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The Second Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2007
brainstorming graphic

Group Report: Professionalizing Game Design

Participants: A.K.A. "A Rising Tide"

Billy Cain, Critical Mass Interactive

Richard Dansky, UbiSoft
Ben Ellinger, Microsoft/Digipen Michael Fitch, THQ
Andy Megowan, iWin Division 90 Tracy Fullerton, USC
  Facilitator: David Battino, Batmosphere

Problem statement

Game design is, by some estimation, a full century behind other aspects of design. How can we define the designer’s role, standardize the expectations and necessary skill sets, and provide a framework for developing future designers to a professional standard?

Here is a brief statement of the group’s solutions to those problems

A clear design path
Establishing our standards
Who will write the book?

It is a truism at this point that game design lacks definition. Ask designers at ten different companies what their role is and what they need to know to do their jobs, and you will receive, at minimum, ten different answers. While the fluid nature of the role is one of the strengths of design, it also leads to many issues of definition, qualification, and consistency across the industry. Or, to put it more simply, there are a lot of people out there who have no idea what a designer does, more who don’t know what one’s supposed to do, and a great many more who don’t know what it takes to be one. And that’s leaving aside those individuals who claim to be designers but aren’t.

This leaves the role of the designer dangerously vulnerable. Since there is no agreement on what a designer is or does, there are no guidelines in place for how to train new designers – what sort of curricula to put in place, what skills and knowledge they’ll need, and so forth. As a result, we run the risk of shortchanging not only those students who want to become designers, but also games themselves, as we’re not putting the next generation of designers in a position to succeed to the best of their ability.

Similarly, the lack of standards and best practices in design impacts existing studios and games, both internally and through the hiring process. While it may be cynical to note that “everyone thinks they can design”, the fact remains that design is perhaps the least quantifiable of the development disciplines. Engineers can point to code; artists to assets, but designers have, at best, documentation to show what they have actually done. And without concrete evidence of what it is that we as designers do, it’s going to remain an uphill struggle to demonstrate that design is a unique and important skill set.

The challenge ahead is how to professionalize game design, both as a craft and as a career. Under that rubric, we can then examine questions of standards, base knowledge, education, certification, and other aspects of the field that are worthy of debate and attention.

Action item list


Who’s Responsible

Due Date





Recover from having to deal with this




Post outline for Understanding Game Design book on his website




Was: Short film on exposing game design myths IS regular column on game design issues.




Coordinate with academic institutions – Full Sail, Austin Community College, Game Camp, St. Edwards University – to support game design ed.




Complete report for publication; write about game design to outside audiences




Advocate for professional game design practices through direct contact with developers.




Continue to foster a culture of professionalism through education that will carry through to the game industry over time.

Statement of Clarification

Looking at the action item list, one thing that is notable by its absence is a “big-ticket” item, an overall goal that the group can point to as our brass ring. This is deliberate, intentional, and a natural outgrowth of the group discussion.

To explain, let us look at a specific example. One of the ideas discussed was the possibility of certification of game designers as to their design skills. While it’s certainly an approach worth examining in terms of raising the overall skill level of the profession, it does create some cascading issues. Who does the certification? Designers? They’re too busy designing. That leaves it in the hands of an organization designed to do the certification, and if the members of that organization are certifying, they’re not designing, and their allegiance ultimately goes back to the organization as opposed to the craft of design. And so it goes – each problem raised with a single, central solution raises a host of other issues.

In addition, proposing single, central solutions to a decentralized, vibrant field is in large part a fool’s errand. There is no place at which we can look and say “We’ve done it; we’ve professionalized design.” Design will continue to grow, evolve and change, and games will be the better for it, even as any hard-and-fast solutions we come up with are left in the dust.

What, if anything, should we do?  How do we address the issues that brought the group together?  They are real and important issues, worthy of consideration and addressing, and the consequences of leaving them entirely to their own devices has clearly proven unsatisfactory thus far.

And that leads to The Rising Tide. We agree that, yes, the problems need to be solved. However, we’re not the ones to solve them. Indeed, the days of a small group sitting in a room and dictating solutions to the game developing masses are long gone, if indeed they ever existed.

But if not us, then who?

We firmly and strongly believe that these issues will be worked out by the game design community itself. Ultimately, they have to be, or the community will cease to exist in any meaningful way. Any solution imposed from the outside won’t fit; it needs to be developed by the very people who need the solution, one issue and one instance at a time.

This is not, however, an abdication of any responsibility on our part toward seeking a more professional state of game design. The group members are unified in our commitment to working toward solutions. It’s just that we’re focused on what can best be described as grassroots level change, raising awareness of the issues and attacking problems one at a time in order to promote the culture of change throughout the profession.

What does this mean? Potentially, it means a lot more work than individual, big-box goals might have been. Rather than coming up with a single recommended curriculum for game design programs, it means working with individual programs, to support their needs. Rather than coming up with a single manifesto about what it is to be a designer, it means continually writing pieces that help advance the definition and distinction of the role. It means advocacy and PR and a continual effort, not just from ourselves but, with luck, from those we come in contact with and influence.

Expanded problem statement

The state of game design in the industry is not quite what it could be. Educational programs don’t necessarily know what to teach aspiring designers, or have the support and process in place they need to do so. Too many “game designers” have no real craft or sense of design. Individuals with no track records but massive senses of entitlement want to skip directly to lead roles on AAA titles. There aren’t enough programs for developing or mentoring designers through professional advancement, and few if any programs in place to allow designers to continue their education in their field. Competition trumps collaboration in too many instances, forcing designers to constantly re-invent the wheel because techniques cannot or will not be shared across company lines. Too many individuals with knowledge of design don’t return that knowledge to the community, and those outside the design community have no clear sense of what it is designers actually do. Design itself is handled poorly, both by those in a position to manage or direct it, and by those who need to collaborate with or support it.

In short, design is beset by enemies both within and without, some of them of our own making. How, then, can we do the following:

  • Raise the basic competence of professional game designers
    • Better game designers means better games
  • Lay out clear career paths for a game designer
    • Make it easier to work as a designer
    • Make it easier to work with other designers
    • Make it easier to train people who want to be designers
    • Make it easier to move from one institution to another
    • Make it easier to find the right job
  • Make it easier to be a rock star
  • Make it easier for studios with ineffective design leadership to improve their designs
  • Make it easier to keep people from meddling in design – the “everyone can design” problem

Expanded solution description

We have identified a set of strategies to move the discipline of game design to a more professional state.

  • Provide clarity about pathways
    • Set expectations on design work
    • Establish definitions for game designer core competencies
      • Systems design
      • Content design
      • User interaction design
      • Communicating design
      • Versatility
    • Reach out to diverse communities
    • Instigate the “Understanding Comics” of game design
  • Establish standards
    • You must BATHE – and otherwise be able to interact socially with your professional peers
    • Becoming a game designer is hard; it should be hard
      • “You must be this tall/qualified to design this game”
      • Establishing our Voight-Kampff test
    • Ethics
      • Crediting
      • Collaboration
    • Ongoing professional development
      • Design
      • Management of Designers
    • Standardizing of levels, if not titles
      • Entry-level/AA/junior
      • Mid-level/BA/senior
      • High-level/MA/lead designer – Individual Contributor
      • Master Designer/PhD/Director – Field Expert
  • Improve the quality/usefulness of game design education
    • Practical and effective training in core skills
    • Curriculum standards/program certification
    • Separating analysis from professional training
    • Apprenticeship/interns
    • Curriculum development and communicating educational needs
    • Get working designers to visit the academy
  • Push for a culture of excellence
    • Compete on product, not process
    • Canon of design best practices
    • Quarterly journal?
    • Design gems
    • Sabbaticals to teach/cross train/research
  • Construct a network for designers to consult, reference & draw upon
    • Cross-studio community
    • Yearly awards show – not “the most popular/best selling”
      • Most Important Failure
      • Most creative use of standard interfaces
      • Most Transcendental Experience
      • Farthest Out in Left Field
      • Rising Star
    • Mentoring opportunities
      • Internal to companies
      • Cross-company
      • Working with schools
  • Represent design to the public – education and policy advocacy
    • Outreach
      • Go out into the schools
      • Serve on advisory boards
    •  Publicity
      • Highlight the positives
      • Disrupt misconceptions
        • Having an idea is not the same as being a game designer
        • You cannot tighten the graphics on level three
      • Tell compelling stories about game design

We intend this framework to be distributed as widely as possible, so that the at-large design community can look at it, adapt it to their needs, and hopefully drive it forward.

In other words, we’re turning it loose. Let’s see what happens. Hopefully, something good.

Items from the brainstorming lists that the group thought were worth reporting

Areas of interest

  • Ways to teach design – a basic outline for what an intro game design class would look like
    • Design is taught in other disciplines, should be able to borrow from that
    • Ongoing professional development
      • Training – design & management
  • Establish standards for being a designer; eliminate the sense of entitlement – use core competence and qualifications as a measuring stick
    • You can teach a skill, not talent
    • You can teach attitude…
  • What is the art, what is the craft of design?
    • Separating design into two buckets helps gets us closer to a design
  • What does designer mean?
    • Need to think about design rank & file, as well as design leaders
    • People who are numbers/details focused as well as concept/vision focused
  • Look at other industries (production design for films, architects, etc.) that provide gating requirements, peer review, etc.
    • Also about pride & community in the field
    • Exploring what a guild might do is worth doing
  • Watching people re-invent the wheel
    • Reference to keep from making the same mistakes
    • Sharing information
    • Representing the role of game design properly
    • Professional conduct within the company/between studios
  • “We are all in this industry and we are competing on our product, not on our process”

HASSLES (@set rant=OK)

  • Level of design out there in the industry is, and I quote, “crap”
    • People called designers who can’t design; people in management roles over designers who don’t know design
    • Need to bring up level of design in general, and we need to find a way to get people who understand design into positions of power
    • “The less you know about something, the more you overestimate what you know about it”
    • “a bunch of draftsmen & no architect”
  • Video games are about a century behind the theme park industry…
    • Study parallel industries
    • Look at design-centered industries, particularly those that deal with a lot of collaboration
    • There have got to be “levels of being an architect”
    • Can we not talk about movies when we do this?
  • “Why are there no games about game designers making games?”
    • There’s one.
    • Game design ain’t fun
    • Driven by innovation and coming up with what doesn’t exist
  • What the hell is a designer, anyway?
    • Do we need another word between “game” and “designer”?
    • Define the different roles, come up with meaningful definition
    • Difference between big box games & casual games in terms of how you build a designer
    • Define skill sets
  • Game design is not about coming up with cool ideas, God dammit.
    • “Tell everyone you know, an idea is not a design”
    • A feature is not a game
  • Balance and tuning
  • System design – systems, not levels and features and shiny happy sequelitis
  • “tasks allowed as you move up the ladder” – gradation of responsibility
  • Musician analogy – core skills that translate
  • DigiPen doesn’t teach game design; USC exactly the opposite
    • Digipen – want to offer them a real game design curriculum
    • Even just having a detailed thinking through of what different kinds of designers are

What does “maintaining the vision” mean?
            Any time an issue comes up, they are consulted; does another decision need to be made?
Can be chunked down into manageable pieces

Ideas versus design – imagination is not a core skill for most working designers and yet is the #1 focus for most people who want to be designers

Develop image of prototypical game designer – what are the characteristics
Curious about the world; engaged with issues inside and outside of industry
“A designer is a mechanic” – the person who understands the workings of the system and plans them and executes them?
Mechanics are something that you can teach some people
            Deconstruct systems
            Teaching people how to design a system that’s “just flawed enough to be fun”
What do you need to know about to be a designer?
            (Bloody academics talking about production process like they know how it works when they don’t)
            Split theoretical and practical sides of game study
            Bandwagon-jumping programs without sufficient expertise on board
            Certification for programs? (would be for professional programs – accreditation reviews?)

Who are the people we need to get to change their practices?

  • Universities
  • Studios
    • Publishers
    • Dev houses
  • Clients
  • Designers
  • HR directors
  • Producers
  • Students

We need game designers to take the time to teach
Time to integrate

Should we have a section of education/educational hassles?
USC – melding between professional degree and university degree
School offers high level of contact with professionals

Those of us who are designers have a responsibility to define what we do, both for students and peers
Define a set of terms

Start with the basics
What do you need to be able to do to be a game designer?
What do you need to know?

  • Have to be able to design a system
  • Balance and tune system to where it provides desired experience
  • Effective at communicating design to other people
    • Prototyping
    • Documenting
    • Leading discussion
    • Playtesting
    • Tuning
    • Soliciting, synthesizing, and integrating feedback
  • Being effective at communicating with a wide variety of people
      • Be able to talk algorithms & systems with programmers
      • Be able to talk artistic impact with artists – tone, lighting, scene composition
      • Usability experts
      • Etc.
  • Be able to do UI design
  • Be able to translate from a design concept to a player experience
  • Be able to integrate multiple systems harmoniously
  • Be able to see your paper designs all the way through the project
  • Extrapolate and edit
  • Need to have the capacity to make every decision on a game
  • Powerpoint
  • Game systems analysis (?)
  • Basic math skills
  • Writing ability
  • Core social skills
    • BATHE
    • Listening skills
    • Common vocabulary/appreciation of the history and precedent
    • Interacting with other human beings
  • Practice your craft regularly
  • Must play games, but doesn’t have to like them
    • Analyzing the player experience
    • Not focusing too much on your own experience
      • Be ready to design a game that is NOT FOR YOU
    • See what other people like in it
    • Player research
    • Empathy
  • Understanding the customer/target market
  • Ready and ambitious to contribute to the advancement of the field?
  • Ability to take criticism well
  • Giving effective criticism

Scale out what designers need to know in terms of level?

Core skills versus secondary skills
Don’t need all secondary skills, but you’d better have a bunch of them

General background
Economics, history, psychology, management

(yay peer reviews!)

Issues with being able to demonstrate progress – we don’t have anything concrete to show

Peer review across companies – how do you compare?
AAA versus casual

Profiles of leading game designers?
G4 series, Italian books, some magazine coverage
Most game designers are completely unsung, many of the ones doing the press aren’t doing the work

Game design is “more like architecture than movies or other media”

GIVE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE! Be gracious ‘cause you didn’t do it by yourself.

Warren’s doing “Actor’s Studio” for gamedevs

Need to be able to tell compelling stories about game development
            Stories about people and interaction
Educate while keeping the “rock star element”
A designer has to do more than just the one awesome thing that you love
            Be prepared to work outside your interest
            Be open-minded
            Find a way to enjoy what you’re doing
(Play the games you hate)
Important to be able to play games and identify what’s broken AND what works and why
            Flawed games are a great resource
            Wild Wild West movie is a great example of “hitting all the notes and still making a turd”
Be able to synthesize references (i.e., steal well)

Having an intellectual sounding board is imperative to progressing
Getting around the isolation – forums for discussion
Other industries have professional journals

How many game designers are there in North America?
Enough to support the journal?
Would be read by wannabes and professionals

“We suck at it”
Design has a tremendous amount to be learned by sitting in the back watching a guy do the work
(Cheap labor)
            Cost is in time, space, equipment
Works with progression through layers of responsibility
No interning/apprenticeship without commitment to mentoring
            No model for mentoring
Degree is supposed to replace apprenticeship
            Means that the degrees have to have a methodology for replacing apprenticeship

About design as a profession

Degree does not replace apprenticeship – it may give you a leg up, but it’s still going to require you to go through reporting to someone else

Farm team model
            EA Tiburon and UCF program
            Are there non-academic ways to build a farm team/apprenticeship opportunity

We need to discourage people from becoming game designers
            Raise obstacles, make it hard – weed out the ones who are not cut out for the reality of the role
            Conversely, attract unusual people who don’t want to remake the last good game they played

Design would benefit from greater diversity (background as well as gender/race/orientation/etc.)

Cross-studio development issues
Communication! Communication! Communication!
            Walking the virtual floor?
            Do the face to face if possible?
            Assumption of good faith on everyone’s part – it’s not always there
Standardizing expectations will help communications
Ethical issues need to be discussed
“Vision and Supervision”


  • Our own goofy-ass awards
  • “Best game you ain’t never heard of”
  • Don’t let the marketing guys get all the awards

Big elements to break everything into…
Academic Initiatives
Game Guild for Designers
Levels of Responsibility
            Vision and Supervision
Core Messages to Convey about Design
Professional Ethics

Exclusivity is a key
            “You must be this tall to enter”
The broad changes in role from entry-level to the top
            Needs to be built into apprenticeship & academic program – plan and prepare for the growth

Day 2

Benjamin – broke out design into five areas

  • System design
  • Content design
  • User experience design
  • Communication
  • Versatility

Titles – do they translate? Every studio takes a different approach.
Level/badges that would translate across companies?

Are we being bold enough?
Our role is to clean up, not to push boundaries?
“Necessary, not exciting”
Guild notion – bolder, more sweeping?
“How do we consolidate solutions to existing problems to meet people’s needs”

If we can answer the question of “what is a game designer”, the other answers will fall out of it.

Providing a clear path through the field of game design
Establishing accepted standards of game design
Improving the quality and usefulness of game design education

  • Sharing game design lessons & best practices
    • Common lexicon and common points of reference – a touchstone
  • Educate the public – educate a few, and it spreads – that’s what the touchstone does – “Understanding Game Design” is what we want
  • Needs to be comprehensive, accessible, written in English, one author with sufficient cred (but not so much that it overwhelms the book’s content), needs to be targeted at kids & their parents or we’ll lose ‘em early, little to no cultural reference (as timeless as possible)
  • Supporting work – “Game Design Gems” – a living work of design solutions
  • Let the world know that there are jobs & careers in game design, and not just for beardy white guys who started programming on TRS-80s in their basements while listening to Adam Ant.
  • Providing the road map for students AND parents
  • Need to do outreach
  • We also need to do our own PR for what we’re doing
  • The Justice League of Game Design (Michael Fitch = Batman)
  • The designer label
  • Articulate a way to see the problem – we spend a lot of time spinning/reinventing wheels

Reading List

  • Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
  • On War, Von Clausewitz
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
  • The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski
  • The Art of Computer Game Design, Chris Crawford
  • A History of Architecture, Spiro Kostov
  • The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander
  • Blade Runner

section 7

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select a section:
1. Introduction  2. Speakers  3. Executive Summary  
4. FabulaRasa: Story in Games
5. Games that Encompass a Diverse and Unusual Range of Emotions
6. Interactive Natural Language Artistic Experiences
7. Professionalizing Game Design
8. Schedule & Sponsors