Allen Varney, writer and game designer


Game design FAQ

If you actually want to know how to become a game designer, start with the IGDA Breaking In site and Damion Schubert's Breaking In page, and check this list of game design blogs. If you're a student assigned to interview a game designer, I post this Frequently Asked Questions list so you can simply copy the answers without going through the motions of e-mailing me. Kids, tell your teacher I gave you the answers directly, and if your assignment includes questions I haven't answered, feel free to make up the answers. I give you permission!

How many years have you worked in the field of game design?

My first boardgame was published in 1983. Since then I've published two more board games, a roleplaying game and two dozen roleplaying supplements, seven books, and over 250 articles, columns, and reviews. From the 1990s onward I've worked mainly in computer games.

What are some of the most popular games you have created?

In 2003 I designed a simulation called "Executive Challenge" for business school graduate students. A simulation is a kind of game that closely imitates some real-world activity, such as a stock market, a battle, or a business. You play the simulation to learn about the real activity.

The Executive Challenge simulation game teaches the ethics of business. In October 2003 over a hundred students at the University of Texas McCombs Business School played the game together, all together in a single game lasting three days. It got news coverage in the Wall Street Journal, and in 2004 over 300 students in the same school played the computer version. Since then several large corporations have used the Executive Challenge to teach or test various aspects of their business.

What type of degree would best prepare you for game design?

Probably English would serve best. When you write game rules, or even when you describe how a game works to a computer programmer or artist, you must express yourself clearly and grammatically. An English degree helps develop communication skills.

However, no college degree in itself can make you a game designer. Good design requires creativity and independence of thought, qualities discouraged in many schools. You would do better to play a lot of games, try to understand what parts of them work and don't work, and educate yourself in the subjects you'd like to cover in your games.

Elementary and junior-high schoolteachers: Menace to society

"Game Designer Interview for 8th grade research paper. Please review and respond if possible as soon as possible to my son's research questionnaire attached for his class project. Please complete and return via email by [three days from now] to [terse parent]. Thank you for your participation." [...] "I would be really grateful, if you could find some time to read my email. I am a mother trying to help her 4th grade son obtain an interview from a computer game designer. He has to participate in a final school project, which a big part of it is to do an interview with a computer game designer."

I get lots of these student inquiries -- it turns out I'm on the first page of Google hits for the exact term "game designer" -- so I'm posting answers here to the questions they always ask. I expect no student will object; after all, the student never cares. The list of questions is invariably trumped up by some well-meaning but misguided teacher who commands everyone in the class to write to some working stiff asking him to play job placement counselor.

For an overworked teacher it must seem a wonderful idea: Order the young underlings to solicit job data from two or three dozen working adults, then have the little servants read them aloud. Why, that fills up at least two class sessions! And really, what professional figure would object to answering a few questions from one student?

The teacher never considers for a moment that countless other teachers across the nation are simultaneously issuing the same command to their own cowed and spiritless charges. The students have no genuine interest in the person targeted, yet they must obey orders -- and so they write. In their dozens, in their hundreds, they write.

All these uninterested students head to Google, dully type in "game designer" or "firefighter" or whatever, then fire off the teacher's pre-made generic questions to the first e-mail address they find. The working grownup on the receiving end of the flood of inquiries must then answer each one, taking valuable work time to do so, or else appear callous and hostile. The students collect the answers, read them in class, check off that assignment, and never think about the matter again. But at least the teacher has filled another empty hour of class.

My heart goes out to these browbeaten students, but I must preserve my work time.


I have heard it is hard to find a teacher for game design. Is this true?

Yes. Until someone figures out how to make a good game without fail, no one will know how to teach it. It's a process of trial and error.

There are courses that teach the mechanics of creating computer game levels, models, and textures. These are helpful technical courses, but they don't teach much about how to make the game fun.

If you were interested in the field of game design would it be smart to play a variety of different games?

Yes. Play as many kinds of games as you can -- video and computer games, card games, board games, roleplaying games. Decide which ones you like, then figure out why. Try to analyze which parts of the game work best, which don't work as well, and how you might change the bad parts to work better.

Why is it important to have more than one person creating a game?

Every game design needs playtesting by many different players. Usually each player tries a different strategy, and so the designer can see which strategies pay off best. A good game design permits many different strategies, balanced so they offer equal chances of success.

Would it be better to work with a company or work as your own business?

Today it is easier than ever before to create and sell certain kinds of games entirely on your own, over the Internet. Games that consist of nothing but text, such as paper-and-pencil roleplaying games, are best for this. So are small computer puzzle games and similar casual games, like solitaire.

For games that require substantial investments of cash -- boardgames with lots of custom-made pieces, trading card games -- or large numbers of people -- retail computer and video games -- you pretty much have to work with a well-funded company.

What does it take to make a successful game?

Nobody knows. People just keep trying. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

How long does it take to make a successful game?

Designing a good, fun game can take any amount of time from an afternoon to many years. It depends on the game. Simple board games may require a day or two to draft rules, then weeks or months to playtest them until they work. Large computer games today typically require teams of 20-60 people two years or more to develop.

How many games would you need to create to lead a financially successful life?

One -- if it's the right one. But some long-established and widely respected designers who have published dozens or even hundreds of games have never achieved great wealth. You don't design games to get rich; you design them because it's fun and challenging. If you can make money at it, that's a bonus.

What is your job title?

I don't have an actual title. I work freelance, which means I can work for any company that is willing to offer me a contract.

What are your responsibilities?

I create or edit the rules for many kinds of games: computer games, board and card games, and roleplaying games.

What is a typical day like for you?

I get up about 9 AM, walk the dog, surf the World Wide Web until early afternoon, then write on my current design project until dinner time. After dinner I walk the dog again, then surf the Web and write some more until about 1 AM. Then I sleep, and when I wake up the whole tedious cycle starts over again.

What do you like most about your job?

I like the wide variety of projects I can work on, and the freedom to set my own hours.

How do you help this workplace meet its goals?

This question is inapplicable to a freelancer.

Why did you select this type of work?

I enjoy playing games and found I had a talent for creating them.

How much education do you need for this job?

You do not need much formal education to be a game designer. Perhaps junior-high school is sufficient, if you learn to spell and type. But you must also be able to independently teach yourself about a wide variety of subjects. Depending on the types of games you design, you need to learn science, geography, economics, quite a lot of history, programming, business, copyright law, and much more.

Did you need more training after you have completed your education?

Yes, I started my actual training as a game designer after I had left school, by playing a lot of games and figuring out what I liked and disliked about them.

What grade level of reading do you use on this job?

For most tasks, I need a high-school level of reading (grade 10-12). Occasionally I must learn about an unusual or dense subject, which may require college-level reading.

How, if at all, do you use writing on the job?

Everything I do involves writing.

Is math important to your job?

My particular type of game design calls for a good command of arithmetic, to make sure all the values balance in the game design. Other kinds of game design, such as computer programming, call for much more difficult mathematics.

When do you need to use good speaking skills to get your job done?

I sometimes must present a game idea to a company and persuade them to buy it. This calls for speaking skills, as well as an awareness of the company's needs.

Do you ever have to work in teams on your job?

Yes. Computer games require teams, sometimes very large teams. One designer may work with many programmers and artists.

What kind of problems do you solve on the job?

I must ensure that a game is balanced -- that is, that there is no one best way to win, and that all players in the game have an equal chance to win if they play well.

What skills do you need to solve these problems?

Arithmetic and statistics are useful for setting the costs and rewards of game actions. A grasp of psychology is also important in designing a good game; you want to know how players will feel at every point in the game. And it is vitally important that you can explain rules clearly in plain English.

What did you learn in school that helped you the most on the job?


What do you wish you had studied more in school?

I heartily wish I had never gone to school, and could have been allowed to read and study what I wished. I would have learned more, more quickly, and become a better game designer and a better person, if I had avoided the American public school system altogether.