What Skills Does a Game Designer/Technical Evangelist Need?

In short, all of them. Almost anything that you can be good at can become a useful skill for a game designer. Here are some of the big ones, listed alphabetically: 

  • Animation -- Modern games are full of characters that need to seem alive. The very word "animation" means "to give life." Understanding the powers and limits of character animation will let you open the door for clever game design ideas the world has yet to see. 
  • Anthropology -- You will be studying your audience in their natural habitat, trying to figure out their heart's desire, so that your games/apps might satisfy that desire. 
  • Architecture --  You will be designing more than buildings -- you'll be designing whole cities and worlds. Familiarity with the world of architecture, that is, understanding the relationship between people and spaces, will give you a tremendous leg up in creating game worlds.
  • Brainstorming -- You will need to create new ideas by the dozens, nay, by the hundreds. 
  • Business -- The game industry is just that, an industry. Most games are made to make money. The better you understand the business end of things, the better chance you have of making the game of your dreams.
  • Cinematography -- Many games will have movies in them. Almost all modern video games have a virtual camera. You need to understand the art of cinematography if you want to deliver an emotionally compelling experience. 
  • Communication -- You will need to talk with people in every discipline listed here, and even more. You will need to resolve disputes, solve problems of mis-communication, and learn the truth about how your teammates, your client, and your audience really feel about your game. 
  • Creative Writing -- You will be creating entire fictional worlds, populations to live in them, and deciding the events that will happen there. 
  • Economics -- Many modern games feature complex economies of game resources. An understanding of the rules of economics can be surprisingly helpful. 
  • Engineering -- Modern video games involve some of the most complex engineering in the world today, with some titles counting their lines of code in the millions. New technical innovations make new kinds of gameplay possible. Innovative game designers must understand both the limits and the powers that each technology brings. 
  • History -- Many games are placed in historical settings. Even ones placed in fantasy settings can draw incredible inspiration from history. 
  • Management -- Any time a team works toward a goal, there must be some management. Good designers can succeed even when management is bad, secretly "managing from below" to get the job done.
  • Mathematics -- Games are full of mathematics, probability, risk analyses, complex scoring systems, not to mention the mathematics that stands behind computer graphics and computer science in general. A skilled designer must not be afraid to delve into math from time to time. 
  • Music --  Music is the language of the soul. If your games are going to truly touch people, to immerse, and embrace them, they cannot do it without music. 
  • Psychology -- Your goal is to make a human being happy. You must understand the workings of the human mind, or you are designing in the dark. 
  • Public Speaking -- You will frequently need to present your ideas to a group. Sometimes you will speak to solicit their feedback, sometimes you will speak to persuade them of the genius of your new idea. Whatever the reason, you must be confident, clear, natural, and interesting, or people will be suspicious that you don't know what you are doing. 
  • Sound Design --  Sound is what truly convinces the mind that it is in a place; in other words, "hearing is believing." 
  • Technical Writing -- You need to create documents that clearly describe your complex designs without leaving any holes or gaps. 
  • Visual Arts -- Your games will be full of graphic elements. You must be fluent in the language of graphic design and know how to use it to create the feeling you want your game to have. 

And of course, there are many more. Daunting, isn't it? How could anyone possibly master all of these things? The truth is that no one can. But the more of these things you are comfortable working with, however imperfectly, the better off you will be. This is another reason that game designers must be confident and fearless. But there is one skill that is key to all the others. 

The Most Important Skill

Of all the skills mentioned above, one is far and away the most important. Many people guess "creativity," and I would argue that this is probably the second most important skill. Some guess "critical thinking" or "logic," since game design is about decision making. These are indeed important, but by no means the most important skills. 

Some say "communication," which starts to get close. The word communication has unfortunately become corrupted over the centuries. It once referred to an exchange of ideas, but now has almost become a synonym for talking. Talking is certainly an important skill, but good communication and good game design are rooted in something far more basic and for more important.


The most important skill for a game designer is listening. 

Game designers must listen to many things. These can be grouped into five major categories: team, audience, game, client, and self. 

Does this sound absurd? Is listening even a skill? Think of it this way: we are not equipped with "earlids." How can we help but listen?

By listening, I don't mean merely hearing what is said. I mean a deeper listening, a thoughtful listening. For example, you are at work, and you see your friend Fred. "Hi Fred, how are you?" you say. Fred frowns, looks down, shifts his weight uncomfortably, seems to be hunting for words, and then says quietly, without eye contact, "Uh, fine, I guess." And then, he collects himself, takes a breath, and looks you in the eye as he determinedly, but not convincingly, says a little louder, "I'm, uh, fine. How are you?"

So how is Fred? His words say, "He's fine." Great. Fred is fine. If you are just "surface listening," you might draw that conclusion. But if you listen more deeply, paying full attention to Fred's body language, subtle facial expression, tone of voice, and gestures, you might hear a very different message: "Actually, I'm not fine. I have a serious problem that I think I might want to discuss with you. But I won't do that unless I get some kind of commitment from you that you really care about my problem, because it is kind of a personal issue. If you don't want to get involved with it, though, I won't bother you with it, and I'll just pretend that everything is okay." 

All of that was right there, in Fred's "I'm fine." And if you were listening deeply to what he said, you heard it all, clear as a bell, plain as day, as if he'd said it out load. This is the kind of listening that game designers must engage in, day in and day out, with every decision that they make. 

When you listen thoughtfully, you observe everything and constantly ask yourself questions: "Is that right?" "Why is it that way?" "Is this how she really feels?" "How that I know that, what does it mean?"

Game designer Brian Moriarty once pointed out that there was a time, long ago, when we didn't use the word "listen," instead we said "list!" And where did this come from? Well, what do our heads do when we listen? We tip our head to one side -- our head literally lists, as a boat at sea. And when we tip to one side, we put ourselves off balance; we accept the possibility that what we hear may upset us and may cuase everything we know to be contradicted. It is the ultimate in open-mindedness. It is the only way to learn the truth. You must approach everything as a child does, assuming nothing, observing everything, and listening as Herman Hesse described in Siddhartha: "To listen with a silent heart, a waiting, open soul. Without passion, without desire, without judgment, without rebuke."

Brought to you by: The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell; excerpt from Chapter One, pages 2-6.