The top five traits of must-have game designers

The top five traits of must-have game designers
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

January 2nd 2014 at 3:25PM

Jagex and RuneScape executive producer Phil Mansell offers key tips on standing out as a game designer

This feature is part of New Year, New Job 2014, our month-long guide to games recruitment. You can read more at www.develop-online.net/jobs2014.

As the field of game design matures and becomes more competitive, it can be harder to stand out and make your mark. Though I now run development teams, my background is as a design lead, so I’ve done my fair share of design hiring.

I’ve found that while the obvious skills of creativity, communication, design theory and technical skills are indeed essential, more is needed to really excel. In this article I’ll share what I think are the next level of skills, which are rarer but even more valuable for designers wanting to up their game.

Visual design skills

While design documentation can be important for communicating ideas and keeping development objectives synchronised, it’s often not something the rest of the team can decipher easily. To be most effective it should be concise, clear and visual.

A designer who uses visual aids such as diagrams, sketches, flowcharts, infographics and reference material will find others can more readily understand their vision. This applies for almost all types of design work, whether it be systems, behaviour, scenarios or narrative. Such lightweight visual documentation is also much easier to keep updated as the design evolves, so it can stay a relevant resource for longer.

Opposite: Relying on lists of bullet-points or blocks of text, or relying on others to remember what was said in their last discussion.

Humility

Having both genuine humility and a drive to keep improving is a winning combination. This is a designer who relishes feedback and genuinely wants to see their ideas tested and challenged. For them it’s about the best possible result, no matter where the ideas come from or what journey their design has taken. Such an approach will not just improve the quality of the game but also foster a more collaborative spirit across the team.

Opposite: Being guarded and precious, and doing the minimal changes necessary to accommodate feedback.

Empathy

This is about being totally comfortable designing for the needs of players, rather than one’s self. Designers with this trait will look for different ways to understand their target audience, to really get inside their heads, and use those insights to craft something great for their players.

They are on alert for subjectivity, always questioning their own viewpoint and seeking to validate their assumptions of what players may think. This will give them flexibility on what type of projects they work on and increase the hit rate of their designs.

Opposite: Making the game that they want to play and treating their personal view as the universal standard.

Commercial awareness

In the era of F2P, IAP and DLC, the majority of games now have some aspect of integrated or additional monetisation. A designer who has the skills and motivation to make a game profitable as well as fun is ever more important. But this point also covers awareness of the marketplace.

Designers who have a broad understanding of the games market and who are proactive in researching the areas relevant to their game, will be able to contribute in a much more meaningful way. This includes looking for potential competitors, understanding different audience segments and being aware of the ebb & flow of gameplay trends.

Opposite: Treating ‘monetisation’ as a dirty word and not straying beyond their platform or genre of personal preference.

Production knowledge

More than most roles, a game designer’s decisions affect their whole team. The better a designer knows what demands their design places on others, the more harmonious the development is likely to be. Knowing how to shape their design to be sympathetic to production constraints will result in less wastage and better team morale. Taken in combination with the above point of commercial awareness, this means designer can make sound value judgements on the return of investment of game features, and therefore be given more trust and autonomy.

Opposite: Having only a narrow understanding of other development disciplines and not reliably being able to make trade-offs between vision and production reality.

Of course, every studio will have its own needs and each designer their own passions and specialities. What I’ve tried to do here is look at the skills that are universally important and can help a designer increase their valuable to their team.

I’m looking forward to reading what your top five traits would be!