By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
Once the longer proposal has been approved the project gets under way officially and a designerís work really begins. Although the game proposal may have set an overall look for the game and set out some ideas about plot, characters, monsters, and the like, it is far from a fully-developed, set-in-stone description. The proposal is created mostly to get management approval (or in the case of start-up developers, funding), and thus it necessarily does not involve the whole team. Once it has been approved, the team can be hired, and then the process of turning some pictures and words into an entire game begins.
After the proposal goes through, the full game design document will be created, with as much input from the entire team as possible. This "design doc" ideally lists every single item that will need to be created in order to ship the game. This is where a designerís skills are first and most crucially needed, but sadly I have met many in the industry, especially those doing 3D, who devalue the design doc because of the difficulties of trying to accurately predict everything which will be needed, especially when the technology the game will run on is not implemented. This is a shame, because being able to create a useful design document is the most important skill a general designer can have.
The fact that there are any designers in the industry at all who scoff at design docs is an example of the industryís own most common misconception about designers: that they donít need to know anything except how to "build levels." Almost any game today, 3D or not, has some sort of editor which is used to assemble art assets into playable data. Constructing the levels consumes the bulk of most projectsí schedules. It is easy to see how less perceptive management could confuse level building with game design, but they are not the same.
Pure Level builders do not necessarily need any skills beyond knowledge of how to use an editor for a specific game or game genre to construct levels. Designers need to be able to build levels, but they need to understand how to generalize their experience in level editors from different games or even different genres and even explain to the programming team what kind of editor they will need to build the game which has been described in the game proposal management approved. On top of this, designers need to be skillful enough to handle many other random tasks on a game, from dialogue writing to game script coding to weapon damage tweaking to model building, in order to fill in holes in the schedule or just do gameplay research.
Many people employed as level builders have the designerís ability to generalize their experience, make plans, and perform all sorts of tasks, and could serve as general designers. Many general designers actually spend most of their time building levels. Nonetheless, it is important to note that these are two different disciplines - some companies even put their level builders in their art department rather than the design department. Both roles are important, but general designers are especially important, for reasons that will soon become clear.
In the early days of computer game development, there were at first only programmers, and then programmers and artists, and they did all the parts of the game building which a designer would handle now. One of the major roles designers fulfill at a company is to allow artists and programmers to concentrate on their parts of the project. Modern games have increasingly high production values, and it is almost never feasible to have anyone who is both a programmer or artist and a designer - the difficulty of switching between such different types of work leads to a high degree of inefficiency.
The advantage that was lost when the task of creating the gameplay was split off from technology and art creation was the ability to integrate all the parts of the game easily and seamlessly. Now, an artist who can build and paint amazing characters may have no idea what sort of environments they are going to go in or how to put them there, and a programmer writing a physics system may have no idea of what kind of puzzles are in the design doc or how to test them. It is a designerís job to be able to communicate with all the other people on the project and make sure everyone knows how their part fits into the minute-to-minute play of the game. This sort of very microscopic attention to detail canít be handled by the gameís project leader, because they will be dealing with bigger issues than the fact that all the blue creatures suddenly clash with a now-orange level, so it falls upon the designer to work through or even anticipate and prevent these situations.
So besides being a good planner, a designer needs to be an excellent communicator. In game making, effective communication requires in-depth knowledge of all the different facets of game production, again ruling out the specialists. The best designers today have a background in art and/or programming, and thus can make reasonable requests and suggestions to the programmers and artists. The worst designers have never taken a programming class or opened up Photoshop or MAX, and thus have unrealistic expectations for what programmers can do and no idea how to suggest ideas for tricks with textures or 3D models to an artist.
In the end, although a designer may end up doing a lot of level building, or may write hundreds of pages of dialogue, or spend their time tuning damages, a true designer is not just a level builder or script writer or gameplay balancer. Dictionary definitions for design include, "inventing, or making a plan for." Implementation is, if anything, a byproduct of a designerís work. Without plans and invention, a modern game would get nowhere. It is far past time for the industry to both improve its treatment of designers as well as improving its quality of designers, but even if this doesnít happen, at least we know that we can tell industry outsiders that what we do isnít programming, itís planning.
- Rich Wyckoff was a game designer on the recent title Trespasser from Dreamworks Interactive.
|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.|