So you want to be a… game designer

Making games has never been more accessible, with the game industry a huge opportunity for creatives to test their skills. But what does it take? Indie game designer Gregorios Kythreotis shares his advice

As one half of studio Shedworks, Greg Kythreotis is hard at work on forthcoming Xbox title Sable – an unconventional adventure game centred around a mysterious desert filled with ancient buildings. His route into the indie game industry is an unconventional one, largely self-taught and drawing heavily on his architecture degree.

He’s part of a new wave of designers, many of whom are bringing skills learned in other creative fields into the games world. As such, he has plenty of advice for aspiring games makers – everything from finding the balance between paid work and passion projects, and how to find the small wins that keep enthusiasm alive.

Decide which route to go down There are so many different roles, and almost two separate industries. There’s indie games, which are smaller but require you to be more of a jack of all trades, but maybe have one specialism that you have expertise in, and that helps you stand out. Generally you’re dipping into a bit of everything, including marketing, design and programming. Then you have triple-A big industry jobs, and the skillset required for those is quite different. You’re more likely to need a highly specialised skillset, and understand the more technical side of software and tools. The first thing I’d establish is what you want to go into – do you want a bigger industry that’s more sustainably financed but you’re working for other people, or indies where you have a bit more control over what you make, but are more likely to have to dip into everything, and you’re less likely to make money in a regular way.

Make the most of your existing creative skills It helps to have knowledge of other fields, because you’re creating something that’s a synthesis of all these different elements. Games are an amalgam of art, technology, music, animation and business. It helps if you have a strong skillset in another industry, especially something unusual. You’re seeing games that are animated using stop-motion, for example, so you could make a game using that skillset. Or if you were good at knitting you could make a game that involved that in some way. I think that’s a really good way of standing out – it gets people talking about what you’re making, and it’s a strong way to get started, especially if you’ve not worked on a game before.

Start learning the software The technical skills required to make games are still quite high compared to other mediums. The tools are getting better though, and you can make interactive media now with very little skills in terms of programming.. If you want to get into making indie games then learning Unity is really important. It’s where everything gets put together. Even if you’re not working on it yourself regularly, knowing what your other team members are working in is helpful, and the more you know about it, the more employable you’ll be. As an artist, I’ve had to learn countless pieces of software – PhotoShop, Maya, Substance Designer … there’s millions, and sometimes you just learn a new piece of software because it does one really specific thing.

Unreal is an engine that people use, but much less widely in indie games. If you’re working completely solo and you’re not a programmer, or you want to make something specifically in 2D, then GameMaker could be good. Or a smaller engine that does less, because sometimes you don’t need all the tools in the toolbox. If you’re a writer or 2D artist, and you want to make an interactive narrative to test an idea, something like Twine can be good. You can learn a lot from watching the Game Developers Conference talks, which get put out for free, and are an incredibly valuable resource.

Keep making I think the best piece of advice is to get started making, and don’t be precious about it. If you have an idea you’re really precious about, then maybe don’t work on it yet. Build up, fail, and fail quickly. When we started we worked on mobile projects, and if we took on Sable from day one it would have been really disappointing, and we wouldn’t have got it to where we wanted. Having our small successes and failures prior to Sable was really important.

Know when to give up on an idea Sometimes people get hung up on a single project, and work on it for three or four years, and it wasn’t necessarily even that amazing an idea to begin with, but they’re persistent because they want to finish it. Sometimes it’s ok to make something, and even though it’s taken six months of time accept that it’s never going to be that good, and not release it. I think that can be really valuable. The advice I got when first getting into the game industry was to make my first 10 projects quickly, because they’re all going to be crap. I don’t necessarily think it’s 10, but that advice has a definite grain of truth to it.

Finding the small wins that keep you going There’s a quote from Ira Glass, who does This American Life, where he talks about when he first started the radio show and he knows that what he was making was crap – but that’s because he had taste. Taste is a really difficult thing to develop, but if you know it’s crap and you still keep making it, eventually your skillset is going to get good enough that it catches up to your taste. You have to keep in mind that you won’t necessarily achieve something that you’re 100% satisfied with, and that you’re your own harshest critic. You’re psychologically managing yourself, and you have to find small victories, like a task you can get done in half an hour and it feels good when you finish it. It might not have a massive impact on the game, but it’s a nice psychological win.

Remember to ‘warm up’ first Creativity isn’t a faucet that you can turn on and off at will. You have to warm up, or build yourself up to it. I’ll take a break and play other games, or look at other things to try and remember why I care about what I’m making. Sometimes just sitting down with a controller and playing games for ten minutes or half an hour helps you to warm up. One of my biggest ways of getting into something is just by looking – doing a sketch, or something that is less creatively draining. It can be really invigorating and helps you feel that passion again. You have to really cherish that feeling and make sure you don’t use it, because as soon as you do everything becomes a slog and a project will suffer for it overall.

Make use of your failures Keep in mind that what you’re making isn’t necessarily going to be a masterpiece, or even anything special, but a thing you’re using to learn. That helps you to write it off if it’s not very good. And you can pick it apart and find little valuable things. I’ve done plenty of personal projects in the past that fed directly into my work with Sable. And that was completely unintentional, I didn’t have the idea of Sable as a game. Once you look back on it with retrospect, you can start pulling in ideas you had in the past.

Keep your eyes open Keep looking, keep learning, and seeing what other people are making – not just in games but other industries as well. I’ve always been someone who likes to gather ideas, concepts, references and visual things, and I’ve done that since I was very young. I’ve always loved talking about them and exploring them, and seeing what does and doesn’t work about them. That’s a really good habit to get into, and once you’re in that habit you learn so much just by doing that.

Find the right people to connect with Twitter is a good place to get started and keep an eye out for opportunities. There are industry groups on Slack, and you can get involved in meetups. Don’t go just for the purpose of it being a practical thing, go to meet people in the industry who are doing the same thing as you. Find out who in the global community is doing stuff, but also your local community, and meet them and talk about what they’re doing. Learning from them is important. Working out what you’re good and not good at is essential, and then finding collaborators who can fill those holes in your skillset.

Getting your game out there The best way to get your game out there at the moment is You can get something up there fairly quickly, and it’s straightforward. There’s not a lot of work to be done in terms of publishing. I think you can’t expect people to like your work because you’ve put it on a website though, you have to send it to press, put it on every social media website, make gifs and videos.

Finding the money Working in indie games, you can do a lot of unpaid work for yourself because you don’t have a client. It’s important to note that making money in indie games is hard, and to know what your goals are outside of that. There was a bit of a boom where it looked like games were something anyone could make success doing, but nobody has that preconception about starting a band or being an artist. In a way it’s a lot like being in a band, in that the percentage of success is relatively low. Because we have a publisher, we earn a living making Sable. Even if we release it and it doesn’t make money, or breaks even, it would still be considered a success because we got to spend two years making the game we wanted to. Some people have loftier ambitions of running a 100-person studio and making millions … and a lot of people got caught up in that.

You have to engage with the side of making money if you want to make money, but there’s a big difference between getting creatively hung up on it and allowing it to dictate decisions to the detriment of your skillset. I think you have to find a sustainable income source that’s predictable and reliable, and plan around that. So if you can find a contract that you work on for six months, and that buys you six months to work on your own stuff, or work for two days a week, and the other three you do your own projects. You learn a lot doing contract work – how to structure a project, what software other people are using. You have access to other professionals within the field, so bagging your first contract job can be a breakthrough. It’s better to be working within the industry than doing something unrelated and doing this as a night job.