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The Game Designer Class - What does he do?
by Adriaan Jansen on 02/19/12 11:09:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This blogpost is written with great care and attention at Abbey Games.

After finishing your favorite game, you may have stopped and thought: "Wow, what an amazing game! I wish I could make a game as awesome as this one!". Then it hits you. Why not? But how can I become a game designer? Which skills or talents do I need? What does a game designer actually do anyway!? There are many important questions to be answered before, so I decided to make a series of blog-posts about them! Because we're talking games here, and because it's fun, let's treat these blogs as an RPG character creation guide, shall we? The different "chapters" are:

  1. Role: What are the tasks of a game designer?
  2. Passive Abilities: What are favorable character traits?
  3. Powers: What are important skills?
  4. Weaknesses: What are the biggest pitfalls?

Of course, these are just my humble opinions, mixed with some wise words of Jesse Schell, local hero Joost van Dongen, and the guys from Extra Credits. So, to the first part: What are the tasks of a game designer? To keep it simple, I'll just talk about 3 of the activities that I do the most.


Role 1 - Crafting the Experience

A game is actually an experience. The experience of being a medieval hero, the experience of being a soldier or any other kind of experience. Even the most basic game is composed of strings of experiences. Take Pacman. You experience what it's like to be a collector (which is a low paced experience), and switch between the experience of being hunted and the experience of being a hunter (Which are both more exciting). The player is having fun because he's experiencing something he likes, and it's YOUR job to make sure those experiences are top notch! Note that you're not necessarily the one coming up with the core experience. If you want to make an eel-adventure-party game and one of the techboys comes up with a brilliant rpg where you play a witch, the team is probably going to agree to make the second game. It's your task to make sure that the player is going to feel like a scary, powerful and mysterious witch.

Let's say we're making a game where the player is a superhero. That's a compelling experience! Everyone has wondered what it's like to be a superhero. You've got the initial attention of the player, but that doesn't mean the experience is already done.

  • What if there are no challenging baddies? This greatly interferes with the experience of being a superhero, because a part of being a superhero is the superhero-drama! Think about your favorite superhero going down to the baddy in that one episode, and just completely kicking his ass in 3 or 5 seconds. There is no tension in that! Superheroes come in just in time, and win by just an inch. We have to make sure the player experiences that!
  • What if there are only challenging baddies? So a lot of tension right? Ok, so we put in some arch-nemeses, and we're done! NO! What is a superhero, if he can never distinguish himself from the common man he protects? You need to show off your  power! We need the 500 goons to show the player that he's a superhero that can take on 500 goons easily. Being a superhero is being powerful, and the player must feel it!
  • What if the controls are buggy? This seems a bit out of our lane, but it's really important. How would you feel being a superhero, and not being able to control your body as you wish? You would look totally lame crashing into that building, because you couldn't get the controls right. It interferes with the player's experience of power and awesomeness, so it must be fixed.

I could go on hours and hours about experiences, but let's keep that for another time. The point is, you create the experience. You try to make your experiences as convincing as possible using mechanics, timing, story, possibilities, controls, game properties, rewards, punishments and to a lesser extend art-style, animation, and sound (this is more like the artists/sound designer's job). This brings us to...


Role 2 -Pitching & Communicating

You've got an idea, now its time to bring it to the team! This aspect seems easy. Just tell em, right? But you have to do so much more. You have to convince the team that this idea will enhance the experience and is worth the time and effort to implement. See how many things are already in that sentence?

  1. You have to convince the team... This means you need to take time to have a clear conversation together. Organize stuff, anticipate on questions and make sure that everything is clear. A good game designer designs his pitch.
  2. ...that the idea will enhance the experience... You don't tell the team what to do. You try to make them experience what you have in mind. Here at Martian Flytrap for example, Bas (the programmer) often thinks critically about the ideas I present. He should, because if they suck, he's wasting time and money! I have to show him the context and use of the idea, so that we share the same view on the game. Sometimes, small narrative changes are all it takes. "No, that character isn't jumping, but using a jet-pack", gives a different view on the game, while the mechanics might still be the same.
  3. ...and worth the time and effort to implement.  This one is easy. Know what your team does, and know how hard it is to implement your idea. you're not the expert, but you can get a good hunch. If you know the costs of implementing your idea, you know if it's even worth bringing up.

Naturally, this is not a one way street. You have to listen carefully to the team as well! If you've discussed your idea and the team still thinks it stinks, two things could have happened. Either you didn't do the pitch well enough, or your idea just stinks. The latter is 100 times more likely to occur, especially if you're working with open-minded, listening people. Keep in mind your ideas could not be as good as you thought! It's part of the process!

By the way, writing game design documents is also a form of communication!  

 Role 3 - Testing & Tweaking

So, you got your experience set, and you asked the artist and programmer to implement it. The game is done, and so are you! Hahaha, no. Now comes the big part. The game designer should test the game on people, and tweak it according to their feedback. That's just a lot of work, and it takes up a lot of time. Especially towards the polishing-stage of the development process. You're going to test, tweak, test, tweak, test, throw away, test, tweak, etc. forever and ever. Tweaking can range from changing a few parameters to totally changing the way you approach the experience. You'll be set back to role 1, the crafting of the experience, often. Re-crafting, in this case. Also, note the "throw away" earlier. Sometimes, something is just plain off. We take it out, and try to fix the problem with something else. Don't be afraid to throw things away, it's a vital part of the process. This also encourages you to test soon and often, so you can change things earlier and easier.

It's also important to get the right people to test your game, and inviting people is part of the game designer's job as well. You have to think about the right audience, right game experience, and the right knowledge of your game. Sometimes, it's better to test the game multiple times on one person, and sometimes it's better to test it on new test subjects.  

Hopefully that wall of text was useful for you! Thanks for reading, and next time, we'll talk about favorable character traits for the game designer!

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Game Designer


Nick Harris
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Ergonomics is fundamental. The best game / story in the world will be ruined by an inefficient control scheme. As long as players are forced to mediate their actions through primitive gaming peripherals they will need avatars to be subtly empowered to compensate for the disabilities inherent in the interface. HUDs also require consideration: can they be legitimately justified as part of a high-tech Nanosuit, or suppressed so that the experiential qualities of being in the world are only temporarily detracted from when absolutely necessary, as in Far Cry 2.

Super Mario 64 started off as a rolling ball because Miyamoto wanted to ensure his team got the "feel" right. Rare worked wonders with Goldeneye 007 by making FPS controls whose rapidity and precision rivalled the PC's Mouse and Keyboard, arguably creating an interface that was more comfortable than QWERTY buttons. Halo 3 developed the "golden tripod", a utilization of the 360's gamepad which enabled the player to throw grenades, melee opponents and fire their weapon without having to take their thumbs from the move / look sticks.

The "bumper jumper" setting made it equally easy to traverse the environments with all the agility of a platform game, where many games awkwardly locate Jump on the (A) button, forcing the player to move their thumb from the Right Thumb Stick and consquently making them more aware of the controls that they are manipulating and therefore less immersed in the experience. Other games put Crouch on (B) which may seem acceptable until you watch Professionals Crouch in mid-Jump to get to otherwise impossible to reach areas of a Map by clicking the Left Thumb Stick.

Controls need to be prioritized and assigned accordingly to the most accessible regions of the interface. This means that many features are pushed away to the D-Pad, Back, Start or Face buttons, accessed via radial contextual menus and pause screens or with great sorrow eliminated altogether. An articulate interface does not win plaudits for clunkiness. Orthogonality, elegance and elegant trump wanton sophistication. It would be wise to avoid the following complexity, just because you have the keys free doesn't mean you must use all of them!

Some features even benefit from being relatively inaccessible. Reloading a weapon takes time, so it should be on a face button not an immediately accessible bumper. It is also correct that you should hold (B) rather than tap it to exchange your weapon with one on the ground as this would take more time than a reload, it is nice that (B) can be held in advance of being in the correct proximity for the exchange.

It doesn't matter that Mario is an absurdly talented acrobat, or Bond can briefly lean out from cover to head-shot an enemy, or that Master Chief can leap over speeding vehicles and grasp hold of the passing wing of a jet in order to kick out its pilot as these clearly empowered characters have to navigate absurdly challenging environments and are regularly outnumbered, or facing an enemy many times their size.

Controls are hard to retrofit. They form fundamental design constraints on the play-space of the gameworld. Little things like being able to descend a ladder without falling to your death matter. Everything easy to do in life shouldn't be such a sweat if recreated in a videogame. If interactive conversations can't be aborted with a (B) for "Bye!" at any point, then you may as well have had an in-game cutscene. If you lack the ability to properly control a Helicopter whilst looking around for threats / targets, then the compromises chosen by Black Ops and Medal of Honor will have to suffice until we all have a TrackerIR 5 or some help from a Kinect 2 equivalent:

I have to say I'm dismayed that Studios seem obsessed with Story. I sincerely hope that it is just what their Marketing Department will allow them to talk about whilst their game in still in production and that it wasn't a fundamental constraint shaping their vision of the game, for that way leads to failure:

Personally, I don't think players want to be a stuntman playing the role of Jason Bourne, it wouldn't have even made a difference if Matt Damon had agreed to have his image used in the game, as people want to be the Spy, not some nerk told to punch this and "hit (X) to slide under that". However, to do that they will have to have the courage to avoid recreating the Movie, to make it less miserably linear. Here is the canned game "Treadstone" with nary a Quick-Time Event in sight, even though it is clearly unfinished it shows just how much better it would have been to focus on letting the controls express the Character rather than force your avatar to run through a rigidly plotted Story:

Unlike the released game, this needed to have strong controls to support its planned Multiplayer mode. In fact, the early existence of Multiplayer will prove an invaluable "shakedown" Sandbox for game balance and accessibility testing. Make that solid and then use those sets of controls to define what Stories you can tell.