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[Column] General: Becoming a Designer - Part One

SBFordSBFord Associate Editor - News ManagerThe CitadelPosts: 23,355MMORPG.COM Staff Epic

If you've ever wanted to or entertained the thought about becoming a game designer, look no further than our exclusive series of articles by Matt Miller. In the first of a two part series of "how to", Matt discusses some of the things that potential designers need to take into consideration. Read on and then head to the comments!

The first question and last questions were generally considered the hardest and took the longest to complete. This was intentional because if you didn’t read through the test entirely to begin with, you might end up with no time left to answer the final question. Most people who took the test did these two questions first, disregarding their order on the test, because they knew that they would be able to finish the other questions once those two were completed.

Read more of Matt Miller's Becoming a Designer - Part One.




  • BattlerockBattlerock Youngstown, OHPosts: 1,393Member Common
    I thought about it ever since I wad just a wee young lad. I used to be big into paintball as well. I found that even though I loved playing paintball, I didn't enjoy working in paintball so much. I would imagine I would feel the same way about designing games as well. I love to play them, but I doubt I would enjoy working with them. Nice article though I think before you get to the how to, one should consider whether ir nof they are really cut out for it.
  • AwDiddumsAwDiddums Great YarmouthPosts: 416Member Uncommon

    My son is currently attending Swansea University, where he is in his first year. He is studying Games Design with an emphasis in 3d art.

    This articile is something I will have to save and discuss with him just to see if it is something that his own tutors have raised (one of his tutors has worked for various large games companies around the world).

    I know that it's a tough business to get into but I have faith in my sons abilities and his focus.

    My own interests in gaming are purely for gaming not for the creation aspect, but I have the utmost respect for those that are willing to follow through with thier ideas and create something new and unique for us gamers to jump into.

    Thxs for a most enlightening article, I look forward to the next installment.



  • QuizzicalQuizzical Posts: 17,651Member Epic
    To answer the question at the end of the article, for Champions Online, I did, but for other games, no.  In most other MMORPGs, the there isn't much variety that you can write into your character's background that you can invent without sharply contradicting what the game forces upon your character or requires you to do.
  • GrakulenGrakulen Staff Writer St. Charles, MOPosts: 820MMORPG.COM Staff Rare
    Thanks for your insight.
  • JasonJJasonJ New Port Richey, FLPosts: 395Member

    I have created many a background for my characters throughout the 2 decades of playing MMOs. I guess it comes from a short time of playing pnp D&D.

    Iorriel (yor-e-al) Malborne, Daughter of Yorksted, wrongfully accused as the slayer of Jarl Stenkil. Cursed a traitor at birth and branded with the name of Malborne, the cursed child, she was forced to live in the wilds, away from civilized men.

    Raised in the wild, learning to hunt at a young age...friend to none other than the untamed creatures of the wild...Iorriel Malborne, the huntress, returns to reclaim her fathers birth name from those who took it from her.

  • TorvalTorval Posts: 12,160Member Legendary

    Matt, I don't often comment on the column but I love reading them.

    In answer to your last question, yes I do make up back stories for my characters.  Everything from the character creation look, to the clothing/armour/style, the profession/class, and the backstory all fit together to form my characters persona.  I sometimes write the backstory (I've done so in LotRO and EQ2), but I haven't for a while now.  That all forms the back story to my character along with his or her persona and how I play them in game.

    One of my pet peeves is the word 'toons'.  It's weird but I've always preferred to think of my avatars as characters and refer to them as such.  Toons, to me has implied a throw away avatar without depth or thought put into it.  I always cringe a little when I hear someone say, "Yah, I rolled a tank 'toon so my guild could raid <insert_standard_raid_name_here>."

    Anyway, great article.  I'm looking forward to the next installment.  Thanks.

    Centuries ago, in primitive times, before the dawn of civilization, there were things that would be inconceivable to us today; such things as poverty, disease, violence, senility, and love.
  • FrinkiacVIIFrinkiacVII Scranton, PAPosts: 45Member Uncommon

    This may sound like it's against the spirit of the exercise, but I for all of my toons on CoH, I did write an Origin Story in their info field, so that when people right-clicked on me, they could read something other than what badges and powers I had.  I say "against the spirit" because those origin stories were usually just an attempt at humor on my part.  Radiac (my main toon, and the one pictured as "me" on this site) had the fllowing origin story:

    "In 1973 a cracked physicist was sent to prison by a university student govermnent for a crime he didn't commit.  This man promptly escaped from a maximum-security frathouse basement and fled to the Paragon City underground.  Today, still wanted by the co-eds, he survives as a superhero-of-fortune.  If you have a mission,  if none of your real friends are on, and if you can put up with his incessant tactless banter, maybe YOU can team with... RADIAC!"

    I got more than a few people who would read that and send me a tell about it.  I liked that.  I used to right-click to read other people's info as well, sometimes you'd get a good one.  My undead zombie coyboy sheriff gunslinger toon, Tin Star Jonny Ozark,  inspired by a short-lived Deadlands campaign I was in at the time, had an origin that was simply "ooo-eee-ooo-eee-ooo.... wah-WAH-wah..." repeated a few times.  My one female toon's origin page was done up to look like a Playboy centerfold info page (i.e. height, weight, turn ons, turn offs, etc).   She was a fire blaster, so her turn ons naturally included only flammable stuff.  That and tankers who have the "Taunt" power. 

    I really never "role played" all that much, but I loved that aspect of the game nonetheless.  I know some people don't like it when they're trying to role play and you make a joke and harsh their suspension of disbelief, but I really enjoyed any context in which I could get creative and try to be funny. 

    All that said, I really did play some of my toons more than others based on how much I knew about their backstory in my head.  If I made a new toon and decided I didn;t know who they were, I'd often delete them pretty quickly.  On the other hand, I kept soime toons that were sub-optimal builds and chose powers for them based solely on what they'd want or be able to do given their backstory, and most often it made them more fun to play.


    "Well sure, the FrinkiacVII looks impressive - DON'T TOUCH IT - but I predict that within 100 years computers will be TWICE as powerful, ten THOUSAND times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them." -Prof. Frink

  • TwiPhoenixTwiPhoenix Aion Correspondent Texarkana, TXPosts: 19Member

    Huh, interesting questions on that test.  At a glance, they seem easy.  After some thought, they instead appear quite tricky.  I get the feeling they more or less hit a middle area of "If you know what you're doing, these aren't too difficult to but can certainly be time consuming and, regardless, require a lot of careful thought to answer".  They seem to be more like mental exercises than questions on a test.  Even though I'm not trying to, that first question is making me come up with ideas for answers.  So far, I'm thinking a small group of heroes finding that, even though it's a small town, it's still too large for them to defend the entirity of it.  They have some time to prepare, so they're forced to pick a location (of the player's choosing) that offers a good compromise between security and access to supplies and then fortify that position before the bugs come in.  For example, some spots would make great hold out points, but might have few supplies and force players to spend time scavenging and not fortifying and, later once the attack starts, risk being caught in the open when making a supply run.  Then you'd have locations that would be the opposite and plenty varying between the two extremes.  And then I forced myself to stop there before I got carried away.

    Anyway, to answer your question at the end, yes.  I usually tried to come up with at least some sort of vague backstory for my character sooner or later.  Most of my CoX characters had written bios (which is a feature I really miss, now that I think about it) and even most of my Aion characters had some sort of backstory in their head (but, not being on the RP server, I never really got to share it).

  • gr0und3dgr0und3d Why, CAPosts: 113Member
    Originally posted by Torvaldr
    Matt, I don't often comment on the column but I love reading them. In answer to your last question, yes I do make up back stories for my characters.  Everything from the character creation look, to the clothing/armour/style, the profession/class, and the backstory all fit together to form my characters persona.  I sometimes write the backstory (I've done so in LotRO and EQ2), but I haven't for a while now.  That all forms the back story to my character along with his or her persona and how I play them in game. One of my pet peeves is the word 'toons'.  It's weird but I've always preferred to think of my avatars as characters and refer to them as such.  Toons, to me has implied a throw away avatar without depth or thought put into it.  I always cringe a little when I hear someone say, "Yah, I rolled a tank 'toon so my guild could raid <insert_standard_raid_name_here>." Anyway, great article.  I'm looking forward to the next installment.  Thanks.

    I used the word 'toon' for exactly the purpose you mentioned, but I don't think it's bad.  It's the practical side of raiding/progression in a group environment constrained by the requirement of a raid boss.  In the case that I rolled a 'toon' for progression, the raiding experience would apply to the 'account' and thereby giving my 'main' the tangental feeling of defeating a boss.  Iwould also have a 'main toon' that I spent the time to do achievements, story, collections, titles, etc.  What I have found in modern mmos is the holy trinity helps give each character an identity, but in a dynamic social environment this can limit people's access to content unless they make different 'toons'.  Try to not let this bother you :)

  • gr0und3dgr0und3d Why, CAPosts: 113Member

    The first question seems kinda fun.  What about an insect heirarchy that revolved around how many legs each creature had.  The more legs an insect had, the stronger and more powerful they are.  Ants serve as the main army force, overseers of spiders commanding the ants.  The leader of the eastern invading forces is none other than the dark centipede that uses venom to immobalize it's prey...  Then from the west, an armored tactician, millipede that uses saliva to help digest it's prey....

    Bug sprey or bullets, the choice is yours!
  • dwturduckendwturducken Des Moines, IAPosts: 14Member Common

    In answer to your ending question, City of Heroes was my first experience with an MMO, and it was couple of years before I tried any of the others. Now, yes, it's in my head, because it only seems to be only the two super-powered MMOs that are/were not tied to a major comics franchise that even allow such a mechanism in-game.

    The character that always illicited the most positive response was my main hero, Metal Britches. "After one two many drunken karaoke renditions of "Piano Man," <secret identity>'s frat brothers left him in early 21st century Paragon City as a prank. Attempting to create a "time suit" from memory, using early 21st century technology, he uses the resultant powered armor as a tool to fight crime while he perfects the design."

    Of course, once I found out about Mender Silos/Lord Nemesis, I "ret-conned" it to include him as one of the frat brothers. It wasn't incredibly creative, but it tended to entertain.

  • IgorchtIgorcht Fairport, NYPosts: 82Member Uncommon

    Heh, I had often contemplating applying for design positions with Paragon Studios, but I never did because I have basically no game design experience; I've thought about designing games and come up with some vague back stories and terribly unclear, basic mechanics, but never anything substantial. I have to admit, I don't think I'd have done very well on those tests, but it might've been fun to give it a try.


    As for character back stories, I never ever even gave it a moment's thought, from the time I set foot into EQ in 1999 (or maybe it was 2000) until SWG, and even then, there wasn't much to it.


    Not, the only game that inspired me to delve into my characters' origin stories was City of Heroes, where I'd say about half my characters (11 of them) had origins that I had at least put some small amount of effort into. I miss that. A few others had goofy, absurd origins. I did share them, to a certain extent; all but two of them had thier bios written in their info window. The other two were too long to fit into said window, but they were posted on my Super Group's forum. One of them I'm actually pretty proud of.


    Very interesting read, Matt.


    "I am the weapon that strikes/In the hearts of men I thrive/Feeding their fear with lies/I will devour/I will divide/I am the god of hellfire/inside every man there lives a liar/before their gods they cower/I will divide/I will devour" - "Divide Devour" by Iced Earth

  • LoktofeitLoktofeit Stone Mountain, GAPosts: 14,247Member Rare

    Do you regularly (or have you ever) crafted a background for your MMO character? Even if it was just in your head, but bonus points for writing it down and sharing it with the world.  <-- my environmentalist murderer in UO

    Please forgive the page formatting. Most screens were 640-1024 pixels wide back then. :)

    There isn't a "right" or "wrong" way to play, if you want to use a screwdriver to put nails into wood, have at it, simply don't complain when the guy next to you with the hammer is doing it much better and easier. - Allein
    "Graphics are often supplied by Engines that (some) MMORPG's are built in" - Spuffyre

  • kadepsysonkadepsyson Phoenix, AZPosts: 1,917Member Uncommon

    I agree with Quizzical's point and it's a reason I do not often create a background for a character but instead create a theme for him.


    However, in games such as Skyrim I have often created background for my characters.  I usually do so additionally as a way to set artificial rules for my play - such as my character being a poor old thieving beggar means I wouldn't just go off and slay dragons.  The background would play into specific interactions though, such as the huge and muscular male vegetarian Orc that wouldn't kill male enemies for the reasons I'd come up with before even creating him.


    I think the freedom for the background to have a meaningful impact on how the game is played, or to make sense with the game, would encourage and not restrict people from making them.

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  • BattlesnakeBattlesnake Derry, NHPosts: 6Member
    Good article, Matt

    Everyone should partake in a good game design challenge whether you're applying for a job or not.

    We need a decent superhero MMO again. One that is its own IP and doesn't come with the baggage of decades of lore. That would be the best foundation for players to truly create a character. Much like the questions of your designer test: less is more. The more specifics provided by a design team, the less space the players have to leave their own mark on the game world. CoX was great for that. It is the only MMO of the many I've played where I really felt like creating a story for my character to fit into the game world.

    I think any Kickstarter project that could deliver an iota of what made CoX great would be flooded with funding. Hint... hint..
  • FrinkiacVIIFrinkiacVII Scranton, PAPosts: 45Member Uncommon

    +1 What Battlesnake said.  To go into a little more detail about the backstory/game design aspect though, I LOVED that CoX allowed almost infinite avatar configurability, plus 14 different classes, plus way more power sets than anyone would ever need for functionality alone, plus then the pools, etc.  That game basically let you make ANYTHING.  You want a G.I.Joe with one robotic arm and the head of a werewolf--Wait no-- were-eagle? You got it.  Wait that robot arm doesn't look like I imagined it.... oh LOOK theres FIVE other robot arm options to pick from!   That made CoX such a malleable game, as comics are really.  I mean, look at almost any "super group" and you've usually got a mix of a magic guy, a super spy, a super scientist, a bare-knuckled street fighter, etc.  What other genre has the ability to adopt so many seemingly different types of characters in the same place?  CoX had a steampunk supervillain, time travel, evil carnies, aliens, magical cultists, alternate dimensions, street gangs,  organized crime fiugures, corporate superjerks, science experiments gone awry,  wizards, demons,  misguided teenagers, angry dock workers, a super prison, a casino, battleships, bunkers, giant robots, giant monsters, monkeys, jet packs, wings, capes, rocketboots, spandex-clad do-gooders, megalomaniacal supervillains,  henchmen, ghosts, pumpkin-headed halloweeny plantmen, goths, punkers, EVERYTHING darn it!  That's one big reason why that game was so entertaining for so long, because there was no meme or trope left out.  That and game designers and developers who worked hard and were awesome at their craft.

    Also, I forgot to end my last post with the ever popular...

    /em holdtorch

    "Well sure, the FrinkiacVII looks impressive - DON'T TOUCH IT - but I predict that within 100 years computers will be TWICE as powerful, ten THOUSAND times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them." -Prof. Frink

  • RylennRylenn Sacramento, CAPosts: 1Member

    I have a long history in Game Design, Story Writing, Roleplay, Programming, 3D Modelling etc. and I am not eighteen yet. I have attempted to head a few different hobbyist projects, often ones that did have financial backing but I have come across a crux in hobbyist design..


    I often end up being the Project Lead, as well as the Designer and the Manager. I use Dropbox to have members of the team share information and review progress while engaging in design.


    My questions to you Matt Miller.. How does a freelance designer keep a team involved with the game, if said team is comprised of hobbyists that cannot put in the proper amount of time? Should I take the best of the team or the financial backers and move on?

  • TheLizardbonesTheLizardbones Arkham, VAPosts: 10,910Member Common

    After reading the very first article on how to be a game designer, I think I can say that the game industry is better off without me being a game designer. Not that there was ever a remote possibility of that happening, but there exists a universe somewhere that I am a game designer, and players are wondering why every arch villain is either a British Aristocrat or an insane New Yorker.

    I can not remember winning or losing a single debate on the internet.

  • AnofalyeAnofalye Quebec, QCPosts: 7,433Member

    It isn't for everyone...I was a designer for a year...took 50 pounds in a year and quit...took 3 years of a "sane life" to lose these pounds back...


    Sure is cool...sure is a lot of fun...sure see lot of great peoples and have a blast...but...wasn't for me.  Waking up at 3 am because you "found" the ultimate solution and have to convey it the next day to the team...nope...never again!


    And you need the talent.  Not sure I had that ever, althought I sure was convinced I had!  :P


    Having the ideas is 1 thing.  But putting them in a work progress is another.  I wouldn't mind brainstorming and talking game design from time to time...but working for that?  Not for me.  :P

    - "If I understand you well, you are telling me until next time. " - Ren

  • AlverantAlverant Wheaton, ILPosts: 839Member Uncommon

    Well the small town question made me think of where my grandparents lived for a while. The poor town is down in population from where it was a century ago (189 residents). I couldn't see much of their house. Anyway I thought it would make a good place for the fight.

    I made backgrounds for all of my CoX characters. My first hero was a tanker who was (to be brief) a humanoid military drone using the war walls to carry the signals. (Of course this was before drones were commonplace.) He was Inv/SS so the "final version" could be armed with a sword and rifle. My first villain was an alien robot sent to collect the different technologies of earth. After being captured and put in (and escaping from) the Zig he learned how to make battle drones to fight for him. I had a dragoness who was pulled in from her home dimension to Earth's by the Circle of Thornes and put into a human woman's body. The problem was that the dragoness was too strong and large (spiritually) to fit and slowly had to regain her powers in an effort to get home. She eventually decided that forcing the CoT to send her back wasn't working so she had a plan to switch sides because heroes were more likely to help each other. Her plan was to use Oroborus to erase her past evil deeds and replace them with heroic deeds to give her a good reputation. While the game was active I pretended the CoT cursed her to take the form of different fantasy creatures to justify different costumes. She was a fairie, WoW style purple troll, and a siren.

  • WizardryWizardry Ontario, CanadaPosts: 12,190Member Epic

    Creativity has not been seen in games,so not sure why they woudl run a test such as the one used.Further more creative thoughts on gaming would be tons of infdormation locked away in the person's mind,you can't simply hand overa timed test and expect results.

    They should be going aboput it in an entirely creative way.Come up with the base setting,including the story,a plot for your hero and others.

    Then you ask for all the basic concepts,like npc>player interaction,simply done with generic linear questing or more advanced ideas?

    Weaponry ideas,example space aged,mixture,versatility of weapons,ammo types ect ect.

    Combat,this section would need so much depth to be any good,there is no way you could possibly convince anyone through some timed test.

    OTHER types of content,be it puzzles,timed ideas,co op ideas,player+npc interaction type contnet,Arenas ect ect.

    Peripherals ,housing,pets,mounts,plots and other ideas that players might like to have in their game.

    Crafting.HUMONGOUS aspect in a gsme,well it should be,not the cheap ideas i have seen so far.Everything in game should be crafted.How do you craft,attain recipes,learn through trial and error,what kind of mats are needed,rares, and do you use nodes or other means.Hidden rare crafts?So much you can do with it.

    I just named SOME of the DIRECT ideas that a developer SHOUlD be worried about,not some test to tap a person's mind with roundabout questions.

    We all know the REAL truth,they send out job requests and people answer them with reumes.Then what happens is they look for the experienced people,that means you get more of the same old same old ,already done before.You knwo whjat else you get?Oh sorry we can't do that,takes too much cost and time and would be too costly to run in the game.Instead we are looking for more generic easy to make and operate ideas to meet our deadline.


    Never forget 3 mile Island and never trust a government official or company spokesman.

  • mmoguy43mmoguy43 In cyberspaaaaaacePosts: 2,770Member Uncommon

    I did the questions as a personal challenge. They were fun to do and a little difficult to do in much detail. Slowed down at polearm attack #12. I came up with a cyborg that was attempted to be resurrected by a demonic shaman that went all wrong, thus a dark magic robot. And for the defense game, the enemies are ants(heros are tiny). Where stealth and not disturbing them is is key. Boss- a kid poking holes in the ant nest. Suffice to say, I'd probably only average at best. I'm not exactly endlessly flowing with great ideas to take it to the professional level.

  • DraemosDraemos Antartica, AKPosts: 1,501Member Uncommon

    Where designers really lack, and this is pretty much across the MMO genre... Is understanding of creating symbiotic relationships between different game systems... Along with understanding the intricate balance between systems and how tweaking one thing affects another  Instead everything is disjointed and  duct-taped together.

    Instead of silly nonsense like dialects, which should honestly be something a writer worries about... Or powers names, which is trivial and easily fixed with a quick google search or a quick brainstorming session at a daily meeting, Game designers should actually be focusing on actual complex design and integrated systems that make people feel like the game has a solid direction and overall design goal.

    It's embarrassing how common it has become for the gaming community to understand the intricacies of a games combat, interlinked systems, and overall balance than the people who designed the game do.  And part of it is because so much focus of game design is n trivial nonsense instead of actually designing an intelligent system. 

    Seems to me way too many of the game design community are old tabletop GMs who have never quite stopped beyond a relatively simple game design mindset.

  • maplestonemaplestone Ottawa, ONPosts: 3,099Member Uncommon

    Doesn't everyone have an entomologist or two in the family? :)

    As for character backstories, not only do I have them, but they are all part of the same backstory, a fellowship of alts being tossed from world to world by forces unknown, arriving scattered and disoriented each time, making friends in the local culture and eventually learning trades suitable to their memories while quietly searching each other out.

    (a little storytelling hobby that was inspired by Lord British's backstory in the Ultima games)

  • BahamutKaiserBahamutKaiser Hyattsville, MDPosts: 314Member Uncommon

    LOL, it's funny because I was a biology nut when I was a kid, and knowing what I know about insects and spiders ( I know, not an insect), I'd just say... yeah, what kind of super technology do these "midwesterners" have to withstand the outragiously superior carnage a giant insect can deliver... being a realism nut, I'd probably spend half my time looking up some obscure weakness which would unilaterally impare most insects enough for there to even be a realistic match between giant insects and anything.  The speed, senses, reaction time, tenacity, and physical durability and hardness of any insect on a giant scale, even on a house pet scale, would be utterly insurmountable by anything other than conventional weaponry LOL.

    Boss insect would have to be praying mantis, OMG, you are so F***ed, the thing is so intense it can challenge it's own preditors several times it's own mass, beast mode!, I mean, insect mode! god, giant insect are mini monsters :]

    "Praying Mantis darts down the street so fast you can barely react and rips tank in half effortlessly while giving no sh*ts about your gunfire which mostly missed his impenetrable carpace" LOL

    Yep, that would require some creativity, to give players any kind of realistic chance.

    Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes.
    That way, if they get angry, they'll be a mile away... and barefoot.

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