So you want to Frolic in the Field of Game Design

5 essential tips for junior game designers

Game design is fun! It’s also not as easy as it may appear at first glance. Many people view game design as all about the ideas, but designing a game is more about planning, anticipating, and structuring, rather than simply drawing from the infinite font of one’s imagination.

If game design is a field in which you want to frolick, there are some stumbling blocks to watch out for! Here are 5 common mistakes to avoid and solutions to turn toward instead.

TIP #1: Remember you are making a game for an audience

The Mistake: Making a game for yourself

Build it and they will come! Do you have an idea that you think will revolutionize the industry? Maybe you are frustrated by design issues in your favorite game; maybe your objective is to create the next gold standard for that genre!

What leads to this mistake?

Passion-driven projects are so motivating that one can lose sight of who the game is for. A junior game designer with a lot of gaming experience may be tempted to translate their individual experience into a list of wants and won’ts to include in their dream game. However, this approach can limit the audience for your game.

How does this impact the game?

When you design a game using yourself as the model for what players want, there’s a good chance that your game will end up with an audience of one. This approach leads to junior designers making games that, while based on a great idea, have a mismatch between audience and gameplay. When games are constructed on a unique mix of individual experiences, chances are, no one will play them for long.

If your best ideas are mixed together without a vision of who your game is for, you may end up with a product similar to Homer Simpson’s car design!

Image credit: Fox

What’s the solution?

The Solution: Understand who your game is for.

A junior designer may bring great game ideas to the table, but if you want success, it’s critical to make sure that you have an audience of players who want your product.

Do your research: look at the top charts, trending games, underserved audiences, and nostalgia resurgences to inform your game’s development. Consult a marketing professional to help you define who the game is for, and validate that your intended audience exists.

TIP #2: Ideas fail and die all the time; don’t get too attached

The Mistake: Thinking a game designer is only as good as their ideas.

Designers have a tendency to defend their ideas like their life depends on it. And we get it – it can be hard to hear criticism of your ideas, even when someone is giving feedback that could improve your game in the long run. However, being open to others’ ideas and improvement suggestions does not necessarily mean compromising your vision.

What leads to this mistake?

As game designers, we’re passionate about what we do, and sometimes it can feel like criticism of your idea is actually criticism of your value as a designer.

Oftentimes designers attach their self-worth to their ideas. It’s common to feel that if your idea is rejected, it means you are a bad designer. This typically happens early in one’s career, when a junior designer feels they need to ‘risk it all’ to prove themselves.

This trap can also plague senior game designers, but for different reasons. Seniority may lead designers to believe that their years of experience directly correlate to the quality of their ideas, making them unwilling to consider suggestions from more junior team members.

How does this impact the game?

The tendency to defend an idea often stems from a fear that taking suggestions will compromise the designer’s original vision. But bad ideas are actually more likely to make it into the game when designers are close-minded to opinions other than their own.

In many cases, maintaining too much control over an idea leads to a worse game than it could have been.

What’s the solution?

The Solution: Good game designers listen to all ideas.

The reality is that we all have our own biases, blindspots, and style: this limits the diversity of ideas one can have.

Ideas come from anywhere. EVERYONE will have ideas for the game you design. The role of a game designer is not to come up with all the ideas, but rather to select the ones that best fit the vision for the game. Even if your original idea turns out to be the best option–and even if the feedback received is not valuable–the worst that can happen is you gain confidence in the original idea.

TIP #3: Your design documents are tools, not novels.

The Mistake: Peppering design documentation with backstory.

Junior–and not-so-junior–designers who are narratively-inclined often tend to lose themselves in their passion. They may be tempted to include pages and pages of world-building in their design documentation, to ensure that their vision for the game comes across to those they are working with.

What leads to this mistake?

It is no secret that lots of game designers are closet writers. I am guilty of this myself! The problem arises when designers use their game designs as an opportunity to showcase their narrative skills.

How does this impact the game?

Design documentation is a tool created for a specific audience–the game designer’s team. They need to be able to refer to it to understand the specifics of the game’s code, illustrations and interface. Your team is unlikely to refer back to your design documentation if key elements of the game’s mechanics are buried in walls of text.

What’s the solution?

Write your design documentation with your teammates’ needs in mind. If you do have the desire to expand on the world and narrative setting for your game, it’s recommended to do so in its own dedicated documentation, separate from your design documentation.

The Solution: Treat design documents as tools, not literature.

TIP #4: Your design improves if you let it simmer.

The Mistake: Designing at the last minute.

Time is often a luxury in game development. This means that oftentimes, the game designer delivers a proposed feature to their team 10 minutes before the kick-off meeting.

What leads to this mistake?

Game designers are creative, and creative people are notorious for being champions of procrastination! However, delivering an idea at the last minute means that the designer does not give themselves the time to discover the limitations and opportunities of their design.

How does this impact the game?

Remember that first drafts are never perfect! Waiting until the last minute can prevent you from taking time to reflect on your design, leading to missed flaws, issues and use cases which can translate into longer production time and less effective gameplay.

What’s the solution?

The Solution: Let your designs simmer before serving.

Take time away from your design while working on it so that you can look at it with fresh eyes. It’s not simply about iteration; it’s about letting your guts do some thinking while you do something else. Here’s a technique that works for me. I do my designs in three moments: initial thoughts, first draft, final draft. In between those moments, I work on something else, sometimes for days.

The key is to make sure you can have the proper critical distance to review your own work before sharing with others. If short on time, ask a colleague for feedback!

Image credit: Hyper Hippo Entertainment

TIP #5: Mini-games are not a cure-all.

The Mistake: Assuming that your game needs mini-games.

When it’s time to suggest a new feature to add to a game, the go-to response for many junior designers is to add a mini-game.

MINI-GAMES, DEFINED: a mini-game here means a piece of gameplay that plays differently from the rest of the game and is usually self-enclosed. For example, in AdVenture Capitalist, a mini-game could be a hangman-style word activity.

What leads to this mistake?

A mini-game is like a band-aid; it feels like an easy suggestion because it functions as independent gameplay. This means that, in theory, adding a mini-game doesn’t require a complex understanding of how it fits into your existing gameplay.

Some designers may think of mini-games as more fun to work on because it can feel more creative to build something new rather than modifying something that already exists. In truth, iterating existing features can be just as fun, but is a more difficult task.

Image credit:

How does this impact the game?

Pulling off incorporating a mini-game into an existing product is surprisingly hard. Making the mini-game fun is easy; the challenge is coming up with gameplay that aligns with the player’s motivations for engaging with your product.

A mini-game can easily break the flow from the game and be felt as an interruption–something artificial or disruptive to the game itself. Even if fun, it can be detrimental to the whole if not done thoughtfully.

What’s the solution?

A mini-game is not always the wrong choice; however, it should be considered carefully, alongside other options, when adding a new feature to an existing game.

Any new feature or change needs to be designed with a masterful understanding of the current gameplay, audience, performance measurement, and many other criteria. A good mini-game addition will feel like it was always part of the game.

The Solution: Weave new features into your game, instead of tacking them on.

I hope that these 5 simple tips will help you succeed in your game design endeavors. At the core, game design is all about learning and improving. It’s about being open-minded and collaborative, even when imposter syndrome rears its ugly head.

Even if you have the skills and affinity for game design, and have mastered the essential techniques, it’s still easy to fall into the traps referenced here. As a designer with over 16 years experience, I still find I need to guard myself from them! Being aware of these pitfalls–the warning signs, the impact, and the alternatives–will help you develop your skills as a designer while avoiding these common mistakes.