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One part of the producer's job is working with designers. I have been in the video game business for over 20 years and have worked with a number of designers. For this article, I wanted to share some tips I have for designers. But, since I am not a designer, I thought I should get the input from some of the designers I have worked with in the past. As part of this article you will not only be hearing from me, a producer, but from a number of experienced game designers.
We Make Games!
When people ask me about being in the video game business I always reply that I really enjoy my job. "Heck, we are making games!" That simple statement says a lot. Games are technical, and they are entertaining. And, they can be a lot of fun - both playing them and making them.
On the technical side, video games are always pushing the metal as far as it can go. Video games are one of the main reasons for innovation in computer technology. Video games are one of the main reasons people will upgrade their PCs. One of the main reasons we have color on our mobile devices is for games. Every 5 or so years the console manufacturers come out with new, improved, faster, better hardware. Video games are definitely a technical adventure that one needs to stay on top of.
Video games are also entertainment. This means the goal is to make something creative and fun. This is just as, if not more, difficult than making something on the technical cutting edge. "Fun" is subjective - not only for the target audience but also on the development team. Getting everyone to agree on what is fun and then keeping to that path is a challenge in game development.
Both of these key attributes of video games must be mastered by the game designer. The designer is responsible for ensuring the game is competitive and fun.
My best design experience was actually about team work. When your team is in sync around you there's a feeling of being unstoppable. Every problem is quickly dealt with and the solutions generally become a strength of the game.
- Chris Cross, creative director, Nexon America
My best design experience. The best is always seeing something you made get a positive reaction from someone else. I've worked on some games in the past that certainly wouldn't be called the best thing ever, but when someone says to me "I like how this element worked" or "This one part made sense to me." it makes it worth it. If I have an idea and I can convey that idea to the player, that's the best.
- Andy Alamano, lead designer, Gaijin Games
What is a designer?
Everyone thinks they can be or they are a designer. How many times have you been approached with the,
"Hey, you know I have a great idea for a game."
"Here is an idea for a game you should totally make."
"I could have done this so much better."
And the truth is, yes, everyone is a designer. But most people are not good designers. So what actually is a designer and what does a designer do? I asked this question to my designer friends and here is what they had to say:
There's a lot of making something from nothing. Some of the most fun I've had is being able to see a piece of concept art or story board, or even some basic prototype and begin to generate the story and function behind a thing. How big should this be? How fast should it move? What noises should it make? A designer gets to answer all these things. Once you sit down and document what you want, you can begin to work with the team to see whatever it is you're making come to life. The design process can differ place to place. I've known some designers that work primarily in code and others that work more or less in Word and Photoshop. In the end the designers are there to provide the answers to all the questions on how every part of the game should work. Button press by button press.
- Andy Alamano, lead designer, Gaijin Games
A game designer is someone who creates all the rules for a game, from weapons, AI, and combat, to more “mundane” things such as figuring out how doors, ladders, or sprinting works. Essentially, a designer’s job is to take all of these systems, create rules for almost every use-case possible, while serving the game’s overall direction, not to mention figuring out how to make it fun. Some designers work mostly on paper, others work mostly on implementation, while most do a healthy mix between the two. Of course, it matters how the studio is structured and the current stage of development in which the project is currently.
- Drew Rechner, game designer, Ubisoft Massive
A Designer is a diplomat. They take an idea and map it out. A designer takes their idea to the involved parties and shares their vision. They incorporate the views of the stakeholders and make them part of the solution, not a problem to be solved. The designer will take a practical view when needed and a romantic view when it's not. They love the game in it's entirety as a work of art that lives and breathes.
- Mike Wikan, designer, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Metroid Prime series, others
A Designer Turns Numbers into Feelings. I once answered a screen writer friend of mine with this answer:
"Your job is to turn words into feelings for the audience. I do the same thing but with numbers.
I turn numbers into feelings."
It takes words to illuminate that path for the team; but, at the end of the day, what Players feel is defined by a set of numbers.
- What are the rules of the game? What numbers do they define?
- How far can I wall run? Does this add or detract from my feeling of freedom?
- How long should a cut scene be? Does it add to the whole experience? Should it be
The hard trick is creating a larger experience from these numbers and being able to pre-envision the whole set that is necessary. Almost impossible; but, that's why team work is so important.
-Chris Cross, creative director, Nexon America
Consider the Big Picture
A friend of mine wrote me with a design story from one of his projects. His company asked that he remain anonymous because of the current project he is working on. I feel this story helps illustrate what a designer does on a project. The skills of the designer go beyond just understanding game play. The designer is also a diplomat, cheerleader, organizer and more.
Years and years ago while working on an FPS title at a previous company we had entered the point in the project where I was focused on weapon balance. All the models, animations, FX, and sounds had come in for the player’s arsenal, so I had been able to make a number of passes on getting the overall balance and presentation down.
There was the numerical balance taking into consideration all of those elements of the weapon’s role, power, range, accuracy, trigger time, spread, etc, etc… that designers love to plot out on elaborate spread sheets to arrive at an “objective” balance point, that we then marry up to the visual presentation and “feel” to create what we hope will be received as a fun and satisfying arsenal of weapons with which to dispatch the evil beasties of the land.
Team feedback is crucial in validating that you are hitting your target here, and there were a number of changes made to balance and presentation in response to team reaction, but in one case I was really running into a brick wall. I kept getting feedback that our shotgun was underpowered…people really kind of hated the shotgun. I was getting really clear and helpful pieces of feedback like “The shotgun sucks”, “This is the most useless shotgun in any game I have ever played…ever” and “Why are you allowed to be alive”, etc… When I looked at the balance numbers, the shotgun was actually a little overpowered if anything.
So…after much consternation I decided to attack the balance issue from the side of perception rather than through the actual numbers themselves. I went to our audio director to talk about changing the sound. He added a bit more low end to the fire sound, pulled out some midrange and bumped up the high end to give it a sharper punch. I did not tell the team that the only thing I changed was the sound, I just asked them to give it another try to see if the changes I made addressed the balance issues they were seeing. The feedback came back unanimously positive and in the clear and helpful form I had come to rely upon “It’s about time!," “I told you the balance was wrong…spreadsheets are dumb”, etc… So ultimately, I was able to fix a weapon balance issue by changing the sound.
I think the lesson to extract from this experience is that a designer must always consider the big picture and all the elements that come together to form that experience. Details matter, but we cannot allow ourselves as designers to become myopic to the point of losing sight of the forest for the trees. Perception is everything. It is the validation of your efforts no matter the facts to the contrary. Ultimately the data does not matter if your audience is not buying it.
Making Blue Jeans
One of the "lessons" I have often told to game designers (and this applies to artists as well) is to remember that we are making blue jeans. The analogy goes like this:
Every year there is fashion week and we see the new designs on television. On the runway we see quite a variety of clothing. Most of the time I wonder who would actually buy this stuff, much less wear it. Giorgio Armani's latest runway show has clothing I'm really unsure who wears . But, Armani doesn't make all its money from the runway show - it makes money by selling blue jeans and purses. The money is made by selling a lot of mass consumer items - not a couple fringe artistic items. Video games are mass consumer - we are artists - and we are also trying to sell the better blue jean.
I do believe the above analogy is important to remember. Sometimes we can get too caught up in the "art" of what we are doing and forget that our end goal is to sell product and make money. And yes, I do realize that I am definitely sounding like a producer right now. And that is why we need strong designers - to balance out the "get it done" attitude from producers. Personally, I rely on a strong designer to push back and provide a counter point to the schedule and budget. The designer is responsible for the fun - as long as we remember we are making this game for others to purchase and play - not necessarily making it for ourselves.
I was talking to a designer friend of mine about this article and specifically regarding game design as art. He had some interesting points I wanted to include but as with the other designer story above, due to his current project he was unable to use his name. So I told him to send me his thoughts and I would include him anonymously.
Are games art or craft? More than once in my career I've crossed paths with designers who consider themselves to be on the art end of the spectrum and display a great deal of passion for their ideas or work. While ownership and accountability are qualities to be encouraged, passion can be taken too far. Because game-making, especially in AAA retail, is both highly collaborative and difficult, in the wrong context, displaying undue attachment to one's individual ideas or creativity can be isolating and damaging to how people perceive you (and by extension, the design team).
If you are working in the indie space and on a small team where the goal is to make art, and not money, then more power to you! But if you are working in AAA, game design can be a risk-adverse, marketing driven, and paint-by-numbers affair. Games are shipped, not completed, and there is never enough time. In these cases, this is business. You're not making the Mona Lisa; it's a gig and a paycheck (usually for an established IP in a pre-existing genre). The production is geared towards mitigating as much risk as possible to make back an investment as soon as possible. So, in these circumstances, if an idea or piece of content isn't working out, is dragging down the overall quality of the project, or needs more time or money to realize than what you have, try to look past your personal feelings, be pragmatic, and think of the big picture.
Try to see the value in compromise versus being difficult or fighting for your vision; make peace with the reality others see, not the reality you want that's in your head. It's harsh, and it sucks, but sometimes, you have to pull the trigger, and kill that baby. Take heart in the fact that you are not only maintaining some measure of control of the situation, you are also demonstrating a good example of professionalism and flexibility. You'll gain the respect of your peers which you can leverage when the time comes to call in the real favors.
I recall one project where I brought a designer onto the project after it was well into development. The design and mechanics of the game were mostly decided upon. But it wasn't really that fun (yet, as I saw it). I needed this experienced designer to help make the game more fun without wrecking our schedule. The designer was not entirely pleased with the situation - he compared it to waking up Christmas morning and not having any of the toys under the tree he requested. I have thought about that statement and that situation for a long time as a producer and I have come to see it a different way.
A designer does make his Christmas list. The designer outlines what he wants for Christmas - what toys will make the coming year more joyful . But we don't always get everything we want for Christmas. In fact, we shouldn't expect to get everything we ask for. The great designer can make fun regardless of what appears under the tree. I assume you can give a great designer a handful of random objects out of your junk drawer and he should be able to make a game out of it. Now, I wouldn't expect the greatest game ever - but there is a game and fun to be found in everything around us. The designers skill is finding that fun and showing it to others.
Keep Your Eyes on the Competition. When working on Maximo Ghost to Glory it reminded me of how important it is to always keep your eyes on the competition; during development of the game Sony published a game that could have really destroyed our project. They came out with a game called MediEvil, which on the surface could have been called a 3D remake of Ghouls ‘n Ghost, something that we at Capcom USA was already working on. Although to this date Capcom refuses to admit it, only referring to it as a homage to the original, mainly at Capcom Japan's Insistence. But the bombshell that came when we saw MediEvil from Sony was that they had included levels that were almost 100% totally identical to those I had already designed for Maximo, freakishly so. It was suspected that someone at Capcom leaked designs over to Sony about Maximo and some of its designs; but, none the less, three full levels of game play designs had to be scrapped and new ones created to replace them.
If we hadn’t caught this problem, we would have shipped our game after MediEvil came out and it would have looked as if we copied their game. This is why it’s important to always keep an eye on games coming out that follow the same genera as the ones your developing.
- Bill Anderson, owner, Awaken Games
Not invented here
Video games are not really meant to be revolutionary. In fact, if our goal is to sell lots of copies of our game, we need to be more of an evolution so we will appeal to our consumers. Consumers like something new. But, more often they like something they are familiar with. Our purchasers know what they currently like, and usually they want more of that. They want to know what category is the offering you are putting in front of them. As game makers, and especially game designers, we need to be able to identify what small improvements over existing games we can make which will appeal to consumers. And just as important, what is currently working well and shouldn't be changed at all.
For Example: In any game the controls are probably the most critical element. The controls are your gamers' interface to the game. Having the "correct" controls and having their response time and usage well honed is critical to success. I've worked on a number of first person shooters. And first person shooters have been a popular genre for a long time. First on the PC and now on console, and PC. For the majority of years I have been making games, there has been a well-established FPS on the market. And for whatever one I was making, the first step was determining the controls. And more often than not, I would tell the team that we should have the same controls as [insert most popular current fps here]. The controls need to be approachable and understandable by our audience. The majority of people who buy an FPS are fans of FPS's - meaning they currently play them. Providing controls that match what they are already accustomed to will immediately get them comfortable with the game.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And even if you have an idea for some better controls - all those people playing Call of Duty don't care about your new ideas. I believe this applies to a large part of the game making process. But, in order to have a successful game, you also need some innovation. And that innovation is something we inevitably rely on our designers to come up with.
Probably one of my best design experiences was also one of my worst. Earlier in my career, one of the systems I worked on was the controls for an first-person shooter. Eager to make my “mark” on the project, I carefully created ways in which I thought I could improve various aim systems (turn acceleration, horizontal/vertical turn speed, aim magnet, aim friction, etc.) from other games, and apply it to our game which had some pretty unique challenges such as longer sightlines, greater verticality, and potentially very fast movement speeds. I eventually created a unique solution which I believed catered our game well, though it was quite different than other games. Many playtests later, however, proved my hard-work to be flawed as the controls simply did not meet players’ expectations for what a first-person shooter’s controls should feel like.
Good controls are a natural extension of the player; they should not even realize they are using the controller if done well, and I foolishly believed my design could fit this “if only the players would do what I want them to do.” Of course, players do not simply do “what you want them to do” without proper education and incentives, both of which are difficult to utilize with controls.
My ego prevented me from seeing the problems with my design, and I made excuses for why I thought the controls, my controls--the ones I worked so hard on--were fine and that the players were wrong. While I did not completely shut-out all feedback, we still shipped the game with inadequate controls that were noticed by both reviewers and players alike.
I learned two extremely important lessons from this experience. Firstly, all feedback is valid, though it is the designer’s responsibility to process and analyze it to find out what the true cause of the feedback is. If a player says they do not like the controls, there is likely something wrong with them (or perhaps it is a symptom of a larger problem which is also extremely important to identify), even if they do not know what is wrong with it themselves. Secondly, and possibly most importantly, I learned that ego-driven design is always bad design, and the ego has no place in game development. Did it matter that I worked hard on something and thought my “superior” thought-process was infallible? Absolutely not. The only thing that matters is how players perceive your design, not how you feel about your design yourself.
- Drew Rechner, game designer, Ubisoft Massive
How does one become a designer?
If one wants a bunch of original, creative ideas, then one great place to get them is a classful of kids. If you ask some 8-15 year olds for some new game ideas, you will get some very creative ideas. The fact is, coming up with an original idea is not necessarily that difficult. Coming up with an idea that will make a game that a million people will pay money for - now we are talking. And the person who can do that is a designer.
If everyone thinks they are a designer then how does one become a professional designer? Again, I go to the designers in the business for their answers to this question:
My top advice to potential designers? Make a physical tabletop game that others can play without you being in the room. I usually suggest making three games, actually: a dice game, a game that uses playing cards and finally a board game as a start to your game design career because there is an incredible amount of learning in those kind of games that apply 100% to computer games. The process of coming up with rules that use the physical elements you choose, deciding on moment-to-moment turn actions, and determining victory conditions are key elements to the process of being any kind of designer, not just a game designer.
If a prospective junior designer came to a job interview with three tabletop games with original wrinkles to their gameplay that they could explain the math behind, I'd be impressed with the amount of work that represented. If the three games were actually fun? I'd hire him/her on the spot.
- Martin Caplan, producer, The Ludologist game design and production consulting
Getting started in design. There certainly isn't a magic bullet when it comes to getting a start in game design. Design can be a bit of a vacuous term. What's important is to zero in on what design element you're best at or most interested in. Level design, character design, systems design, story. All these things can be full time jobs in and of themselves. And each one has its own things to get good at. When I first got into the industry, the biggest eye opener for me was how many different disciplines there were within the key roles of "Programmer, Designer, Artist"
- Andy Alamano, lead designer, Gaijin Games
Game design is such a varied field these days. A person could decide to be a specialist and only do one part really well and have a whole career only doing Level Design or scripting or fight design or AI design. So.....
1. Just do it. Make a game. Learn to use any editor and make a tiny game. Use this experience to figure out the following.
a. What part of the process was the most enjoyable for me?
b. Was I good, actually good, at doing that part?
Figuring this out informs the rest of the path. Win/Win if the thing you really enjoy is something you're good at. If not, then the problem is figuring out how to learn and get better.
- Chris Cross, creative director, Nexon America
My top advice for someone wanting to become a game designer is really two parts. First, analyze and deconstruct every game you play and understand why everything works the way it does. Almost nothing in a game is coincidence and a decision was made for just about everything you see; figure out what those decisions are and why they were made. Second, make your own game. It does not matter whether it is a mod or brand new game, big or small; what is important is that you finish it. Many people who love to play video games join the game industry and get discouraged, because they think that playing games is the same as making games. In my opinion, it is far more important to love making video games (though I would like to point out that it is still incredibly important to love playing games too!). Having some experience making a game is not only great for knowing what it takes to finish a game and looking good on a resume, but it is also a fantastic barometer for figuring out whether or not you will enjoy working on them as a career.
- Drew Rechner, game designer, Ubisoft Massive
Thanks for the help
This article would not be possible without the designers that helped contribute. I would like to give a big thanks to the designers who helped me with this article:
- Chris Cross
Creative Director - Nexon America
- Drew Rechner
Game Designer - Ubisoft Massive
- Mike Wikan
- Donkey Kong Country Returns
,The Metroid Prime Series,
Duke Nuke'em: Time To Kill,
And my two anonymous designer friends who names, unfortunately, we could not include - you know who you are.
Hopefully this article is useful is providing some tips for all the designers out there.
And here is one more parting tip for those wishing to become a video game designer:
How does one become a designer? I am often approached by high school and college-aged game enthusiasts about how to "become" a Game Designer. It is a question that is both simple and complex.
The Simple answer is, "Go to a good college that teaches game design with professors with Real Industry Experience and demonstrate in a practical fashion that you can make a playable game that is FUN."
The most important part of that statement is the "Demonstrate in a practical fashion" portion. If you can create compelling gameplay using one of the numerous editors like UNITY or UDK to make a compelling gameplay experience that will SELL you and your natural design sensibilities to a company, that is more than half the battle. College helps you "check the box that you are serious enough to go to college" but something demonstrable and playable will get you the job.
The complex portion of the answer has to do with the nature of Game Design as a profession. Most people trying to be Designers think that "I love playing games, so I would be a great game designer!" I hear that from high school kids and parents all the time.
The reality is somewhat different. As most Veteran Designers know, Game Design is "First in, last out" meaning we start laying the groundwork before everyone else on the team, and we are usually among the last elements to touch it prior to going gold. Game Design is very long hours full of hard work, creative conflict, looming deadlines, unexpected monkey wrenches, and the occasional panicky moment.
It takes a "special kind of crazy" to do what we do, and do it successfully. In order to survive and prosper doing this job, you need to engineer your life around supporting the tough moments so you do not burn out.
Learn to plan effectively.
- Engineer in the extra time you cannot plan for.
- Do not try to create your "Magnum Opus"; that way lies madness.
Create as fun a game as you can in the time you have. It is better to ship a fun game that can make a profit than it is to crash and burn because you designed bigger than your budget. Unlike engineering or art, design is the primary arbiter of the scope of the game. If you design too big, you run out of money so you panic-cut content at the end. If you design too small, your game is not enthralling enough to make a profit. Find people to share your life who are patient and kind. High drama people are not good fits for this business. Be realistic with those you love so that they are not blindsided by unexpected crunch time.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, LOVE WHAT YOU DO. Be passionate about game design (but not pushy). Make it a virus that you spread through the team.
- Mike Wikan
About the Author
Matt Powers has been making video games for over 20 years. Matt has worked with a lot of designers in that time. Hopefully, there will be many more designers in the future Matt can learn from.
If you like the article, have any comments, or any questions, please leave a comment.
To contact Matt: firstname.lastname@example.org
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