What is Game Design?

Apr 18

What does it mean to be a game designer, and what do they do?

Of all the disciplines of game development, game design is probably the most misunderstood by the public. Many people assume that it means programming. A few latch onto the word “design” and imagine it’s a visual discipline similar to graphic design. Sure, it can involve either or both of those things, but they aren’t the core of it.

The Cake Analogy

Think of a game as like a cake. What do you need to make a cake? Various tools such as mixing bowls and spoons. Ingredients, obviously. A recipe. An oven to bake it in.

Making a game is a bit like baking a cake.

In this analogy, the game designer is the baker. They have two roles: creating the recipe – the game specification – and mixing the ingredients. The artists, animators and audio team provide the ingredients as specified by the recipe, but it’s up to the designer to put them together in the right way.

The programmers, meanwhile, provide the tools: maybe you could mix the cake with your hands, but that would get pretty messy, so you ask them to make you a nice wooden spoon (a graphical editor for dialogue trees or whatever). The programmers also build – or at least maintain – the oven: the engine that turns your mixture into an edible cake. And then the testers sample the cake and tell you what needs improving.

Making a cake without tools gets messy fast. Same goes for games.

Game Design Skills

Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but it does highlight the importance of what can seem an ill-defined role to someone outside the industry. The game’s rules, interface, controls, story, characters, world – all of these are designed, assembled, and refined by the designers. As a result, game design requires many skills working in concert:

  • Visualisation: Most games start with a design on paper. The better you can visualise it at this stage, the fewer iterations you’ll need to get it right once you actually start building it.
  • Analysis: You will constantly be examining other games to evaluate how they achieved certain tasks, identifying successes and mistakes and transferring the lessons learned to your own game.
  • Graphic and UX Design: You’ll need to mock up dozens of UI screens for a typical game. Ideally they should be uncluttered, convey information at a glance, and feel streamlined to use.

Expect to do plenty of this sort of thing.

  • Programming and Logic: You don’t have to be an expert in C++, but you’ll probably need to use scripting languages such as Lua to build playable levels or maps.
  • Writing: If your game has a story and characters, the designers are usually the ones writing them.
  • Numeracy: If your game relies on balancing numerous stats, then being able to analyse mathematically how they interact is useful. Should bonuses be flat numbers or percentages? Should they stack additively or multiplicatively?

Wow! That’s quite a list. Maybe it looks a little daunting. But, in truth, not every designer necessarily needs expertise in every one of these skills.


In the early days of computer games, the programmer would usually be the de facto designer, and sometimes artist and animator as well. The reasons this stopped being the case are twofold.

Firstly, as games grew in number, popularity and quality, and the hardware grew more capable, players expected greater quality in every aspect of their games. It became harder for one person to learn every skill to the required level to build a successful game on their own.

Secondly, as games grew bigger and more complex, it became near-impossible for one person to have the time to do everything, even if they had the skills for it.

Grand Theft Auto V was developed by over 1,000 people across several studios.

Hence the ever-increasing specialisation of roles in the games industry: you have programmers (who on big games can further specialise as AI programmers, graphics programmers, etc); artists (often divided into concept artists, 2D and 3D artists, animators, etc); and designers (who may be level designers, UI designers, narrative designers, etc).

That’s not to say there aren’t still successful solo and multi-role developers; they’ve made a decent comeback in the indie scene, producing smaller, innovative games that don’t have to compete with the blockbusters. But by and large, designers will be able to find a niche within the game design role that suits their strengths, and build up their skills in other areas with time and practice.

Stardew Valley took Eric Barone, working solo, four years to make.

So What is Game Design?

In a nutshell, game design means planning, and then putting together, a game that people will enjoy playing. That means weighing up decisions about everything in the game, down to the last detail. Liz England put it brilliantly in her famous blog post entitled “The Door Problem”. It’s well worth a read. Go ahead; we’ve finished here.