It’s a sign of the times that when, a few years ago, I said “I design videogames” people would smile, nod and either look for something or someone else to talk to.  This does still happen at times but it’s now become more common for people to say “hey, that’s cool.  Bet it’s a fun job!”  I confirm that it is.  More recently still, and people have started to then go on and ask me exactly what it is that I do.  And that’s where I stumble a bit, because it’s not easy to quickly define.

In fact, it’s one of the strangest parts of working in videogames.  Job roles are getting more defined nowadays but there is still a long way to go.  Some areas have been fairly well set for a few years now: artists tend to split into character, environment, lighting or special effects.  And the last couple of rounds of console hardware has seen programmers become more specialised too, concentrating on gameplay, graphics, physics and the like.  Animators animate and the sound guys work out how things should sound.

But exactly what a designer does on a day to day basis is something of an unknown.

As with art and code, we designers fall into various categories.  Some design mechanics, which includes writing a lot of documents, statistic calculations and working closely with gameplay programmers.  Some design levels, which requires a lot of planning and close work with the level artists.  Some spend all their time knee deep in the toolset plugging data in.  Some do a bit of everything.  I’m not going to cover all of these in this post: instead I’m going to focus on what the lead, and the senior, designers do.

Everyone is a designer

Indiana Jones / Raiders of the lost Ark One of the first lessons that you have to learn when you start making videogames is that absolutely everyone believes they are a designer. From your immediate colleagues to the man passing on the street: everyone has an opinion on what the game you’re currently working on should be like.

Usually this takes the form of an idea ripped straight from their favourite movie.  This is usually Indiana Jones or Aliens.

The job of the lead and senior designers on a game is to try and turn such ideas into something tangible and something cohesive.

Tangibility

This is the biggest part of being a lead designer.  Assuming that an idea fits inside the scope of your game, taking it and turning it into something tangible is tricky.  It doesn’t matter if it’s your idea or someone else’s: you have to delve deep into the high concept and learn how to break it down into components that can be made.

Continuing on the Indiana Jones theory, someone who happens to pay the bills has come along and said:

We’re going to make a game.  It’ll be awesome.  There’ll be this scene where you’re running away from a boulder down a narrow corridor, things crashing around you all over the place, holes opening up in the floor to jump over, spikes and traps everywhere.

Sounds great.

A designer’s job is to take this and turn it into a whole load of questions.  That single paragraph very quickly throws many up:

  • Is it 3rd or 1st person?
  • Which is the bigger threat – the boulder or the environment?
  • Are there multiple routes?
  • Does the player have control over the position of the camera?
  • What can the player do?  Run?  Jump?  Duck?  Dive?
  • Does the player have any weapons?
  • How many lives does the player have?

The list could easily go on.  And each question breaks down into many more.  Once these questions have been asked, it’s then a job of making the decisions to answer the questions.  And then turning those answers into tasks that you can take to other people on the team to do.

For instance, lets assume that we’ve decided that the camera is 3rd person and not in the player’s direct control.

This breaks down into a task for a programmer to create a camera system that can run along a preset route (a spline), have a focal point (often the player but overridden to show traps) and junctions to allow the player to change direction.

A level designer will need to rough out the corridor, placing traps and working out where the boulder will roll down from.  They’ll then need to use the tools created to place the camera splines and test that it works, iterating the position of the traps, height of the ceiling and so on to make sure the player experience is as smooth as possible.

The character artist will make the player character and the animator will need to know all the types of move they need to animate (running, jumping, diving, various deaths that can occur), and so on.

These tasks are created in unison with the other people involved so they can be put into the schedule and made sure that the tasks fit.

The main designer working on the area of the game is responsible for ensuring that everyone knows what they’re working towards, what the aims are and feeding back on progress.  The also need to work out what tweaks and balancing is required to make it fun.

Cohesion

The other main duty of a lead / senior designer is to ensure that everything that goes into the game fits into the game.  This falls into two distinct parts: making sure that no one on the team is working on something that is irrelevant, and managing the expectations and desires of everyone involved with the game.

Irrelevance

Because games constantly evolve over their development process it is very common for designs and ideas to become outdated fairly quickly.  Ideas that have been discussed and written down and tasked can very quickly get chopped and changed.

All the leads on a project should be keeping a good eye on what the latest developments are on the design, but the lead designer has to make sure that they communicate out quickly and concisely any big changes.  The producer on the game should be a big support in this regard, but it’s often very tricky when teams grow in size.  Keeping up-to-date with what eighty odd people are all doing is a full time job, and this is one of the main areas where AAA games development needs to improve.

Expectations

As I said above, everyone is a designer.  Everyone has an opinion.  A good designer will be able to take the ideas that fit with the aims of the design and weave them into the fabric of the game, while calmly explaining why certain ideas don’t fit.

This can be very difficult because some ideas come along and sound great.  But a game isn’t just a collection of great ideas, just like a football team isn’t just a collection of great players.  Everything has to work in unison to achieve greatness, and this sometimes means shelving what in its own might be wonderful, but might upset the balance of the game.

Because of the way games are often funded there is always a lot of expectation from the people paying the bills, specifically the publisher.  Managing their expectations while retaining their confidence in what is being made is one of the hardest skills to learn.  This responsibility doesn’t fall solely onto the shoulders of the lead designer, but they are an integral part.  The best way to achieve this is via pillars.

Pillars

(This is actually the conclusion, just under a different title.)

One of the big pushes in the last few years has been for developers to really define the pillars of the game, a few core statements that summarise the ultimate goal of the game.

This is a very good thing, and you should definitely strive to define the pillars as soon as possible.  Well defined pillars help in all areas – from managing tasks on a day to day basis right up to helping the marketing team sell your game.  They should act as a filter: any idea that gets proposed should be checked against the pillars.  If it fits neatly against them all then it’s worth considering as something to develop.  If it doesn’t, put it in the box of ideas for the next game.

They should be short and snappy.  They should be understandable in an instant and not full of pontification.  An example: ‘the most realistic racing game ever made’.  Simple, clear and easy to dismiss people when they come along and ask for the cars to have weapons.

If you’re working on a game and you don’t have the pillars defined, or the whole team doesn’t know them, then get onto your lead designer.  It’s not just down to them to define the pillars, but it is completely their responsibility to ensure that everyone on the team knows what they are.

And that’s what a videogame designer does.

(This is an updated version of the post from my blog a few weeks ago.  Hopefully this is a better version.)