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Turning your passion into a job: how to become a game designer.

For gaming buffs, Robert Gallerani has been living the dream for more than 20 years. While a Design Director at the New York branch of Blizzard Entertainment (formally Vicarious Visions), he was one of the creative masterminds behind remastering the iconic game franchise Diablo 2. Βefore that, he was involved in over 30 titles, ranging from Skylanders to Guitar Hero and numerous versions of Tony Hawk Pro Skater. 

He is now a design chef at Magic Soup, a new company, and he’s excited to be surrounded by the start-up energy it has. 

As a prominent game designer, Robert has helped chart new territory for the vibrant community of 3 billion gamers worldwide, and wants to share his experience with aspiring gaming professionals. His ELVTR course will explore the process of becoming a game designer, providing students with valuable insights into this fast-paced industry.

In this exclusive interview, he explains what it takes to turn your hobby into a job, the secrets of game design from pitching to playtesting, and the business model he thinks will dominate the industry in the future.

What led you to become a game designer?

While in high school, I had an interest in architecture. Traditionally done with rulers and drafting tables, but at the time I was also exposed to AutoCAD to help, a computer-assisted drafting program. 

Toy Story had just come out and computer graphics were becoming a thing. My favorite games at the time were games like Myst and Riven. They look dated now, but back then they had amazing graphics. 

My initial interest in computer animation was for movies. I managed to land an apprenticeship doing animation. From there, I attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for animation. Back then, you couldn't go to school for a video game degree. It just wasn’t a thing. At the time I didn't even think games were a possibility.

When I graduated college, I sent my demo reel (which was on VHS tapes) to various places. One of them was only a couple of hours away from me in upstate New York. They made video games, although their only game I knew was a Blue’s Clues game. 

When I went to the interview I was shown a pizza box that had a circuit board and controller wired to it. I then learned they were working on Tony Hawk Pro Skater for the Gameboy Advance. From there, I was hooked. 

I did animation and art for about six years there, before I got into game design. Back then you didn't hire designers, you just would grab anyone to fill the role. Even as an animator, I was the designer on many projects.

Animation and controls are really tight. If something doesn't feel responsive, it's usually because the animation is taking too long. So the animator and the designer have to be in close communication, and really on the same page.

Then I got into the psychology of players, why you make certain mechanics to promote certain behaviors etc. So I switched to design and I've been doing this for 20-odd years.

That’s a dream job, but it’s a very competitive field. What skills do you need to have to become a game designer?

People skills. You need to be well-spoken, because you need to rally people around an idea. At every level, you are talking about an idea, trying to make nothing into something. 

That requires engineering, art, audio, animation. It all has to come together for an experience. And that involves people. You got to go around and say this is the experience you're aiming for. You're trying to sell people on it. 

Even though it's your job, very few studios do something just because the designer says so. It's not like the military, you don’t tell people what to do. You always get better work when you get people onboard.

That starts with a good understanding of why you make certain decisions. You might have a cool idea, but that doesn’t mean you can sell it. There are many foundational elements of why people act the way they do, what mechanics promote certain things. Understanding these, and conveying to people why you made certain decisions, is crucial. 

Is there a technical skill that game designers need to master?

Yes, there are also hard skills, but that changes from studio to studio. Even if you're at the same studio, every two years you are developing something different: PS6, Cloudsoft, VR, mobile. It’s a fast industry, you can’t rest on your laurels. 

So you may not need a deep technical skillset, but it’s convenient to have. When an employer is looking at a resume, soft skills rarely come across. You might have led a group of people, but that is experience-based. When you try to get into the industry, you have no experience, so it’s a Catch-22 {i.e. a paradoxical situation from which it’s hard to escape}. Whereas when you can list hard skills like C-Sharp and Unreal, that’s tangible currency that can get you a job. 

If I had to choose a skill, I would say basic scripting. There's so much content online about Unreal and Unity, the two big engines. But many studios use proprietary software. If a studio has 20 years behind it, they probably have their own engine. 

New companies don’t waste resources on building new engines. They hop on existing ones. So even firms like Bungie or Blizzard start to borrow from Unreal and Unity. Mostly because when they hire new employees, they know those tools. So they start to have a shared language. 

What's the key to a game’s success?

It's a perfect storm of different things. There's this fake notion that if you make the perfect game, it will always be successful. Unfortunately, that's not true. There are amazing games that didn't come out at the right time or didn't have the right icon. 

Take Guitar Hero. The first one was a weird, gimmicky thing. Overnight, it exploded. Once the brand was established, it was easier to get people onboard. 

Same with Diablo. Diablo 4 has a head start over other games, based on the name alone. However, you can’t rely on IP alone. It might get people to play the game, but players won't stay around if the mechanics don’t resonate with them. 

Success depends on the player type. Certain players love hard-to-master mechanics. Others want something light to play with their friends. Unless you are planning on buying a million copies of your own game, you shouldn't make a game for yourself alone. 

Many developers make games they want to play, and you can start like that. But you need to look at people who play that type of game to understand your market. 

You can make the best real-time submarine game, but that may not be a popular type of game. Don't spend $200m dollars making a game if it’s gonna sell just 50,000 copies. Knowing your audience and what they want is important.

How do you set the vision and the pillars, which is a topic your course will cover?

If you are trying to tell someone what your game is about in one minute, you shouldn't be getting into the rules. 

If I told someone that chess is played on a grid with black and white squares, and how the bishop moves, you're not convincing anyone. You’re just spitting rules at them. Instead, if you told them it’s a strategy game of two kingdoms fighting each other and the first one to kill the other’s King wins, it’s easier to understand the spirit. 

Rules are abstracted from a vision. They change when you go from a piece of paper to prototyping and playtesting. You realize that the mechanic you thought would be fun is boring and you iterate. You're lucky if 40% of your first prototype survives till the end. 

Your vision is a lighthouse that drives your game in a direction. When prototyping, you will see opportunities to add or change a mechanic to make it more enjoyable. Re-balance this, add or remove a mechanic, all in the pursuit of improving the game. This will happen numerous times during development and it’s easy to just focus on the small decisions, and the game will start to get away from you.  

Let’s say you’re making a survival horror game and someone adds in a vehicle to help you escape a monster. The vehicle is really fun to drive and it is well received in playtesting, so you add more and more of it. You might be making a fun game, but now you have a racing game and it’s not the horror game you set out to make. You need to use the vision to constantly stay focused, and not just as a starting point.

Your pillars are more specific buckets about that vision. Let's pretend we're making a game about Victorian times, and everything is about proper etiquette. You could have a pillar that calls for historical accuracy. This now will help drive the art, what a player can do, and set the tone of the game.

Pillars also drive your rules. Usually you need three to five pillars. If you have more, you won’t be able to support them. If you have too few and one falls, everything falls apart. So pillars are a way to lens your project and deliver what you've set up to do.

Sometimes you come up with a cool idea that just doesn't fit. Game designing is not just about making a fun game. It's making a certain type of game for a certain audience. You need that vision and pillars to help shape it. 

Otherwise you start making rules and you might end up with a completely different game. Which is fun, but not a way to run a business.

What questions do you need to answer in the prototyping and playtesting phase?

This is the part of the class where it clicks for most students. You write your design document and think you have thought of everything. 

Some people write very little. Here's my game, it has monsters that attack you. And then you have the other extreme, people who define exactly what a monster's moves are, how tall they are, and their favorite color. They overdesign it. 

But you have to build this and play it. The people who don't put enough detail in when they prototype instantly learn there's stuff they have to design on the fly. People who overdesign realize that they wasted a lot of work on details that become irrelevant the moment they start adjusting the rules. It's that first time you realize it’s a real game that you have to play. 

When we start with the vision and the pillars, we make personas. These are make-believe people that we are making the game for. If you design an e-sport, you make it for competitive players. When you start prototyping, you know to target certain types of fun: killing other players, showing off, or mastering some new mechanics. 

When you prototype your game it might be fun, but not the type of fun you were targeting with your personas. So it’s a big dose of reality. You realize you have to redesign things. 

Given technological changes, which business model do you see being more viable in the future?

In the course we will talk about traditional, current and future business models, such as ‘play-to-earn’ and crypto. 

Making money is a dirty word for some designers, because they think of the predatory practices some businesses use. They try to get as much money out of you as they can. 

It’s important to figure out your business model early. You don't want to design your game and then figure out how to make money. You build your game knowing the type of business model. 

Even crypto has changed since the time of writing. Part of the problem with crypto is that business models built around it are things that already existed in game design. It just has a different backend.

Regarding future business models, we're seeing more cloud-based services. If we can learn a lesson from movies and TV, it’s that we don't go to a store to rent movies anymore. We have subscriptions. 

Instead of having to buy all these individual games, you could have one big monthly cost and all games on a single platform. I can see that becoming a reality, given how companies continue to become consolidated.

Like a Netflix for gaming?

Yes, exactly. We are reaching a point where people have 17 different subscriptions and get fed up. Cable TV went through the same phase. You used to have three channels, and then you could have 900 channels. Nobody is watching all that. Gaming is following that path.

Is the process of creating a mobile game different? 

The mobile market is larger than all other gaming markets combined. People used to playing on PCs or consoles don't like hearing that. But they also play games on their phones. 

If your game is only for mobile phones, you make the game different, because the way people play is different. It’s not just that you're using a piece of glass instead of a controller. 

When you sit in front of a console, you dedicate time. Whereas on a mobile device, you might be waiting at the doctor's office. So you play while doing other things. You're in the middle of playing and someone gives you a call. 

That changes how you build these games. You build for smaller sessions, because you want people to come back for lots of little bits, rather than playing for several hours.

Is there a game that you would have liked to have designed yourself and what makes it special?

Τhere's always something to learn, even from games I'm not a fan of. I am wary of designers who feel they have figured it all out. There's always something to learn from other people. 

I am a big fan of a game called The Witness. It’s a relaxing puzzle game. But there’s no real tutorial. The puzzles are inherently built to have you figure it out. They teach you how to play the game by playing it. 

And it gives the player a lot of credit. It assumes the player is smart. There is also a strong narrative. A very artsy piece. 

*ELVTR is disrupting education by putting proven industry leaders in a virtual classroom with eager rising stars. ELVTR courses offer 100% instructor driven content designed to give you practical knowledge within a convenient time frame. Choose the right course for you!