Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why did I become a Game Designer?

I ask myself this questions because from my experience so far everyone seems to be a 'game designer' of sorts. Of course all the artists you speak to are game designers, and don't forget the programmers and animators all throwing in their "two cents worth". If everyone knows design and can implement it on their own what is the needed for this overpaid, unskilled, subordinate of the team??

The problem lies in the mentality that everyone thinks they're a designer at heart. But when have you ever heard a level designer telling an animator to move the key frames because "it doesn't feel right". Or a programmer that his line of code becomes obsolete because the For loop negates the... well you get the picture. But when it comes to design everyone has a hundred different ways to solve your problem.

Designers are good at creating work (problems) for others. Designers are bad at providing the tools necessary for solving these problems.

And I couldn't agree more. We know how to create all the design documents and say what we want to happen, but when someone encounters a problem we're also the first to find an excuse. "Don't worry I'll design that part later" or "I'll fix it when we have a full game built". The reason we have this issue is because a lot of the game designers are actually bad designers. No matter how many times an artist does a concept (taking practice out of the equation) a bad drawing is a bad drawing. However when designing everything is 'theoretical' and if given a choice between design A and design B you just pick the better of the two. It doesn't necessarily mean its better, or indeed a good design. We shouldn't rely on other people to have to implement ideas, we should be there with a solution to that idea even before it arises. We should have the skill set so that when people come across inevitable problems, we have tools to fix them. After all Design and problem solving is why we got into this game, isn't it?

"Given enough time and resource a bad designer can make a good design."

So we've identified the problem, now where do we find the solution? Looking on the back of your hand won't help with this one. The sweat has washed away any chance you had a looking credible and now you have to rely on your design knowledge to fix it. I guess when it comes down to it, there is no definitive answer. As a designer we have nothing to measure or compare our work with. I can put in my 10,000hrs in and read as many books and articles as my brain can digest and know that I am a better designer for it. But how do other people see this or even measure the improvement? As you see an artist's portfolio expand you see their skills expanding immensely, you see their colour palette broaden and the light sources fill the scene with subtle highlights. A designer on the other hand has no visual aid to fight their corner or shout support in your time of desperation. You can argue of course that a beautifully crafted design document in Google Sketchup will do the trick, but who knows if it's actually any good?

There is a light on the horizon however, and with light comes excitement.

With games courses (including my own) ever expanding on the teaching and practice of games design. And with industry professionals joining hands with academia, we can work together to identify exactly what a game designers is and should do. In the industry we are not graced with the time to take a magnifying glass to the design closet pinpointing exactly what a games designer is and should be. But in this creative academic environment we are given the precious time to teach and evolve our skills and toolset ready for the industry. With these tools we gain from academia we can throw the students into the deep, ever expanding pond of talent and hopefully we can see a real change in how people view games designers. Not as an accessory to the team. Not as a person with all the ideas and no solutions. But as the true bond that holds the team together. Who has all the solutions before the ideas are dreamt. If a member of the team needs to know exactly how something works, we should be the ones to answer as we know the game inside out and back to front. We set the pace, we "achieve the most with the least". Nothing will be accidental and every item placement and chainsaw will run more like a finely tuned machine than an ever expanding snowball of unknowns.

I highly recommend reading this design article too which inspired the post.


  1. Such is the vastness and depth of the subject that I worry a meaningful reply would spiral helplessly out of control, but I'll just say this was a fascinating read that really got me thinking on a very relevant and current problem in games design.

    I've been working as a designer in a variety of teams and projects for years now (weird to say) and there are unquestionably unseen walls between departments. The company I work in is "design-led" which means the designers are the leaders, the planners, and because of this most problems can be seen to track back to them, leading to the trademark bitterness often seen between employees and managers. This is because design is a management role in truth, it's about overseeing bigger picture concerns, how everything connects together and the context of the art animations and code within it all. Good design is the same as good management.

    I'm still new to the leadership role in truth, but my rule number 1 is know exactly what you want before you ask for it. This is often harder than it sounds, due to the pace projects move and because when talking to professionals in fields you don't entirely understand yourself (animation, code) there is a temptation to let them fill in the blanks. Of course when imparting the idea there will be feedback and ideas, and you need to be flexible enough to incorporate those and sometimes replace bits of the original concept.. but you can't approach people with a task full of holes with the expectation of them having their own ideas. Understand what you're trying to achieve and know exactly what you need to make it happen, everyone will feel better as a result.

    Anyway shutting up now before I start rambling. I'll say it's (like anything in games) a delicate balance and often a juggling act, but its a nice freshly challenging part of the job :) Nice one Pete.


  2. Thanks Steve, glad it was thought provoking. Its great to hear what your thoughts are on this subject as you rise in the ranks and find yourself taking on more roles in the team. Interesting reply, thanks :)

  3. Hello Peter! Great read, great question to ask oneself in this field. Game designers do suffer from a double standard of sorts that other professionals in the industry do not, usually, have to deal with.

    I just wanted to drop you a line as I mentioned your post in a post of my own here:


  4. Thanks Will! Look forward to reading your blog post too :)

  5. Awesome read! I'm glad I found your blog Pete!