By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
nyone who makes games is well aware of the difficulty of explaining their job to someone from outside the industry. The most that can be expected is that the outsider will know about "programming," but even so they wonít really understand what it is, they just assume it is what you have to do to a computer (this is probably why formatting text with html became known as "programming"). Attempting to claim a non-programming occupation such as game design will only result in blank looks.
But worse than the lack of understanding outside the games industry, game designers face a lack of understanding within the industry. There are many reasons for this, with one of the largest being the fact that every game team seems to have a different set of titles for its members, such that "designer" is a title that doesnít even exist universally. The lack of available formal education for the position also means that to upper management who may not even know what goes on in production, designers are a bunch of uncategorizable weirdos, even more so than programmers and artists, and thus not worthy of much respect.
The poor understanding of designers has made design the lowest-paid position in the industry, and one often viewed as interchangeable, easily filled, and not requiring much demonstrated background or demonstrable skill. These often undiscriminating hiring policies on a role that seems to outsiders to be one with a huge amount of power also means that there is a vast pool of wannabe designers willing to take a job for wages no programmer or artist would accept, making it much harder for experienced designers to move from company to company at a mid-level position.
Despite the current problems with the role, designers are becoming increasingly important game developers. For this reason, it is worth trying to define the role more accurately, and clear up some of the confusion. The most important misconception is that a designer is the sole person who comes up with the idea for a game - thus the person to whom the most glory (or blame) should be attached.
This myth is frequently spread by game magazines, who often tend to refer to industry greats like Shigeru Miyamoto and Sid Meier as "designers" when in fact at this point in their careers they are doing more management then design. Miyamoto tends to refer to himself in interviews as a producer, not a designer, in fact, and while different companies have a lot of different titles for the kind of leadership and vision that he brings to his games (titles such as project leader and director), his role by any title is a step beyond designer.
What a designer actually does is invent and specify every element that will make up the game and then implements those elements that will not be handled by programmers or artists. This may sound like the same thing as coming up with the idea for the game, but it really is not.
The first step in making a game at most companies is to submit a very short game concept (one or two pages, or even just a verbal idea) to management, seeking to get approval to go forward. This concept can come from anywhere, even from management themselves (e.g. "make us a sequel to Big Seller I"). This original document or idea sets very little in stone, except for overall game type (3D, 2D, FPS, RTS, RPG, etc), and perhaps the setting/product line it will take place in, especially if it is a sequel.
If management approves of the short proposal, it will then be expanded by a small group of people into a longer document with concept art, descriptions of gameplay and the technology needed, and rough ideas of the number of levels, characters, weapons, or other game-relevant stats. These people are really the ones who create the "idea" of the game, and are usually the group who will become the core of the team: the project leader/producer, lead artist, lead designer (if different from the project leader) and lead programmer. A really superb core group will come to a common vision for the game even if that vision started off as a single personís idea, and the interviews with the really good game makers (not the ones who strive to get their pictures in mass market magazines while their games slip for years) universally show that their game ideas were not theirs personally.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|