My name is Joe and I study game design. This advice is helpful for game design students in official university settings, and hopefully for anyone new to the world of game development. I hope you find it valuable—and if you would like a topic discussed in future posts, let me know by commenting.
1. Experience Life Outside of the Gaming Industry
Game designers can and should draw inspiration from every aspect of their life, not soley the hours spent playing games. Usually, in order to come up with an idea that is unique and innovative, you draw inspiration from something that has nothing to do with games. Press your advantage here; gain as much life as time and money allow. Hike, travel, play an instrument, frequent museums, read and discuss books with others or anything else you might enjoy. Any adventure may be the inspiration for your next hit game—so start building up that collection.
2. Always Carry a Notebook
If inspiration can come from anywhere while you are enjoying all of these life experiences, make sure you have a notebook on you. Smartphones are great and I keep a ton of notes on mine, but it is really nice to have a small notebook and pencil because you can add sketches to your notes. I prefer the A5 size unruled notebooks. A quick internet search will reveal that you can pick some up inexpensively. It's down to preference and there is no right nor wrong way, but be sure to have some means of recording your ideas as inspiration strikes. Do not rely on memory!
3. Level Up Technical Skills
Early in my game design studies, I had a conversation with my career advisor, an industry veteran. I asked him, "What is the best possible way to spend my time outside of school work?" He advised me to spend it increasing my technical skill. He reminded me that after pre-production and planning, the bulk of the work in the development process moves to artists and programmers. As designers, we want to be sure our skills remain useful throughout the production process.
If you design on a small team, then most likely, you wear different hats; the more areas of expertise, the better. You may be able to get away with only design knowledge in a AAA game designer position, but even then, you would be putting yourself at disadvantage without intelligent discussion with artists or programmers. Learn to code, learn to make art, learn to manage a development process, and you will know better where you belong and what others do.
4. Play Different Games
You can finally argue that playing games is research for you now, so play as many different kinds of games as you can get your hands on. You limit yourself as a designer if you spend almost all of the time playing the same MMO, FPS, or MOBA as everyone else. Play games in every genre: indie games, AAA games, board games, games that you normally would not be interested in, and even bad games. You can learn as much, if not more, from playing a bad game as you would by playing a critically-acclaimed one. The point here is that the more varied your experiences are, the more knowledgeable you become.
5. Make Games
Game design and development is like any other skill; we need a lot of practice. Do not feel intimidated to get started.
Our first 10 or so games might be terrible. That is absolutely fine as long as we learn from them.
You just want to get them out of the way as soon as possible so start creating. Make board games at first if you have to. Everyone has the technical skills to make one, and board games can offer valuable lessons in design.
Depending on your journey, this is advice you have heard a million times or have never heard at all. In either case, I believe these are always valuable. I look forward sharing the advice which aids my study and pursuit of this passion.