources are gained while in combat, and how they’re being used or spent as you use your abilities and moves. In game design, I guess you call them verbs, [which are] actions that you can perform. Building the game and systems, putting pieces together -- that’s what a game designer does. 

What are some misconceptions about being a game designer?

The biggest misconception is that you play games all day, or that playing games is a skill that is really important for being a game designer, and it's not really [the case]. The most important skill is to be analytical.

Another big misconception is that you're a game designer if you have a game idea. But the concept of the game probably just [makes up] the first 0.01% of making the game, and turning that idea into reality as a game designer is a ton of hard work after that. This initial concept -- the idea that you had in the beginning -- never turns out to be [the final product]. It constantly evolves as you [develop the game].

Many people have said, "Oh, I have the greatest idea of all time. I don't want to share it because somebody would steal it." It doesn't really matter because ideas [come by the] millions, but execution is everything.

What's a typical day like for a game designer?

I come to work at eight or nine [in the morning], and have a quick start to the day: I read my emails, have a cup of coffee, think about my day [ahead] and [my tasks] yesterday, just to see what worked, what I should work on today, and problems to fix. You usually work in sprints, like a one- or two-week sprint, and working towards a goal in the end. 

At 10am, you will have your morning meetings, [where] we talk about the progress and state of [development]. After that, maybe you'll have a quick chat with your team on whatever feature you're working on. The rest of the day is mostly [spent on] working -- programming, writing code, implementing events using a state machine in the game engine or building a level. Throughout the day, you will also have smaller meetings, which are basically just check-ins. Then you will head home around five, six or seven depending on [whether] you're able to solve the problems you have. 

The worst state to be in is going home in the middle of a problem, so you really want to finish that first. It's not a nine-to-five job, but it's important to value your spare time as well. It's easy to let passion [for the job] eat into your spare time.

Game design involves a lot of collaborating with people across disciplines and roles. What skills should you pick up as a game designer?

You have to be a central point in the production, because you have to talk to [team members like] the animator and coders. As a game designer, you will talk to a lot of [people from] other disciplines to build the features or content you need. 

Sometimes [this means] going to the coders and saying that you need some sort of system, implementation or tool that will help you do your job faster, and then to animators and concept artists. Game development is probably one of the careers or industries that require the most collaboration, because you are all dependent on each other to make a full game.

What knowledge would be good for a game designer to have? I read that a game designer should also be good at maths and things like art principles.

A game designer should definitely know their basic math for sure, depending on what kind of game you make. Some games will require you to know Excel, for example. Knowing how to set up complex Excel spreadsheets to calculate how a combat scenario or progression system will work is a really useful skill. You can actually make the game in Excel, at least from a statistical point of view, before even making it in the game engine. 

You should read a lot as a game designer. You should watch a lot of movies. Study art in your spare time. It's really useful to know what looks good and feels right. And I just love the word "feeling" because in game design, that’s what it's all about in the end: how does the player feel when they play the game? Having an analytical mind is also key to being a game designer -- being able to break down works of art, and see what works and what doesn't.

You mentioned that game design is also dependent on the genre. What are the differences between designing games of different genres?

Some things, game design-wise, are applicable to all genres. But as an individual, you will tend to gravitate towards a genre. For example, I gravitate towards more narrative, emotionally-driven games -- I want to tell good stories. Just [discover] what makes sense for you as a game designer, and let yourself gravitate towards that. If you love building systems and RTS or 4X games, then make that your passion.

Do you think a programming degree is most important for a game designer? What degrees are useful?

Not necessarily. My background as a programmer enables me to be more involved in systems design. Instead of just using the systems, I can actually help build them. But as a game designer, you can come from many backgrounds. Having a literary or film-making background, [especially with] more games [taking] a film-making route, could also be useful. Variation and diversity [of skills] is always good.

You don’t need a formal education to become a game designer. There are so many fantastic resources you can look for online [to] start making games. That’s the most important thing now -- perhaps more so than when I went to school -- but you can find so many resources [and] start making games. I would actually champion the educational system a little as well because you get some structure while you learn, which you wouldn’t get for doing it alone or at home. I’ve met a lot of cool people when I was studying, who ended up becoming my colleagues at Krillbite [Studio], and making Among The Sleep together. You wouldn’t need [formal education], but I definitely would champion it.

What do potential employers look out for when hiring a game designer?

It's dependent on the type of game that the studio is making, of course, but someone who cares about their craft and [offers] something unique, somebody who's taking an approach that hasn't necessarily been done a thousand times before. It's easy to see when someone has followed the tutorial and hasn't made any alterations. I would say as a game designer, telling a unique story from your perspective is really important.

What can aspiring game designers do after graduating from university? 

As an aspiring game designer [then], I would go to a lot of game jams. The games industry has so many game jams online and on-site. In these COVID-19 days, it's hard to meet up in person, but there are so many game jams online. Make a game, or find a team and make [it together] -- that's the best way to get into the industry and learn more. Just make things.

I would probably start looking at where you want to be, and what job you want to get into. That sets yourself a goal. Building your portfolio, making smaller projects like game jams or just stuff that you do on your own, is really important. [You can also apply] for intern positions, maybe even starting [from] a different direction. Many game designers I know started in QA (Quality Assurance). It's a very typical path, because you learn how to analyse, play, break and improve the game from a tester’s point of view, which is really valuable. There are different routes, but make games that you can show to your future employer. Or you can [set up] your own game company and start on your own.

Anyone can become a game designer as long as they put in the work, and take the time to research and understand the field. If you want to become a game designer, just start making games. Start analysing games, start thinking critically about what works and what doesn't, and what new stories and perspectives can be told.

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