What should a game designer learn?

What should a game designer study?
But what experiences are beneficially to my game design?
All of them.

This was one of the more memorable conversations that took place in my game design class. Student was asking what supplemental courses to take (art, programming, animation, history, etc.). The teacher’s response could be boiled down to this: There are no experiences that can’t be useful to a game designer. So, what does that mean?

There are two main aspects to this, experiences and skills. I will start with experiences. Any experience can be used to influence game design. Perhaps a scene from a movie you watched gave you an idea for that nagging mechanic you are trying to figure out. Maybe your experience extending your running range influences how you design level up mechanics. Or you could even design an entire game to get across the sense of peace you experienced when sitting on a hill on a sunny day and got a whiff of some flowers. A designer, of almost any kind, draws on their life experiences to inform their design. So the more experiences you have, the more paints you have in your design paint kit. But where do you get the brushes to apply that paint?

That is where the skills you pick up come in. The broader your skill set the more of a game you can influence. For a very simple example a programmer with some basic art skills can make temp assets without going to an artist every time. Similarly a UI designer with some programming experience can figure out what the programming flow might look like while they are making the design. In short if you can expect what the next step in design is the better you can prepare for it and possibly save everyone’s time. Or even (as I am doing) create something completely by yourself.

What I have heard this skill distribution referred to is a T skill distribution. Meaning you have a basic understanding of everything in the pipeline, maybe even enough skill to help out on occasion. BUT that you have one or two specialties. The broad “base” of the T vs its tall central pillar. In this way, no skill you learn is wasted in the design space. Even seemingly unrelated skills can surprise you when they come up and are invaluable.