What would you tell your teenage self about game design?


Next Wednesday I'm speaking at the Wade Edwards Foundation and Learning Lab (WELL) to a group of high schoolers about my career in game design and a bit about my previous career in advertising/marketing. In other words, I have no idea what to tell these kids. This opportunity comes at an interesting time, since I'll be about nine months into my first year without the safety net of a full-time salary and benefits. So here are some loose notes that I might touch on:

A Little Personal History
  • Early Years: I was first exposed to game design while playing with my step dad. I couldn't figure out how to beat him, so instead I made up my own pieces that moved in their own ways. Sometimes changing mid-game, if I saw I was losing. He was very patient.
  • High School: I nearly dropped out of high school in senior year. I was living in a very chaotic situation throughout my childhood and I wanted to escape as quickly as possible. I thought I could get by with a GED and my food service job. Thankfully, a waiter smacked some sense into me before it was too late.  
  • College and Advertising: I stuck through the hard days. I worked through college. I got my degree in graphic design, found an internship at an ad agency thanks to some friends, and stuck with that internship until they hired me. I eventually worked my way up to a director position before this year when I decided to devote more time to my true passion: Game Design.
 What are Board Games Today?
  • Fun, elegant, diverse. Strategy games, dexterity games, co-operative games, with themes ranging from zombies, to trains, to space, to fantasy, to fancy parties. The best are designed  with a modern sense of scale in space and time, never wearing out their welcome before they've stopped being fun.
  • Tabletop: You can see some of the best modern classic games out on the market right now being played on Tabletop. There are plenty more games that are just as fun, but they don't work so well on video.
  • An international industry with thousands of new products, millions of individuals. There is a sustaining creative and financial force coming out of Europe for the past twenty years, but now that has branched off into major players in USA and Asia.
  • Conventions are where the biggest spikes in business happen. Origins is where a lot of business deals get made. Gen Con is where new products are launched. Essen is where the most prestigious awards in game design are bestowed. The PAX conventions are a huge crossover audience between video games and tabletop.
  • Perspective: On that note, despite the huge and growing numbers, the tabletop industry is still dwarfed by video games. It can take tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce a board game. If it sells more than several thousand copies, it's considered a mega-hit. In video games, all those numbers are multiplied tenfold.
 What Games have I Designed?
  • Luchacabra: My earliest board games were posted on a blog I called Luchacabra. It's down now, but designing in public really built up a sense of how to prototype efficiently.
  • Happy Birthday, Robot! was my first published game. It's a storytelling game for kids where each player rolls dice to determine how many words they and the other players can say in a sentence. Each turn, a new sentence is added, and when the game is over you've created a very silly little story about a robot's birthday.
  • Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple was another storytelling game released the following year. This one was inspired a little by Avatar: the Last Airbender, an old French book called the Little Prince, and an anime series called Keno's Journey. Here, players have a little more freedom in what they can add to the story, but the system uses probability as a metaphor for Karma. Each choice affects everyone else's available choices.
  • On to Card Games: After that, I devoted more of my attention to the card game genre. Card games are relatively easy to produce, often have a cheap price point making them a good impulse buy, and if I can't find a publisher, they're easy to self-publish. My first two card games to be sold are Koi Pond and Belle of the Ball. I'm also designing an espionage-themed card game for a mystery publisher and I just sold a Princess Bride-themed card game to GameSalute.

 What you Should Learn to Be a Game Designer
  • Build up your logic. Learn common mistakes of logic that you'll find in daily life to better equip you for escaping scams, grifts, and peer pressure that will come along. It will also make you a better game designer and game player.
  • Learn statistics. You'll always have access to friends that know more math than you, and you'll still bug them for help a lot, but you'll be at a severe handicap unless you learn the essentials of statistics and probability.
  • Study human behavior. The more quickly and accurately you can predict human behavior given a set of parameters, the more efficiently you can design and prototype your game. There's no substitute for observation, though.
  • Learn business. Even if you don't go into the publishing business, you'll still need to know the basics of how to read a contract, how to make a reasonable deal, and how to manage your own time. This is the least fun part for me, personally, but it's essential if you're going to make a living at this.
 Life as an Independent Game Designer
  • My inspiration comes from work. I always stay busy with a freelance graphic design job or a prototype I'm tinkering with at the moment. It's by doing work that I'll eventually come up with a breakthrough or a cool little trick, not by just sitting around waiting for some muse.
  • I've committed to never design a game that has a violent or gory theme. Partly this is for personal reasons, but also it's a simple business decision. Those themes play well with a certain slice of the audience, but will turn off other audiences who might become a brand new vocal community for your product.
  • You can make a living at game design, but it's a very lean living. After all, you can make a living at a lot of things. Game design as a career is tough on the budget, but also much more creatively satisfying. I've no regrets about that transition so far.
  • If you sell your games to a publisher, you get paid in Advances and Royalties. Royalties are a percentage of the sale price the publisher chooses for the game. Advances are sort of a down payment, basically the publisher paying you a certain amount ahead of time. If you're lucky, the total royalties you earn will exceed that advance and you can start getting a regular check from the publisher. If this happens, it can take months.
  • If you sell your own games, you'll probably use Kickstarter. [obligatory Kickstarter explanation here] I currently have a game on Kickstarter now, hosted by my publisher. [Explain Belle of the Ball]
  • I couldn't have had a career in game design unless I had other careers: Graphic design, marketing, writing, etc. And I couldn't have those careers unless I had a broad pool of experience from college and life in general. 

And that's all I've got so far. I'm not sure what else to say or if any of this will be relevant to a group of teenagers. We'll see, I guess!
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.