Each month, CodaKid interviews professional game designers, computer programmers, and digital artists with the goal of giving students insight on the various professions.

Today we had the privilege of interviewing veteran educational game designer Michael Handelman on the game design profession, game design best practices, and more.

How did you get into game design?

I originally wanted to write children’s books, so I went to psychology graduate school. That made little sense, so I quit and then basically was in the right place at the right time to get my first job which was at LeapFrog back when they were first starting up. I designed and produced a ton of LeapPad books, so I was able to combine my love of books with games. It was challenging because we didn’t have the benefit of a screen, just static paper with a pointer that would trigger audio depending on where on the page you touched. I think designing in that box was ultimately helpful because when I did start designing games for screen based devices, I came at it from a different perspective. So starting out having a box to work in was helpful for me to learn how to think outside of the box of traditional video game design.

I noticed that you have developed a variety of different types of games from video games, apps, interactive toys, and more. Is there a common process or model that you follow when designing games for different platforms?

My line of game design is mostly educational, so while designing for different platforms has its unique pros and cons, the most important question I need to answer is how can to make the experience so fun and engaging that players are going to really want to not only play it, but really gain something out of the play. I’ll usually start off by seeing what else is out there in the market, since it’s good to get an idea of what’s working well and not working well. Then I take a notepad and I think of ideas, sometimes sketching out drawings. You never know when a good idea will strike. Sometimes it takes days, and then in 5 minutes I’ll have it. From there it’s a lot of refining. Working with the programers to figure out if the idea is doable or can be done better, dealing with the budget/schedule, that kind of thing. Going back to your question though, the platform is secondary. What’s really important is that as a game designer I’m trying to create a certain experience for the player, which in my case is about nurturing or instilling a love of learning. Ultimately it’s not about the game, it’s about what’s going on in the player’s head that’s key. And you can create those experiences with all sorts of devices (or even no device).

What advice would you have for students who were interested in a career in game design?

The world doesn’t need more video games, we need better and more interesting games. And in order to create those games, it’s really important to have something you’re really into that you want to share with the world. So sure, it’s important to play games and analyze them, figure out what you like and don’t like, and that will come with time. But it’s just as important to pursue your passions so you have something to say. Then you can bring your interest in gaming with your other passions and create something unique. Maybe another way of saying that is to make game design a means to an end. And go for it! It’s a very cool field to work in.

Is it important to have a background in coding to be a successful game designer?

At the very least you’ll need some sort of understanding about what can be done with code to help you talk to the programmers and develop the game design documentation. So it helps, but it’s not necessary. I know very little about coding. There are some amazing ‘one-person-shops’ where women do everything from game design to graphics to programming. But more often, what I’ve seen is that the programmers have different skill sets than the game designers. Now that people are learning more coding at younger ages, it, it will be interesting to see if there’s more people with both skill sets and what they do with it.

What is the most challenging part of designing a video game?

Figuring out and deciding what not to do. Because every decision you make, means that you aren’t doing a zillion other things.

What are your top three favorite video games of all time and why?

I love the old handheld Mattel football game. It’s just little red dots, but the gameplay can really get you in the flow of being, something as a game designer you are aiming for your users to experience. Along those lines, Groove Coaster Zero is a super fun musical rhythm app with amazing visuals that really track the beat, so you experience the rhythms in a visceral way. Super Mario Brothers was the first game where I couldn’t wait to come home from school and play since it opened up a whole world of adventure and challenges. Over the years, I’ve downloaded thousands of apps but mostly just to see what’s out there and experience new styles of game play. While I’m not a ‘hardcore gamer’ I am super into pinball. There’s something about the physical act of controlling the ball that I love.

Where do see game design in 10 years? What changes do you see coming to the industry?

I’m hoping that educational technology games get a lot better in the next 10 years. They’ve come a long way but have a long way to go. It’ll be very interesting to see what game designers do with new devices like Oculus Rift, plus all the wearables and ‘internet of things.’ That’s really exciting. And I’m sure the trend will accelerate in terms of users being able to mod their own games which can be lots of fun and a great way to get game design experience and feedback on your designs.

Do you like squirrels?

Yes, they are one of my all time favorite rodents.



Michael Handelman has has been creating interactive children’s media for over 13 years. After earning his masters in child psychology, Michael became one of the first producers and game designers at LeapFrog where he spent the next 8 years working on a variety of best selling games. In 2008, he formed Playtime Interactive which has designed games and apps for Pearson, Hasbro, Mattel, LeapFrog, Nickelodeon, and K12. His latest venture (Don’t) Guess My Race is an educational app that teaches new ways to think about race and diversity.


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