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What’s it Like to be a Game Designer?

(This was originally a response to a question on Quora.)

Because there are so many kinds of game designers, the answer to the question is the same as the answer to many questions about game design: it depends.

The difference in experience between being a game designer who is working full time for a video game studio, someone who is an indie video game designer, and someone who is a freelance tabletop game designer such as myself, is immense. (There are a few full-time tabletop designers working for publishers, as well.)

For example, almost all of the time I can design whatever kind of game I want to design, and either I find someone to publish it, or I self publish it (which I personally do not do, but most tabletop designers do these days), or it doesn’t get published. Someone who is working as a game designer full-time may be lucky enough to work on a game they want to do, but much more likely will be working on a game that someone else decided is the one the studio needs to do. Indie video game designers tend to fall more into the freelance category in this respect, they’re on their own.

Video game designers tend to work on one game at a time, the one they’re trying to prepare to be published, while experienced tabletop designers tend to work on a lot of games in a given segment of time. The difference comes from how long it takes to get a game to a decent prototype. There is no programming or art or sound required for a tabletop game, so you can get to a good prototype relatively quickly, compared with a videogame. And from the good prototype to the final takes far longer for a video game than for a tabletop - the publisher takes care of production for the tabletop. That is, if the designer has licensed to a publisher, rather than self publishes.

Tabletop designers often spend a great deal more time involved in playtesting, than video game designers do. Much of that is because video games are designed to be played right out of the box, whereas someone has to read the rules of the tabletop game. And of course you can make as many copies as you want of a digital game at no cost, to send to playtesters. So it’s relatively easy for a video game studio to send their game out for “blind” playtesting (testing where the players have no knowledge of the development of the game). Tabletop designers spend much more time overseeing face-to-face playtesting of their games than they do actually designing them.

Video games can also go into “Early Access” or some other kind of pre-release and even post-release testing that is not possible for tabletop games.

Employment conditions in video game studios vary immensely. What Chris Crawford said 15 years ago is still true today, there are so many people who want jobs in the video game industry that the employers have supply and demand on their side; in that situation, employees are often treated poorly.

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My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/ https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

The Beta is available in some inexpensive bundles (which I thought were piracy, but are not!).

Comments

A Fortunate Circumstance

Lew,

First, thanks for the many articles, threads, and videos you've produced over the years. They have been a source of tremendous help as I navigated the waters of this profession.

Second, in response to your inquiry which I summed-up in my Subject line, I'm incredibly fortunate to have served as a developer for several publishers, most recently Stonemaier Games. It's only been a few months since becoming a published designer, but I'm incredibly fortunate to make my living outside this field.

Those who can, and that number is small, are impressive by not only their designs but on the continuous energy, drive, and passion to which they direct toward their games. What makes being a developer and designer exciting for me is that I possess complete freedom to decide where to direct my energy, drive, and passion without it having a direct effect on my livlihood.

Cheers,
Joe

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