Proper Games’ Andrew Smith explores why the designer is singled out in a team endeavour
What does it mean to be a Game Designer? I’m trying desperately not to be too philosophical or naval gazing, but what does it mean to a person – having to design a game professionally?
Well it’s a mixture of things, and is so often misunderstood or miscommunicated – not only to the layperson but also among teams of developers.
Strangely enough, after wracking my brains on this for a good long while, the closest thing in ‘real life’ to being a Game Designer that I can think of is parenthood.
So how is being a Game Designer like raising a child, you ask? Let me elaborate.
Not only is it a huge investment of time and creative energy, it requires things of you that you’d never expect, you’ll see yourself and others from new perspectives, and if it goes well it’s one of the most satisfying endeavours you could ever embark upon. But that’s glossing over it a little bit. Let me delve into some detail, starting with what every game needs. An idea.
First off the idea needs to be conceived – heavy handed I know but bear with me. Here’s where it differs vastly depending on your opinions and experiences of bringing up a family.
Essentially, someone has to come up with the idea. It’s almost impossible to do so on your own, though there are ways. Often with a game it is someone else’s privilege entirely. (Make of that what you will in terms of the metaphor!)
Sometimes this is your direct boss, sometimes it’s from The Management up in their gold-lined throne room, dictating an order down to the dev floor.
Sometimes it’s an outside client, wanting a game made but not really knowing how, and more often than not it’s a publisher, knowing exactly what they want, pretending they don’t, and getting you and your team to do the dirty work of actually producing the thing.
The irony is that as a Designer, most people expect this bit to be the most fun part of your work, and the area in which you spend most of your time. Well that’s entirely incorrect. It’s honestly the part of the process you have the least direct influence on.
The next step is the act of nurturing the idea – playing with your baby, encouraging inquisitiveness and seeing them take their firs steps. This is where your talents and specific skillset come into play as a designer.
You have to use your expertise to inform the early direction of an idea. You have to not only recognize the positive potential and make sure it is properly encouraged, you have to be wary of possible negative directions that the idea could be taken.
It is not enough to just be aware of these elements, but to balance them in proper amounts. Yin and Yang if you will.
The best idea in the world for a character-based platformer could easily be ruined if someone influential wants to take the focus on characters and force it down the route of an RPG, but who knows what a bit of character growth (stats and story) would do for a ‘stagnant’ genre?
It’s all about ensuring the right outside influences are incorporated in the right amounts, and at the right time.
Guarding the idea comes next. Having to watch it come under the influence of outside elements. Playschool, social interactions, and having to bite your tongue now and then – and not to mention the common wisdom that a few bruises are necessary at this stage for proper development to take place.
You cannot mollycoddle your baby, or your idea at this stage.
The most difficult part is making sure people have respect for the idea while it is merely a prototype. People have to accept it’s in the early stages, still being formed and still exploring the world you’ve set up for it with the boundaries you’ve decided to enforce.
This is a very stressful part of the process, because it’s almost impossible to defend an idea until it is playable, and even then god help you if it isn’t fun enough!
This stage is all about giving the idea the chance it deserves. It takes a lot of faith from other team members, but is totally necessary.
I’ve seen too many good ideas for games castrated and mutilated under the often-merciless gaze of games developers. But it is always worth remembering that nobody in the entire world sets out to make a bad game.
There are checks and procedures that can help the wary developer identify them, but unless you have the trust and time it requires, the idea can be ruined by simply being overprotective and too conservative at this formative stage.
Teaching and communication are very important parts of raising a child.
Being able to convey one’s feelings accurately and succinctly, while also having a thirst for knowledge and having the opportunity to slake that thirst are privileges most parents wish for their children. So too communication plays a key part in the core time of a game’s development.
As a Designer you must be able to communicate the idea properly. By properly I don’t necessarily mean clearly in one sense, but many.
There’s as many senses as there’s disciplines in game development.
Artists and musicians need to understand the mood, tone and style intended for the game. Is it fast paced, action packed, visceral and bombastic? Or is it serene, sombre, thoughtful, plodding and rewarding? Programmers need to know the scope and the specs of all the little details. Not a glamorous process, but definitely a required one.
How many sub-menus does a particular screen have? What functionality do we need for the tutorials – pause-and-tell or something a bit more interactive? How many units high should the player jump in every single differing state?
Level Designers have to know the pace, structure and narrative arc of a game so that they can sensibly integrate their ideas as a team and individually.
This is admittedly the easiest thing for a Designer to communicate accurately, as most Level Designers think the same way as Designers themselves. A rare chance for (relatively) confusion-free discourse!
Producers need to know why a certain feature is more important than the other, thereby informing what the rest of the team spend their time doing. This is serious responsibility. Management needs reason to believe in your ability to successfully steer and deliver on all of these promises you’re making to everyone on the team.
That’s what you do in essence; you make promises and try your damned best to keep them.
This is by far the end of the complications however. Each discipline will take on board the information in subtly different ways according to their training and experience, resulting in tons of unforeseen and often incredible miscommunications.
Even syntax and phrases that are assumed knowledge in one discipline may well mean something entirely different in another. The vagaries of the Game Design Dictionary (if such a thing exists) only stir up the already muddy waters.
All of the above is made hugely more difficult because you are not necessarily the person who came up with the idea in the first place. This is where true professionalism in the design field comes through – convincing yourself of a particular game element’s value in the face of all the doubters and probing questions is key to ensuring confidence in your abilities, and ultimately helps to deliver a quality product at the end of the cycle.
But I personally think that Designers are left to hang in this part of the process.
I’m all for expecting us to have a decent understanding of each part of the development process, but too often a Designer has to shoulder the blame for all of the development teams’ failings.
Indeed, it all comes back to poor planning, which after all is based on the Designer’s initial opinion, specifications and input. But a Designer can never scope a menu system for a multiplayer game better than he could with the detailed and un-distracted attention of his network coding compatriot.
Similarly you’d never expect a Designer to sit with the Artists day in day out to make sure they’re on target with poly counts and texture limits.
What is too often asked of the Designer is the impossible.
To design and scope every single element of a game from scratch without ever actually getting a hands-on session with the product is insane. The same train of thought would expect the product to be bug-free because planning can solve all of our coding woes ahead of time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against planning - I just want to make sure that expectations are tempered by the reasonable application of common sense and accepting that nothing is done in a vacuum.
Time, budget, people, skillset and experience - these all affect the quality of art, sound, and code. Similarly they affect the quality and thoroughness of any game’s design.
Finally, allowing the child to leave the nest is often regarded as the hardest part. Allowing what you’ve poured your heart and soul into to up and leave, and try to make something of itself. It’s emotional to say the least. The same goes for finishing a game and see it fly off into the marketplace. It’s tough, because in your eyes it is never ready. More so than in any other discipline.
While an Artist could console himself to the idea that a model looks less than perfect because of a polygon limit, or a coder squirms at the mention of a bug in a review but knows that the publisher waived it… the Designer has nowhere to hide.
All of these issues, and more, are directly their fault. Everything can be traced to a decision they made, or a concession they gave. Every single element of a game is ultimately the way it is down to a decision that the Designer had key power over. And that, my friends, hurts like hell.
But it’s part of the job, and just as you learn not to mind when your 50th idea gets shot down in the concept meeting, you learn to cope with the feeling that everything is your fault.
I’ll leave you with the only consolation I’ve found that always works. Despite everything, the person who likes your game enough to buy it and then play it only knows the reality of what they are playing.
They don’t like it despite of the fact that you had to cut the multiplayer mini-games, they’re busy enjoying what is in the game. They don’t look beyond the less-than optimal controls screen layout, they simply see the one on their screen.
Despite all the arguments and concessions and all the times you had to compromise, they simply have no idea it happened and it has no influence on their opinion at all.
It ultimately doesn’t matter.