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Is game DESIGN the same as making VIDEO games?

September 22, 2017

(Disclaimer: my experiences are limited to where I live: Brazil. So, some of what is said here isn't applicable world wide)

(This is the english translation of a post made in portuguese first here: https://www.skimpysoft.com/single-post/2017/02/16/Game-design-Criar-VIDEO-games )
Here's a weird fact that I discovered a few years ago while seeking more information on
 "game design courses": there's a lot of people out there confused about what IS game design.

I had this friend that was taking a game design college degree in a certain famous university in são paulo,
and she complained that she barely learned coding, and that there was a lot of time wasted in classes like
dramaturgy and script-writting.

Today, years later, I can say with confidence that I disagree.... and also agree with her.

Let's start with a definition: "Game design" does NOT mean "Video-game design".
By that definition, coding isn't mandatory.
A designer's job is to create an intellectual challenge: the rules and limitations
imposed on the player in order to achieve a certain objective.
Creating these rules within the boundaries of the given media is part of the job.

Let's say I give you 10 little stones, one big stone, and a hammer, and tell you to "create a game using this".
If you really are a game designer, you should be able to create a game using this "media".

Same goes if you were approached by a publisher willing to pay you to create a board game.
You won't be able to make a game that could span 120 different cardboard backgrounds/scenarios,
you have to follow the boundaries imposed to you.

Going back to my friend: if she really wanted to code, she should have learned by herself. Game design is a
VERY abstract concept, and it's frontiers are always changing.

But the ever changing frontiers must not be used as an excuse to gather a handful of unrelated classes,
throw them in a blender, and come up with a degree. And that's what most colleges do.
Since the discipline is so young, and most teachers are quite "elderly" in their specific knowledge area,
many times these teachers could not differ a "mario" style platformer from a "metroidvania" style platformer.

I'd approve if the degree had a more sincere title: "Production and Direction for digital games":
A producer MUST understand a little of all the pieces of the whole project, in order to coordenate and
find the right people for the right job.

You probably could guess my opinion on "game design degrees" by now, but let me be clear:
I say it's bullshit.

The creation of video games requires a multitude of skill sets, and the ability to coordinate people that have
said skills. Engaging in a course that tries to teach all these skills to a single person will just
lead you to frustration. And unfortunately that's what happened to my friend, and with several other people of her class.
(In the end she sought coding courses and became specialized in software development, but that's another story entirely...)

A real studio will not hire a person that "can do anything, but everything is done poorly". Instead they will fill
their positions with people specialized in their respective area.
Programming? Computer Science graduate! This person could even customize a game engine!
Illustrations? Art school graduate. Knows all the current tools and styles in demand on the market.
Story? Someone from communication school , with interest in script writting.

IF you do get hired with a game design degree, you'll probably hear a lot of
"I don't know, put him in stage design... Oh, so you can write too? Please revise this script.
Drawing? Well, check out what the graphics team is up to..."
And there you go: you became a producer, and all that is created is not by your hands,
or your mind. All you do is aid big companies in achieving THEIR goals.

May I give you a piece of advice? Instead of focusing studies in broad game design and learning little by
little about other skills, FIND OUT what you love, and what you can do well. Focus on that, become the best
in what you enjoy doing, and parallel to these studies, read about game design, listen to podcasts, watch
post-mortens on youtube, and PLAY.
PLAY a LOT.
Because there's a fuckload of colleges out there that don't even have a mandatory gameography
(a bibliography of games, get it? Games that elevated the state
of design and you must know them from inside out).

To close off this article and add credibility to my advice, here's a list of people who did not study "Game Design":
-Hideo Kojima: programmer;
-Tomonobu Itagaki: programmer;
-Rieko Kodama: illustrator;
-Gary Winnick: illustrator;
-Tim Schafer: writer;
-Roberta Willians: writer;
-Al Lowe: comedian(!).... and writer;
-Daisuke Ishiwatari: musician;

P.S.: I'd like to add that there's nothing wrong if you WANT to be a producer. And by the way, if that is
your dream, I have a book reccomendation for you too:
The Game Production Handbook by Heather Maxwell Chandler

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