How To Be a Games Developer

For a while Dennis has been bugging me to address a question Max sent to him via the email. It’s a subject I’ve been asked about often over the years and it’s never an easy one to answer:

“It’s more of a question of getting into games design. Now, I’m sure you have been asked this question to death but I thought I would ask anyway and it’s not specifically related to Games Workshop.

 

I’m currently attempting to develop a war-game but its taking longer than I thought due to other commitments. I find it very hard to move away from [my influences] in order to produce something different. Did you ever suffer from this problem or something similar when doing independent works?  

But going back to the question, I’m guessing the best bet is to just get out there, meet people and generally submit stuff? But as a developer / writer I was wondering if there was anything else you found along the way such as balancing or adding telling a story in a specific way in order to develop a successful game? As well as any other tips of the trade on wrangling a job as a games designer (anywhere) and the other roles that it involves?”

 

I’ll start with the caveat that my experience of the wider games development industry is mostly second-hand, from the privilege of talking to many other games designers over the years at conventions and such. However, there are similarities between their stories and mine.

First off, if you want to work for GW games development it is simply a case of keeping an eye out for the recruitment adverts. Occasionally a position will open for an Assistant Games Developer (or Trainee Games Developer in the most recent recruitment). I am surprised by people that asked me how to get into the GW Design Studio only weeks after a position was advertised on the website. For Games Development that’s probably the only way. The same is true for other established games manufacturers, most do their work in-house for the reasons I’m about to go into.

In wider terms, if you have a sci-fi or fantasy miniatures game in mind, there are some very specific obstacles. The greatest of these is that such a game needs miniatures! If you write an historical rules set you can use the vast wealth of independent manufacturers to provide miniatures for you. You might be able to interest a company, or at the end of the day self-publish and hope it goes well.

Those companies that produce sci-fi or fantasy miniatures generally do so with either a specific ruleset, a specific universe, or both. Their goal is generally to continue to expand and develop their intellectual property and games system. So, your first big question is who is going to make the miniatures? In this regard you are not only selling the idea of the rules set and imagery but asking a company to invest in the design and continued development of the miniatures range.

With a wargame that is tied to a specific range of miniatures there are many considerations that impact upon your games design decisions, and will also influence the imagery you want to explore. The foremost of these is how is it going to be made and packaged? Questions of scale, for example, will limit what is physically possible, as will cost of production – there is no point creating rules for miniatures that cannot be made at a profit with the materials available. In a sci-fi setting, vehicles tend to be the real difficulty here – large models that will weigh a lot and be expensive to produce and purchase if made in resin or white metal. If you want to create a game with gigantic battling robots the size of skyscrapers, for example, then you’re not going to want to produce it in 28mm scale!

The other key question is that of sustainability. From the outset you must decide if the miniatures range is finite or not. If it is not finite, what mechanisms are you going to create to allow the continued expansion of the rules set and miniatures range? Is it a rulebook, a series of rulebooks, boxed sets, blisters, both? How do players collect the forces they will use? Do they purchase complete ‘elements’at a time, or are the components built up over several purchases. To give a specific example, let’s say you have a unit of lazergun-wielding Galactic Infantrymen. Do they have optional equipment and how is this made available to the collector? Is there a variable squad size?  If you’re writing a miniatures wargame, you have to bear in mind all of the practical issues of collecting a force. Is a force infinitely expandable like a 40K army, or is there a real or implied ceiling, such as a Blood Bowl team? How many factions give you enough variety to collect without creating a range that is impossible for stores to stock? What is the minimum outlay for a customer before they have a battle-ready force?

That seems like really dull stuff, doesn’t it? If you think these aren’t questions for the games designer to answer, it’s going to be very difficult. Writing some rules and background, whilst challenging, is not the be-all-and-end-all of designing a miniatures game. Having those things is a little bit further on from a ‘good idea’ but only a little in terms of what needs to be sorted out before you have a marketable game and miniatures range.

So, you need to have a plan – and be flexible about it – to present to companies. This is my game, which uses a miniatures range that looks like this, and can expanded like this. If you can get a company to buy into your proposal as viable for marketing and production, then you can start worrying about the details of how things actually move around the table and what they look like…

If the game is picked up and established, it may be the case that some of these practical responsibilities are taken on by other folks such as sales managers, but when developing your game you have to continually bear them in mind. An idea is only good if it can be made and people can buy it.

Target Audience

All of this talk about marketability and such may sound a little evil and corporate. It is, and it isn’t. First and foremost, design a game and background that you enjoy. Don’t think about target audiences, or demographics or any of that. Write a game that you want to play. When you’ve done that, work out why it appeals to you and so therefore what sort of other people (who are like you) will it appeal to. You can’t do this sort of thing for an abstract reason, it has to come from ownership and genuine pleasure. If anyone asks who your target audience is just say, ‘People who are like me’.

Making It Original

As discussed on other subjects, the question of originality is one that often comes up. I’ll say now, whatever you come up with will not be original. However, it can be unique. Big robots are not original. The particular rendition and portrayal of big robots can be.

Uniqueness comes on two scales: big picture and little details. In big picture terms you can rely on transposition and juxtaposition to create something unique. Transposition is straightforward enough, it is simply taking an existing idea or image and moving it to a different place: the Roman empire in space; a space pirates game; baseball in space; time-travelling big game hunters. There’re loads of ideas to mine, and it’s prevalent throughout all forms of fiction.

In fact, it’s been done a lot, sometimes to death. Space Samurai, Space GIs, Space Knights, Space Cowboys, Space Celts… Bring in juxtaposition to add variety and depth. Simply directly translating the legions of Rome and their barbarian foes into space is step one. Adding in elements that did not exist in the original iteration (excluding the obvious technological differences) adds spice and uniqueness. The barbarians are not other humans at all, but rather strange plant-based lifeforms with a barbaric culture. Or the legions of Rome are zombie-like automatons under the control of a psychic elite. Or it’s actually a spaceship game based on these principles rather than ground warfare. Or… You get the point. Uniqueness comes from taking a step further than simple transposition, and another step, and another until you have a concept that is still based upon the strong idea but is far enough removed that it has become its own thing.

On the other end of the scale is the detail. If our space legions were literally Romans with lazerguns, that would be a bit weak. What stylings of the Roman legionary can you keep whilst pushing the unique interpretation of it? In this regard you must learn to look at what elements of an image are archetypal and which can be changed. It’s kind of like having an infant eye again – see what’s important and recognisable uncluttered by everything else you know to be true. We know that there’s no such thing a typical legionary across the breadth of Republican and Imperial Rome, because things changed, some of them quite dramatically. However, ask a reasonably educated kid what a Roman is and he’ll say a square shield and a crested helmet. He might even say sandals. Those are what you retain in general form. Everything else should be modified to add the flavour of the setting.

The Old Adage

As I always wrap up this sort of thing, my advice is just to do it. Try and fail and learn and try again. Most writers start out because they love writing, Most games developer start out because they like playing games and are interested in how systems work. Film directors like movies. Passion cannot be learnt, skills and experience can. Create what you want to create, and only after that start making the necessary commercial compromises.

I’ll get onto ‘telling a story’ at a later date…

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What Gav’s essentially saying is that miniatures games begin with miniatures, not rules – there’s no getting away from that.

    If you’re trying to get into games design generally – rather than setting out with the burning ambition to have one particular idea of your own brought into being – then one thing you can consider is approaching companies to see if they’ll let you write a game for their miniatures. There are manufacturers out there who produce ranges of miniatures – even sci-fi, fantasy and adventure ones – for which they produce no game. Start off somewhere like The Miniatures Page (http://theminiaturespage.com/) and see which miniatures ranges interest you, which ones you think you could come up with good ideas for, see if the manufacturer already has a game or games, and then get in touch with them to discuss offering your ideas. Responses will vary – some companies simply won’t have the resources to publish a game anyway, so no matter how interested they are, it won’t be of any use to you. Many companies will already have their own games or plans for them, designed in house. If you’re lucky, though, you might just find a company interested in having someone write a game for their miniatures range.

    More generally, you need to learn to design games and to demonstrate you can do that. Write some games – simple little ones will do, play them with your friends, see how they work, change them to make them work better and put them on the internet. Most games designers – and this certainly includes both Gav and myself – will probably have written one games for every one that was ever published. Being a games designer, as opposed to being the creator of a particular fantasy world or whatever, really means designing a lot of games to try out different things. You don’t need to have broken into the industry to do that – you can do it right now, more so than ever in the age of the internet.

    Matt

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  2. Thanks both Matt and Gav for the advice, its extremely helpful and given me a few new directions to go in. At the moment ive basically written one or two little games for a local club and to play with friends.

    Addressing the miniatures was something i hadn’t considered. On my latest project which is being play tested at the moment, this questions did pop into my head and i wondered how i was going to get around this. I originally intended for it to be used with any other miniatures, but because they all have their own different themes its hard to change the imagery i set out from my project. I shall start hunting around for small sculptors / companies and pestering them to let me write rules for them, that is something i never considered.

    I guess as well it takes alittle bit of luck and timing with these things being in the right place at the right time. Even if i don’t make it big, i still have fun creating things which is the most important part i think.

    But again cheers for the advice its given me some food for thought! Plus if anyone wants to see any of my ideas drop me a line! (shameless plug)

    Max

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  3. Thanks Matt, that’s a very practical approach compared to my philosophical meanderings!

    GAV

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  4. [quote]or Trainee Games Developer in the most recent recruitment[/quote]

    This was a really interesting article for me to read, being as I was amongst the last eight of the GW ‘Trainee’ recruitment batch you mention (You may recall me as the chap with the terrible haircut and magnetic Elysian Drop Trooper).

    – Ben S. (Currently messing around with rules for giant fighting robots)

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  5. Well, having worked for (and been sacked by) pretty much all of the UK’s larger wargames manufacturers (twice, in most cases), it happens to be one area where do I have a bit of practical advice to give.

    Matt

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  6. I’m not sure how applicable this is to the UK, but do you folks have any comments on the “Game Design” degrees that have been popping in higher education the past few years?

    (I’ll hold my opinion for now)

    Thanks,
    Mike

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  7. Hi Ben!

    Yes I do remember your mad Elysians – that’s just the sort of obsessiveness that stands you in good stead as a games developer.

    Giant robots are still my favourite thing in sci-fi. I started out with GW games playing Adeptus Titanicus, and fondly remember BattleTech too! I blame Robotech (or Macross Saga) in my formative years, 7.30 on a saturday morning on Super Channel…

    Best of luck with it, any questions just holler.

    GAV

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  8. Lost_Heretic:

    The biggest market for games developers is in computer games, and from the little I have read about these courses that’s going to be the general career path after completing one. The number of established card/ board/ war games designers who move onto computer games is quite high and much of the disciplines are the same.

    If I were to spend three years of my life in education studying games design, that would be the more secure route upon graduation – only a relative handful of folks are ever going to make ‘proper’ money from writing ‘traditional’ games. Not everyone gets to be Reiner Knizia, James Earnest or Klaus Teuber.

    I would guess the growth in the availability and popularity of the courses is down to the maturation of the computer games industry. Development studios began as small, tightly-knit teams of enthusiastic, geeky individuals making it up as they went along. Nowadays a studio is seen as a viable start up business for investors (though how viable I think is actually up for debate). With the big bucks now sploshed around the industry (more turnover than Hollywood, some reports claim) the need for qualified professionals in the future will only grow. Those who founded the development companies are now creative directors, senior designers and such and they need the fresh blood to come in after them to do the day-to-day work.

    The appeal to employers is certainly there, as evidenced by some of the job ads I have perused over the last couple of months. That said, I suspect that even with a degree under your belt the route is likely to be the same as before – level designer, games designer, lead designer – though perhaps with a quicker run up the ladder. It’s not like there’s a shortage of people trying to get into the industry. Like any vocational degree, its value is dependant upon the person that holds it.

    GAV

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