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Do You Really Want To Be A Game Designer?

Oopsie Poopsie tiles

Oopsie Poopsie tilesDo you really want to be a game designer?

Do you want to spend night after night playing a game that’s absolute crap just to find out what’s wrong with it? Do you want to cut out 400 cards only to find out that they didn’t quite work like you intended and have to cut out 400 more? Do you want to write and document and version and test, test, test, until you’re so sick of the game that you put it away only to pull it out again the next day because you really, really, really need to finish it?

Being a game designer isn’t fun and games. It has very little to do with having fun while playing games.

Yes, it can be incredibly fun, and yes, it is (mostly) about games, but in reality it’s all about work, work, work and more work.

Harlan Elison summed it up quite nicely when asked by a person how to be a writer: “Wait a minute. Do you want to be a writer or do you want to write?”

The way to be a writer is to write. The way to be a game designer is to design games. And as in any creative pursuit it is 1 % inspiration and 99 % perspiration.

That 1% inspiration is fun. You jot down notes, imagining how great your game is going to be. Perhaps you walk around, telling everyone what a great game you’re going to make. You see it in your head, you feel it in your fingertips, all those cards, and dice, and miniatures, and combat and building and…

And the reality is that the moment you attempt to play it it falls to pieces.

Because you’re not good enough to pull off a complete game design in your head. Or perhaps you are, there are geniuses at everything. But me, I can’t pull off a complete game design in my head. Not when I started out at least.

Today I can complete simple game designs in my head and have them play in a roughly similar way to what I envision. Just the other day I completed a game in my head – it’s got 24 tiles, some of them with grass, some of them with poop. It’s called “Don’t step in the Doggie Doo”. It’s pretty simple: draw two tiles from the table, remove one that doesn’t have a poop on it and replace the other. If you can’t you’re out. It’s a bit like reverse Memory. It’s only got 24 tiles. And I almost made it play the way I thought it would play when I envisioned it. Almost. But I still don’t know if kids will like it (but, hey, it’s got poop in it)*. I don’t know if it will be fun to play once or twice or not at all. I don’t know if it’s broken, if there’s some strategy that guarantees a win (there is: don’t step in the poop). I don’t know. And the game only has 24 tiles. And almost no rules. And only two types of tiles. And, after 25 years of playing games, and almost 5 years of designing games at least somewhat seriously, I’m almost, almost able to complete it in my head.

But for all my other designs, it’s write, prototype, break and start over. Every. Damn. Time.

There’s no way around it. Perhaps if you’re rich enough you can hire people to develop your games, to do those horrid, boring playtests of broken designs. But then they’ll learn how to design games and not you.

Me, I’m down with working, working and working** some more.

And perhaps some day I won’t step in the doo.

To outsiders it looks like grand fun to be a writer. That is because outsiders never see a writer at work. The only time the general public sees a writer is when the writer is at a social gathering, a party, or signing books or giving a lecture or being interviewed. That part of being a writer truly is grand fun. But no one sees the writer sweating over a scene that simply will not come alive or stuck for the precisely right word that will make the sentence sing or simply pounding away at the keyboard, hour after hour, day after day, laboring constantly―and alone. […] the writer must be prepared for a long, lonely campaign of grinding, unremitting work. There is no other way to get the job done: You just sit there, as one author put it, open a vein and go to work.
– Ben Bova

* Since writing this post I did complete it and the kids do like it and yes it’s got poop in it. But the amount of tiles has changed and the art has changed and the rules (the two of them that there were) have changed. Oh, and it’s called “Oopsie, poopsie” now.

** I’m not actually working. I don’t get paid to do this so it doesn’t count.

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  • Zac Wooddy

    Well, it looks like you made yourself a… (puts on sunglasses) shitty game.

    Great article man, I’m juggling myself between writing a novel and learning programming to make games with my brother and sister. I stumbled onto your site here from Gamasutra and have found the place pretty inspiring. Thanks for all the wise words.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      Thanks! Glad you liked the content 🙂

      Quick tip: do both. Being a writer is a help when you design games, and writing is a good outlet for your creative energies when you have to wait for something when designing. Also: try one of the game dev engines before you learn programming. That way you can get the goods on what it’s like to be an indie developer before having to invest a lot of time up front. I use Construct 2, but there are others.

  • God help me, but I’m afraid I really want to be a game designer. I remember that when I thought I might want to be a writer, I heard people say, “No, really, do something else if you can. Save yourself. I only write because I’m incapable of NOT being a writer. If I don’t write, I’ll go crazy.” I didn’t feel that way about writing. But now I feel that way about designing games.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      God help us both – unless we get publish and then God help everyone else 😉

      On a serious note: yeah, it can be a complete and utter drag but then again I wouldn’t want to live without being able to design. The creativity and friendships you pick up along the way are great!

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