How to assess your current skillset

The last two blog posts focused on the importance of participating in short-term and long-term design communities. This week we’ll take one step closer to the process of designing your first game. The topic of this blog post and the next is knowledge and skill.

            (1) Assessing Your Skillset - What skills are you bringing to the table?

            (2) Developing Your Skillset - What skills will you need to develop?

First things first, we need to get rid of the idea that to start designing, you have to master every corner of the design process. The problem is not that this thought process is illogical. One of the reasons aspiring designers get caught up in an endless cycle of skill-building is because they want to create amazing games. The problem is that this approach almost always leads to a scenario in which you never really feel ready to start working on your game.

If you’ve ever tried your hand at writing fiction, you’re probably already familiar with this problem. The thought process simply looks a little different: “Well, my character is a blacksmith and I’m certainly not a blacksmith. I need to read just one more book to make sure the details are believable.” Even though you just want to make a good story—a perfectly reasonable, admirable goal—you end up creating a scenario in which you won’t feel competent unless you know everything there is to know about blacksmithing. And so the story is never finished.

The subject of this post is Skillset Assessment. “But Lindsay,” you say. “Didn’t you just tell us not to obsess over having a perfect skillset?” Yes and no, friends. Yes and no. You certainly don’t want to give yourself the responsibility of mastering every corner of game development, but you do need to develop a working understanding of your current skills and passions.

Games come in all sorts of packages. There are games comprised almost entirely of text, whose interactivity comes from the player’s use of hyperlinks to navigate the story. There are games with little to no text, whose interactivity is primarily produced by its use of a 3-D world that the player can explore. And, of course, there are all sorts of shades in between.

Taking stock of your existing skillset can make a world of difference for your first game. If you’re a writer, it will be much easier to bring your creation to life through a text-game program like Twine than if you tried to learn 3-D modeling from scratch for an open-world Unity game.

Not convinced yet? See what these folks have to say. 

Cody Starcher, Producer

I still don’t know programming super well. I took a couple programming classes for a minor and completely wrecked them. But I kind of came in just from the wanting to be involved and being excited to step up, and just finding my role through that.

Henry Bawden, Assistant Professor of Interactive Media at Columbus State Community College

When I ask people where they want to be, a lot of times they’ll just say “Games.” I then ask them, “Where in games do you want to be?” Are you attracted to art? Are you attracted to programming? Are you attracted to writing? And that’s usually when I get the response, “I’ve got these great ideas and I just want to be able to tell other people how to make the game.” At that point, we’ve got to have a long conversation about reality.

You get to a management position in one of two ways. The first way is to have a ton of money and hire people to work for you. If you do this without working in the industry previously, you’ll make a lot of mistakes before you make progress. The second way is to start at the bottom and work your way up. This approach forces you to learn how the game design process works from start to finish.

To get back to the topic of skillsets: You’re not locked into the skillset that you originally market yourself with, but having a well-rounded competency in a specific area of design is what’s going to get you up and going. Compared to the dream of jumping in on a managerial level, this is a much more attainable goal.

Let’s Assess!

First you’ll need to figure out which standards you want to use to assess your skills.

If your goal is to break into the game industry, you’ll want to learn more about the types of roles in the game design process and match up your existing skillset against that.

  • At Gamasutra, Mark Baldwin’s “Career Paths in the Game Industry” walks you through several archetypes or “idealized professions” within the game industry and gives excellent general advice about how to understand game design job descriptions.
  • The Balance’s guide to jobs in the video game industry does a great job of explaining the wide range of roles in the design process. Additionally, Dawn Rosenberg McKay provides links to additional reading for each of the job types listed.

Once you’ve found a game design role that synergizes well with your current skillset, you’ll want to start utilizing those design community contacts that we talked about in the previous posts.

If you want to be a games writer, the best first step would be to talk to games writers. Invite them for coffee. Ask them how they got to where they are now. Ask them if there are any things they wish they had known when they were just starting out.

(Whatever you do, don’t give them an idea that you have for a game and ask them to make it! This may seem obvious, but game designers get this sort of request all the time.)


Based on the information you gather from the first two steps, start brainstorming about the kind of game that would work well with your skillset.

If you want to be an artist, maybe it’d be a good idea to design a game that showcases your artistic abilities and is not overwhelmingly complicated on the programming side of things. Perhaps a dating sim or a visual novel?

If you want to be a level designer, then you’ll want to design a game that showcases those abilities. The challenge in this case would be to resist the urge to design a sprawling open-world role-playing game on the first go-around.

You will probably feel frustrated at the thought of using these strategic choices to guide your design process. Take comfort in the fact that this is just the first game you’ll design. The huge, complicated, gorgeous game that you’ve been dreaming up is still out there, waiting for you to design it. By taking on smaller projects as you learn the ropes, you bring yourself closer and closer to making the game of your dreams. 

GDEX is a fantastic opportunity to see the range of games that are currently in development, with the added bonus of being able to talk to the developers behind the games that catch your eye. Tickets are on sale at the official GDEX 2017 website. We'd love to see you there!

In the next installment of Stop Pining and Get Game Designing we’ll look at your skillset in another way. Although you don’t want to fall into the trap of infinite research and skill-building, you do want to fill in the gaps in your skillset as you go along. So how do you do that? Furthermore, how do you do that without halting your design process?

Join us next time to find out!

- Lindsay