The Devil's Game Design Tips

Ethan Kennerly

69 ways to become a better game designer

While the Devil must be given his due, he cannot take credit for all the insightful methods by which an aspiring game designer may enrich his or her knowledge, creativity, and--most importantly--career. No, the Devil did not directly concoct the majority of the following tips that are well-proven, indeed, timeless techniques for boosting any professional designer. The credit for the bulk of these tips goes out to the designers who have already put them into practice and gained their due fortune and name recognition. Behind the gods of game design, lie techniques and tactics that got them where they are today.

-- The Devil's Ludographer April 1

The Tips

From preparation, to postproduction, here are 69 ways to become a better game designer. Learn them; live them!


  1. Grow a goatee
    Or a beard.

  2. Speak in a deep, authoritative voice
    Nothing says conviction, dedication, and vision like a gravel-ridden voice.

  3. Gain a few pounds
    It'll add weight to your opinions.

  4. Wear glasses
    They made Matthew Broderick look smarter in Godzilla.

  5. Hone illegible handwriting
    Nothing says mad genius like illegible scribbling. The more ambiguous the mark, the more leeway you have to make it the right mark.

  6. Go to school
    It doesn't matter what you study (or if you study), but attend a prestigious institution.

  7. Learn the vocabulary of programmers and artists
    And throw it back at anyone foolish enough to disagree with you, like a hitman with a Tommy gun.

  8. Practice illustration
    Nothing says "fun gameplay" like a sharp diagram or a hasty sketch, with flare.

  9. Keep a notebook
    With lots of notes and lots more doodles. Doodles are the seed of brilliant design.

  10. Play games, lots of games, the harder the better
    Only hardcore gamers have the prerequisite experience and sophistication to conceive great games. Brag about your skill. If you can't play well, how can you be expected to design well? The title "Quake III Champion" should be bulleted as a primary qualification on your resume.

  11. Read
    Read voraciously on every topic imaginable to humankind. There are only two topics not worth a designer's time: software engineering and product development.

  12. Practice job interviewing
    A job is only a means to bigger interview.

  13. Join the biggest company you can
    The world wants you. But you can't reach the world with anything less than the biggest company. And your epic designs need the newest hardware and biggest budgets. Nothing else will do. Besides, how can you become a better designer without working on a bigger game?


  14. Epic
    Think epic. Sell epic. No less than terrabytes of art assets are next gen. Don't skimp. You deserve it.

  15. Get a budget
    Always get a budget. Big. As epic as the design. Get it. Never shoot until you're carrying big guns.

  16. Mix genres
    And art styles and play styles. The more novel, the better. Of course a horror-shooter-dancer is brilliant. That's why YOU are the designer. Duh!

  17. Make it hard
    Nothing says masterwork like a hard game. Start hard and stay hard.

  18. Sell the game before you make it
    Even better, sell the game, and let the developers make it. You're a designer not a plebian developer.

  19. Write the story yourself
    No one can argue ownership of the story that you wrote. And then enforce the story ... at ALL costs. No level, no character, no architectural embellishment may conflict with the Story.

  20. Plan
    Write a design document and plan. Plan the color of the hero's hair, the height of his weapons. The specs on enemies, down to shoe size. Plan the color scheme for design docs. Don't start until the plan is complete and approved (by you of course).

  21. Do it on paper
    Production is expensive, so be sure to get it all on paper first. Keep it there until the programmers and artists have been convinced of the light thereon. Then click the Produce button.

  22. Choose the right Word
    Make sure no word document is under a megabyte. Ever. If necessary paste in larger resolution bitmap images.

  23. Bulletpoint everything
    Everything. In bold.

  24. Write pseudocode
    Pseudocode displays that you are consumate in your design, from the grand vision to technical details. The best pseudocode contains passages like:
            Until game is over:
                    Do AI.
                    Do UI.
                    Challenge the player.

  25. Make slideshows and charts
    Lots of charts. Always print them in full color on glossy paper. Decorate studio desks like they were fine prints by a rising artist; no lesser comparison is apt for your talent.

    On your USP slideshow, bulletpoint each novel technology. Sell the game. Were you listening? SELL THE GAME! The screen is going to morph emotional metaballs that ooze pro-pixel leatherization diffusion.

  26. Invent buzz words
    Who can argue with an idiom you created? You can evolve the terminology's definition to suit your needs. Programmers rely on hard-coded "meanings;" whereas, great designers use words as malleable means to an end.

  27. Give your concepts a snazzy title
    Take common sense ideas and give them a clever title, clearly attributable to you.

  28. Argue against common sense
    Until you're ready to give the sensible proposal a snazzy title.

  29. Hold design seances
    Err ... meetings. Lots of meetings. Meetings make the Sun go round the Earth. During the meeting, ensure you remain in contact with the spirits of design, and be their faithful conduit to the laity.

  30. Stare off into space for a second before making a reply
    Extra points if you glance at your conversation partner as if he or she were ignorant, incompetent, or both.

  31. Dismiss your juniors
    Never accept their ideas until at least two weeks later, when your seniors have forgotten who came up with the idea.

  32. Categorically correct
    Be categorical. Outlaw modes and domains of design categorically. No numbers, because numbers are for geeky losers; not consumers of fine interactive art.

  33. Impose arbitrary constraints
    No chickens in level 4, because players hate out of context chickens. Duh!

  34. Be outspoken
    Have an opinion and fight to the death over the opinion. Don't let a finger hit the keyboard until everyone agrees with you on how the marshmellow power-ups in the Easter Egg will be implemented.

  35. Polish, polish, polish!
    Make sure the cinematics are picture perfect, the dialogue is recorded, and the prerendered scenes are complete before prototyping gameplay.


  36. Use only the best
    Acquire the most popular license, and the best talent. Accept only the highest production values. Aim for full orchestra music, the fastest renderers, the most sophisticated AI, the most gorgeous eyeball shaders. Because with you at the helm, the team will surely succeed.

  37. Build tools first
    The best tools are the ones that are highly usable. Refuse to use any tool without a WIMP interface and robust error checking. Anybody knows that all designer errors are ultimately tools programmer errors.

  38. Get more RAM
    Don't those tech heads get it? You need to run applications, not have applications run you. Run no less than 10 at once and get the tech heads to remember: your RAM is more important than rendering. Your primary deliverable is ideas, and your chief bottleneck is RAM.

  39. Never write code
    Code can only do one of two things: work or not work. And a coder can only do one of two things: agree with you or disagree. Since you already agree with yourself it would be redundant for you to be a coder. Besides it would rob a team member from a valuable relationship with you.

  40. Play a game
    And play it some more. Play the most obscure games possible. When someone disagrees with your health meter, bring up Dungeons of Daggorath as an example. When someone disagrees with your combat interface, bring up Mail Order Monster. Or with your job selection, bring up Everway. With your platformer level, bring up Montezuma's Revenge. Eventually you'll get one that the benighted subject hasn't played and then you can dismiss them with a pitying glance.

  41. Rise through the ranks
    Get out of the level designer hot seat as fast as you can. Get to game designer quickly, or even better Creative Director. No even better: Chief Creative Officer. Like a salmon swimming upstream, leap into preproduction as soon as possible; avoid the downstream pollution of production. Send the downstream developer guppies your effusing inspirational Word documents.

  42. Enlist subordinates
    Nothing is more essential to growing as a designer than to have hard-working but unimaginative subordinates. The best kind are ones that seem hard working and imaginative. With these you can later disprove their imagination, until they properly fork over credit to you as the source of all new, accepted ideas.

  43. Delegate
    Delegate minor details like the definition of the amazing new technologies to junior designers. They need to feel included in the process.

    Hand off your high concept designs to junior designers to implement. A great designer has more great ideas than time to implement. Hand off to promising junior designers who are in need of guidance but technically proficient. Never get stuck carrying a project from conception to production. Production is for associate producers, not designers.

  44. Always remember that nobody is perfect
    And never let your subordinates forget it.

  45. Direct in person
    But never commit or otherwise leave a paper trail back to your direction. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minions.

  46. Enforce the story at all costs
    At ALL costs.

  47. Couch everything between high impact verbs
    This boss battle could use more hot crisis action.

  48. Refuse to comment on anything but production values
    until the game is nearly done, and then get the design changed. Who could possibly have time to comment on control mapping or environment modeling when placeholder particle systems on the fountain are two hours behind the modelers' latest?

  49. Judge quality objectively
    The proper metric for an iteration on any aspect of design is how closely the result matches your idea. If, upon review, a developer reminds you what your best idea was, even better. Reward this astute developer with no further request for change.

  50. Make a clear distinction between tasteful and untasteful
    As with any distinction, be objective and consistent: Your taste should be the metric to judge by. Be consistent; make no exceptions. Not all efforts to entertain are created equally; those that come closer to satisfying your sophisticated tastes are worth refining. Everything else should be scrapped. The more times a feature or asset is scrapped the more emphatically the developer learns.

  51. Request a change and then request a change back
    There is no better way to maintain directorial prerogative than to be arbitrary. Should the interface include a bondo meter? Should the black dragon bone assembly puzzle have a tutorial? Once you've decided your true answer, reverse it when making the first request. Every developer loves such a logic puzzle: He told me to skin the UI in cornflower blue, which means he really wants it red, unless he thought I would think that, in which case he really will want it blue...

  52. Be specific
    But only after you've seen the output of your previous, vague request. Artists love to read minds. They like it even more when you play mind games with them.

  53. Redesign
    A good design is never complete until the basics of the environment, stages, and structure have been implemented and then redesigned. Repeat this process until everyone agrees with your opinion.

  54. Screen playtesters
    Evaluate their qualifications to comment on your masterpiece.

  55. Save the best for the sequel
    Reserve the best ideas (especially those you borrowed) for the sequel to your upcoming hit. Let nothing ubercool be implemented until the sequel. (And get first option to work on the sequel.)

  56. Travel
    The less you actually appear in the development studio, the better.

    Public Relations

  57. Have a great idea
    And say it's covered by your NDA. Sorry can't talk about that.

  58. Interview the press
    Be the single point of contact to the public.
    Remember these keywords and you'll have a drooling media mate:

  59. Always post on the forums
    Always read the forums. Befriend the community leaders and get your name firmly entrenched in everyone's mind. Think of them as your base. Feed them what they want to hear without concrete promises.

  60. Practice debate
    Speak eloquently and profusely. Conjure poetic allusions and make authoritative arguments based on sound premises (no extra points for relevance). During your debate, if all else fails, invoke "The Human Condition."

  61. Give talks
    On design, or a book report on your favorite new book. The topic is not important; a talk means free advertising, a free pass, and free drinks while schmoozing on why [games/developers] [are/are not] [dead/ art/visionary/rote]. Use these to talks to vet which ideas are impractical yet dreamy enough for the public to swallow as pure genius.

  62. Collect other people's ideas
    Always give credit where credit is due, which is to those who agree with you. And for those that don't agree with you, at least acknowledge their inferior scope as some more technical and mechanical subdivision under your domain of Design, or even better, your domain of Creativity.

  63. Make it clique
    Praise your supporters, throw them a bone. Ignore your detractors, or better, refer to their work out of context, and make offhand remarks about their philosophical points of view.

  64. Socialize, network
    Grab your next great project before this one is on the shelf (or in the can).

  65. Never ever miss a conference
    Ever. Always book yourself with bigwigs in the industry. All great people are busy; so be busy, too busy for the little people.

  66. Drop names
    The bigger the better. Make anyone who has to argue with you argue with John Romero, Hideo Kojima, and Shigeru Miyamoto.

  67. Consider changing your name
    If it doesn't have that ring, who'll sing your praises?

  68. Espouse the dilemma of the designer
    Publicly and loudly. Talk about what is wrong with the industry. Bemoan the lack of originality. Declare revolution and promote innovation. Elevate games to an art form, and debate fine aesthetics. Leave no grievance unvoiced.

  69. Redefine the industry
    You're in interactive entertainment. Leave games to the peons and codemonkeys. You are above that.

So why stupidly slave away, now that you know the secrets of success? Should your success vary, double your diligence. By faithful application of every tip, you cannot help but to ascend to greatness and eventually carve your name on the slate that ranks the gods of game design, each of whom has trodden this same path.

-- The Devil's Ludographer April 1, 2007

Return to Fine Game Design