Saturday, 22 January 2011

The role of the game designer

(Due to moving to a new city (Utrecht), I didn't have the time to gather balancing data for Swords & Soldiers for the post I promised last week. So that topic will be for another time!)

A little while ago I was asked to judge a couple of student game projects from the Utrecht School of the Arts. Seeing a glimpse of the group dynamics that happen within these projects is mightily interesting!

The main thing I saw in that group, was that they had no idea what the game designer's role should be. I think the things that went wrong in their team, are nice examples of how I think a game designer should function. Of course, there are many ways in which a game development team can function, but this is how I personally see it.

"I tried pitching my concepts to the rest of the team, but they didn't want to build them. Could you teach me how to communicate my ideas better?" - the game designer

No. This is entirely the wrong way of thinking. In a team of creative people, the game designer does not have to be the one to come up with the basic concepts. This should be a group process. Through brainstorming and things like that, ideas should come up that the entire team likes. Anyone can have good ideas, not just the game designer.

Many game design students seem to think that coming up with ideas is the main job of the game designer. It is not. The idea is just 1% of the development process and the game designer is not better at this than the other people in the team.

"For the control scheme I researched how other games did this, implemented it, and tweaked the settings to make it feel good. I worked so hard, are you not impressed?" - the programmer

No. This programmer worked hard, but on the wrong things. To do their job, game designers need tools from the programmer. So the programmer should implement the control scheme, but he should not be the one to tweak and experiment with it. The main role of the programmer is to empower the rest of the team to do their job. Keep that in mind at all times! Make settings files, or something like that, and let the game designer do his job!

"We divided such tasks, so I was in charge of the playtesting sessions." - the 3D artist

Why split these tasks? In small teams, it is often difficult enough anyway to constantly keep the game designer busy, since he is probably often waiting for new features from the programmer. Creating questionnaires and analysing playtests is definitely something the game designer should be doing!

"The level was finished way too late, because no one was in charge of level design." - the team

Euhm, what? You have a game designer in your team, why is he not automatically in charge of the level design? I know that in large teams, game designers and level designers have separate roles, but in smaller team, I think they should usually be one and the same person. It is quite rare for a small game concept to require enough game design work to keep a game designer occupied full-time during the entire project. Since level design is all about gameplay anyway, the game designer is a natural fit to also be a level designer.

Also, I can think of dozens of games where there is hardly any role for the game designer at all if he would not do level design as well. Just think of the old Mario games. Almost all design hours there would be in the level design, hardly anything in the game design!

"I'm a game designer, I cannot create things myself." - the game designer

Learn some tools, RIGHT NOW! It sucks to always have to wait for a programmer who also needs to do other things. There are tons of tools that are fit for a game designer to create small prototypes. Create mods in the Starcraft II or the Unreal III editor, or create little playable thingies in Gamemaker or Virtools. Also, take scissors, paper and dice and create paper prototypes. Learn to make stuff!

"Then what does a game designer do?" - the game designer's mother

Let me give some examples:
  • tweak values (like walking speed, jumping height, health, etc.)
  • design levels and puzzles
  • design tutorials
  • organise and analyse playtests
  • balancing
  • research existing (similar) games

Finally, I'm going to end this blogpost with a nice little blunt remark of my own:

”Game designers who lack the skills to actually create things are useless fools.” - Joost van Dongen


  1. Great article. Looking to becoming a designer myself and has opened my eyes a bit. Used some of your blog in a report. Have quoted and included a link, no plagarism ;)