Fancy cars, late night parties, gold necklaces. Who doesn’t want that life? However, you have your mind set on becoming a game designer. No worries. There is still hope.
There are several paths to stardom available. The first is to develop an amazingly innovative game and get lucky enough to have someone see it that has enough faith and resources to run with it. If you set out on this path, be advised that it can take many years and your chance of success is fairly small. A more realistic path, but much less glamorous, is to work your way up in the industry. But before I go into that, let me enlighten you on what the final prize looks like.
Most readers of this column have played Dungeons and Dragons at some point and are familiar with the various publications. One of my old favorites was a book called Deities and Demigods. A Demigod is basically a god for a very small group of followers without a whole lot in the way of real powers. In the field of game design, the term sometimes thrown around is demi-famous. I heard the term first from a discussion by Monte Cook, a noted RPG professional, but the term probably goes back before that. It basically describes a person who is famous in a very limited circle, but generally unknown outside of that circle. Gary Gygax and Sid Meier would probably be good examples. Telling if someone is in this category is fairly easy.
For example, you have almost certainly had this situation come up at some point. You are in a club and you see a very attractive woman at the bar. You walk up to talk with her and strike up a conversation. To impress her, you casually drop that you know Richard Garfield. If you are lucky, she will smile and continue talking about her cats. If you are unlucky, she will ask who Richard Garfield is and when you explain, she will realize you are a gamer geek and make up some excuse like needing to rush home to wash her cats. When your icons are in the demi-famous group, it is important to know your audience. The same comment at Gencon would impress your friends, who are more likely to also be gamer geeks like you.
So what is the path to obtain this lofty status where small isolated groups of people will not scratch their heads when they hear your name? The easiest way is to start out small and work your way up. Having a set gaming group is a great start for a number of reasons. First, it gives you exposure to a variety of games so that you know what is out there. Second, it gives you experience playing games competitively, which is important as it will build your analytical skills. As I have said before, playing games a lot slowly turns you into a developer. The more games you play, the more likely the occasional odd rule or slight imbalance in a game will bother you. You are also more likely to generate house rules for a game after you have played a fair number of games. At this point you are on your way to the glorious path of design.
The next step is to put in some time as a play tester. At conventions, you can often talk to some of the booth personnel for the smaller companies and convince them that you or your group would be a great asset to help play test some of their new games. If you are geographically near one of the companies it is a huge bonus, but if you present yourself intelligently you can often convince one of these companies to put you in touch with a play test coordinator. All of this is with the understanding that you will not receive any compensation for any of the play test work you do, although many companies will give you a copy of the game if it comes out and your play testing helped the development. After a couple of projects as a play tester, you may be ready to attempt to pitch something or attempt to get a position as a developer.
If you can get in as a developer on any style of game, it is great experience and will potentially allow you to network with other developers and designers and start building some recognition in the game industry. Without a reasonable resume or a successful published game, many companies will not look at stuff that you submit. Many larger companies do not accept unsolicited submissions, and several that do have a very large backlog of submissions, since reviewing submissions is always secondary to developing and producing existing projects and since they are often getting new submissions from established industry professionals as well, and these submissions will bump all the unsolicited ones down the pipe.
Working in another capacity at a game company is also a great “in”. Editing and brand management are great entries since you get to follow many of the aspects of design and development and can often develop many of the same connections.
Once you have the connections, you need the goods. Game design is a lot like art and writing, except the perception bar is somewhat lower on the skill level required. Anyone can write a book or draw a picture, but very few have the skill to consistently make money doing it. The same is often true in game design. I have seen some very good games from previously unpublished designers. Vegas Showdown, which I enjoy greatly, was the first game published by Henry Stern. Henry followed pretty much the described route, working on design and development of Magic and a few other brands for a few years prior to designing his game. While many have longed for a follow-up, Henry has not done any other board games since. However, he has had his hand in some of the top digital games out today.
Others like Donald X of Dominion fame worked for years pitching games before finally getting a publisher to bite and producing a breakout hit. That brings up the second point. If you are in the board game or single deck card game design, don’t expect to hit it rich off the bat. Runaway hits like Dominion, Settlers, and Puerto Rico are few and far between. Unless your game is a mass market product done by a large company, you can expect fairly small print runs and placement, and thus fairly small revenue. Whether you are paid up front for the concept or get royalties off of sales, the volumes and placement for core hobby only games are small in comparison to mass market products and your income per hour worked on the game may be extremely unimpressive, especially for more complex games.
If you are hard working and dedicated, and can deliver a game that players want to play again and again, you can eventually get it in front of someone who will get you on the path to publication, but it’s a long and often thankless road. Just ask what’s-his-name. You know, the guy that designed that game we played the other night.