Friday, 17 March 2017

Getting Started in Games Design

Recently I gave a couple of talks at a local college in Nottingham as part of their Industry Week. Aimed at Games Design students primarily invested in the video games industry, it was a great opportunity to introduce some of those young people to the world of tabletop games, and to meet a few existing fans, too.

A few questions came up about games design, and about freelancing generally, which made me think about my own career path, and what advice, if any, I could give to aspiring freelancers. So here’s what I came up with.

Becoming a Games Designer
There are three things that need to fall into place to become a professional games designer: hone the craft, develop a thick skin, and land the gig. Let me explain.

Honing the craft means taking games design seriously. Everyone thinks they can do it, and everyone has an opinion on it, but until you actually dedicate a chunk of your life to it as an academic effort, it’s rare to really grasp what goes into good design. Start by playing as many games as possible – different games. Learn the way different types of activation work and why, understand why dice and bell curves work the way they do. Tear them apart and reconstruct them. You also need to understand the difference between a casual game, a tournament game and a simulation. A lot of games these days try to be all three. If you’re serious about design, you have to address the watertight tournament mindset, because there’s no better way of making robust rules than to have serious competitive gamers dismantle them for you. (FUN vs MATHS)

That brings me nicely to the thick skin bit. Feedback is the number one way of improving, so your rules will need to be read (and most importantly, played) by lots of people, preferably strangers. Asking for honest feedback and taking that feedback on board is essential. I was terrible at this when I started out! A thick skin also prepares you for inevitable rejections, when no one wants to publish your game, or everyone hates it, or you don’t get the job you wanted. Which brings me to…

Admittedly, White Dwarf is
such a big brand that it's
opened a lot of doors for me.
My lucky break!
Getting the gig. As I said, it’s a long process to land any kind of major games development project. Going it alone is the hardest path by far. The most common, and easiest path, is to get a job with a large games company. Games Workshop, Mantic, Warlord, Privateer Press, Modiphius, Fantasy Flight, etc. Get a job as a writer or editor. It’ll be a junior role, but you’ll learn from experienced heads. You know what made me improve the most in all the years I’ve been at it? Working with Jervis Johnson and Rick Priestly, and realising just how much those guys think about every percentage, every special rule, every word on the page. And there’s a lot to be said about cutting your teeth on an existing games system, like 40K or Kings of War – it gives you the safety net of a system that’s already been developed over time, while teaching you how it all works and letting you add your own little niche to that system. While I was there, I managed to write a couple of games freelance for Warhammer Historical (sadly now defunct). The people who liked those games invited me to a wargames show. When I was there I landed a job writing an article for an historical gaming mag. That in turn introduced me to a few other people, who offered me editing work. By the time I’d worked my way up to lead editor on 40K, I had dozens of contacts in the industry, and enough clout to pitch for work. So there you have it, a very long wall of text, which boils down to: practice, work hard, and network.

Not everyone wants to work their way up. Some people want to jump in at the deep end as freelancers, or become ‘specialists’ at the really fun bits, like world-building and background writing, or board game design consultancy. Let me tell you – no one gets these gigs without first doing the grunt work. Why? Because everyone wants to do it, and lots more people already think they can, but very few people can actually do it well.

In short, if you’re starting out in the industry, don’t expect to offer your services as a freelancer straight away, because it’s quite likely you’ll be lacking three essentials: technical ability, experience and reputation. The only way to get these is to go and work for someone, full time in an office, and start acquiring them! Do as much training as you can; go on courses; talk to designers about their process; learn how books and magazines are put together from concept to publishing; learn how components and miniatures are manufactured, and how that informs your design decisions; learn about budgetary considerations; and playtesting best practice; and… everything!


Managing Relationships
A huge part of freelancing is networking, compromise, and negotiations. Sometimes you’ll have to negotiate around your fee. Sometimes you’ll have to compromise around a game element that you’re really proud of, but that the client simply doesn’t like. Being precious when you’re getting paid freelance isn’t a commodity most people can afford, unless you’ve already got a reputation for being the best in the business (and even then it’s a risky strategy, if you don’t want to become known as an egotistical jerk). Knowing when you’re right and when you’re being precious is always difficult. Knowing when you have to concede even if you are right is even harder. But remember – whatever you might believe deep down, the customer (the client) is always right! (Except when they forget to pay an invoice, in which case by all means rain righteous fury upon them).

Variety is the Spice of Life
When you do decide to take the step into the freelance world, make sure you use all of those contacts I mentioned earlier to get the widest variety of clients possible. Say yes to every job in those early days (unless you really can’t deliver). Bust a gut, and become the go-to guy for as many companies as possible. The variety of work will keep everything fresh and interesting for you, provide all-important income, and the challenge of prioritising workloads and meeting ever-shifting and ever-increasing deadlines will help you become disciplined. And whatever you do, don’t think that because you’re a creative-type that you don’t have to be organised. You’re running a business now. You have no project manager, no secretary, no admin staff. It’s just you, a calendar, and a computer. It’s time to step up!

In my earliest days, the contacts I had weren’t quite enough to make ends meet. So I went phishing. No, not like a fake Nigerian princess via email, but rather targeted touting of my skills. Remember, I’d done all that groundwork for fifteen years, so I had a good CV to show people. I got work via LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. I asked old contacts for personal introductions to prospective clients (I still do this now – I’m currently working for a pretty big tabletop company because a good friend knew a guy who knew a guy…). I even found companies who I felt made good product, but could use my skills to improve, and so I dropped them a line cold, and a couple of them came back and gave me work. If you’re open and honest, hard-working, with a proven track record, these techniques will pay dividends. But like any creative gig, you have to steel yourself for inevitable rejection. I’d like to think I get a foot in the door with most gaming companies, but I’m afraid to say it’s not always true – some simply don’t return calls from unsolicited freelancers as a company policy. Don’t take it personally – move on to the next email on your list!


I’ll leave it there, as that’s probably a lot to take in. As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I might even revisit this topic at a later date.


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