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Opinion: What Does 'Game Developer' Mean?
Opinion: What Does 'Game Developer' Mean? Exclusive
March 1, 2009 | By Lewis Pulsipher

March 1, 2009 | By Lewis Pulsipher
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this opinion piece, game educator and pen-and-paper game designer Lewis Pulsipher points out that the term "game developer" means the wrong thing to too many people -- explaining the reasons, and proposing an alternative.]

As we all know, words can create the wrong perceptions. As far as I can see, the word "developer," applied to games, confuses the heck out of people who do not actually create games for a living.

For example, recently I spoke with some newly-minted college instructors who teach students to make games.

One of them told me, "Person X says he doesn't know anything about game development." Person X is a major official in the International Game Developers Association!

Later, I heard, "Person Y doesn't know game development." Person Y is heavily involved in game creation education, and ought to know something about game creation, surely, but comes from the art side.

Upon reflection, I realized that the speakers were equating "game development" with computer programming.

But is "game development," as a term used within the industry, the equivalent of computer programming for games, or is it something much broader? When creation of an electronic game was a one-person endeavor, back in the 70s and 80s, every game developer had to be a programmer. But this "one hero per game" style practically ended around 1990 -- so long ago that many college students were born after that date -- as most games became too big to be done by one person.

Game Development Is Not Programming

Obviously, you can know a lot about games in a variety of ways, and not know much about making games. We get students all the time at my school who think they'll be good at creating games simply because they like to play games a lot. Not so, bucko.

On the other hand, you can be an important part of a team that creates video games, and know next to nothing about computer programming.

Nowadays, many more artists than programmers work on electronic games. And there are teams of game designers, level designers, sound people, narrative writers, and so forth working on big games.

Programming is the minority endeavor. So why do we still call it “game development," have a flagship magazine named Game Developer, a flagship Game Developers Conference, and a flagship organization called the International Game Developers Association?

Here are the problems. First, to people who don’t work for video game companies, a developer is a programmer, someone who codes software. Using the term "game developer" to encompass all of the team that makes video games is quite confusing to computer-knowledgeable people outside the industry.

Next, to the non-electronic game industry, a developer is a person who polishes and finishes a game design for publication -- sometimes the designer, sometimes someone else.

Finally, the general populace rarely knows what a “developer” is in any context.

The Difference

For almost all video games, programming is a necessary evil, something that can only result in negatives for the game, not make it outstanding. What makes a video game outstanding is, first, the design, the gameplay or other interaction; second, the look and feel of the game, which is a combination of design and art.

Good programming can certainly contribute, but mostly, programming is there to implement the vision of the designers and artists, and is a fairly mechanical contribution to the game. But if it's poorly done, it can ruin the game. Further, patches can typically fix programming problems, but rarely fix fundamental design problems.

Today, many of the steps programmers used to have to do manually are now done by software tools, but we still have a long way to go. Ideally, we'd like to be able to tell a computer-based tool how we want a game to work, provide it with art, and it would write the software.

Game engines, a form of CASE tool (Computer Aided Software Engineering), take us in this direction, simplifying programming by (in effect) doing some of it themselves. Constantly, people are trying to write tools that will make programmers less and less necessary, less and less important, in everyday endeavors -- though it will always be true that if we want to improve computers, we’ll need human programmers.

We know there is creativity in programming. But once we get past the highly entrepreneurial stage of an industry (which we have), too much creativity in programming causes problems. In games we want programming to be reliable, solid, fast -- mechanical, not creative. (See Cowboy Coders) for more.)

On the other hand, programmers tend to be paid more than the other folks involved in game creation, so it’s clearly a skill very much in demand. Evidently, it’s easier to find good artists or designers than good programmers (supply and demand drive salaries). Perhaps the high valuation of programmers goes back to the bane of so many games, elementary errors: many of those elementary errors are programming errors.

The Core

So what is the core of game development? It's not programming and it's not development, folks -- it's design and art. Programming is a support function, not the heart of an electronic game. And if we look into the world of non-electronic games, we have design very much dominant, and we have some art, but we have no programming at all.

So why do we call ourselves “game developers”? We can continue to be Humpty Dumpty and use a term that often confuses those outside the industry, or we can adjust to the change in reality -- that programming is no longer the heart of game creation. Why not Game Creators Magazine, Game Creators Conference, International Game Creators Association?

Problems in Education

This term and the confusion around it affects education and influences young people. To go back to my original anecdote, it also influences people who teach game creation. These people equate game development with programming, yet they're teaching a generation that tends not to enjoy programming!

Unfortunately, game development programs in colleges and universities are often started by programmers, who have no interest in art and little interest in design (and sometimes, little interest in games!).

In many less-well-known schools, computer programming is fading away as a topic of interest for the millennial generation, or has already been dropped; game development is grabbed as a life-saver for those who want to teach programming but lack students. Unfortunately, these game development curricula are more than fifteen years out of date when they start.

My own experience of this is that when programmers start game development programs, those programs are usually a disaster for artists and designers. Game development education should be in the hands of gamers who are teachers, not of teachers who are programmers.

If you're a student planning to pursue game creation as a career, and you don’t want to be a programmer, find out whether the school you have in mind runs the programming version of game development, or the broader "game creation" version that accommodates non-programmers.

Problems in Perception of Art

Many video game makers are disturbed that video games are not seen as "art" by the general public. John Sharp recently discussed the difference between "mechanical art" (works of the hands) and "liberal art" (works of the mind).

I think video games are seen as mechanical art by the general public, because they are thought to be primarily achievements of programming, which is generally seen as a mechanical art. (In contrast, the non-electronic game industry is not concerned about whether such games are art: they are obviously works of the mind -- they have no programming.)

If we want video games to be seen as liberal art, we need to educate people that programming is a support function, not the principal activity of game making. One way to do this is to call the activity "game creation," not "game development." Why shoot ourselves in the foot?

We use "game developer" as a title out of habit -- a habit now outdated by changes in how video games are made. Why not switch to "game creator," which will cause less confusion to computer people, cause less confusion to wannabe game creators, and even cause less confusion to the populace at large, as well as encouraging people to think of video games as art?

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Erik Harg
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From we learn that:

- develop: (2b) to create or produce especially by deliberate effort over time.

- create: (4a) to produce through imaginative skill.

So, it seems that a developer is a creator dedicating time and "deliberate efforts", while a creator is a producer with skills and imagination. According to these definitions, it seems hard to find the evidence for why "creator" is a much better replacement for "developer". And where, precisely, should we draw the lines between producer, designer, artist, creator, developer and programmer?

(As an aside, there seems to be confusion and a bit of anger over in the programmers' department as well, over the term "developer":
t15 )

And too me, there seems to be a certain number of mechanical, non-creative people claiming to be "artists", as are there a number of creative, design-aware self-proclaimed "programmers" in this industry. Which of these should have the right to call themselves creators? Both? Neither?

Maybe there is a perceived (and perhaps outdated?) programmer-versus-artist divide that is the real issue here?

Nels Anderson
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I'm honestly shocked that Gamasutra agreed to run this article. Is Lewis really saying, "If we could get rid of programmers, we would, but until then, I guess we have to keep them around"? That's sure what it sounds like.

My role sits halfway between programmer and designer. I'm not sure if Lewis has ever worked with any competent programmers, but it sure seems like he hasn't. I've seen as many valuable contributions come from programmers as designers, artists, producers or anyone else. There's so much wrong with this article, I'm not even sure where to begin. Perhaps:

"For almost all video games, programming is a necessary evil, something that can only result in negatives for the game, not make it outstanding."

You can't be serious. Left 4 Dead's AI director didn't make the game outstanding? Or does design get all the credit for that because someone said, "We should have dynamic enemy responses in this game"?

Now I agree that perception of game creator == programmer is problematic. But apparently a lot of education also needs to be done on the role programmers play. The fact that a educator can publicly claim that programmers are second class citizens that only provide support functions is simply embarrassing.

John Petersen
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Dishwasher= Service assistant

Secretary= Administrative assistant


Yannick Boucher
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Nels, i'm afraid you took this WAY too personally. He hasn't called programmers 2nd class citizens at all. But he's got a point when he says that programming is a hurdle between pure game design and creativity, and the end result. It is both what makes happen and what limits what comes from the designers' mind. I don't see any problem in saying that. It applies to many other things too.

Louis Paquin
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I nominate "For almost all video games, programming is a necessary evil, something that can only result in negatives for the game, not make it outstanding." in advance as the single worst Gamasutra excerpt of 2009.

I can't imagine the author was serious when writing that.

Raul Aliaga
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It's easy -and sexy- to say that pure creativity from designers and artists can make great games, specially if you cite recent cases of innovation, which it's not done in the article anyway.

But creativity alone it's useless, unless it gets a reality check, and programming **drives** the feasibilty of ideas.

Simply put, and old saying: "Ideas are worthless by themselves, it's the capacity to execute them what makes them valuable".

Mark Harris
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Out of context it is a horrible excerpt, but in context it supports his premise and is logical. Programming is the most empowering and most limiting factor of game development. The ability of clever programmers to manipulate computational hardware in amazing ways has given artists and designers the power to create beautiful worlds and wonderful games. However, in the video game space, the abstract nature of art will always be constrained within the limits of programming.

Annuity R
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How does this differ from architecture, which is a pillar of art history studies? An architect needs to make realistic designs that can be built by a civil engineer out of brick and mortar materials. There's art in the design nonetheless, and a good architect knows how to work within the confines of physical laws. You could abstract this out and say, "brick and mortar only limit the architect's imagination", but without brick and mortar, the architect is daydreaming, not designing.

Bottom line: programming is a fundamental aspect of game development. Deal with it and stop whining!

Tom Krausse
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Problem with his problems with programmers is, I've heard cases where the programming was responsible for the games existence. Cases where the designers ideas were seen as unfeasable, until a member of the programming team came and said, "Yeah, we can do this"

Without programmers, games don't exist. And with his idea of making a system that would generate the game code on its own, who'd make that? Programmers, of course. The only difference is that you'd have less ability to mold the code to fit the game needs. Sounds like that would be a major downgrade.

Thierry Tremblay
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"For almost all video games, programming is a necessary evil, something that can only result in negatives for the game, not make it outstanding."

Not only is this insulting to all competent programmers in the game industry, this kind of thinking can explains a lot of the production problems we encounter during game development. Clearly the author doesn't know (much) about programming.

Nels Anderson
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Was Liam Nesson's portrayal of Oskar Schindler a limit on the imagination of Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Schindler's List? Was Nesson only providing a "support function"? After all, he had all the lines written down for him and a top-notch director telling him what to do. All he was doing was implementing their vision, right?

That claim would not only seem absurd, but insulting to Nesson and other actors of his calibre. No respected director or writer would ever to so arrogant to claim all the hard and important work was their own. Sure, some actors are overpaid prima donnas. But the ones that are truly respected, e.g. Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck or Katharine Hepburn, would never, ever be labeled as a "necessary evil."

I don't think I'm taking it too personally, I simply cannot honestly see how Pulsipher is making a claim any less inaccurate or condescending here.

(Okay, I'm done trolling now. But seriously ... wow.)

Bob Stevens
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"One of them told me, "Person X says he doesn't know anything about game development." Person X is a major official in the International Game Developers Association!"

Of course the IGDA has no rules which state that you actually have to be a game developer to be in the organization, or even on the board. A number of top IGDA people don't fit my definition of "game developer". This isn't to say that they're bad at what they're doing in the organization, just that IGDA is a disingenuous title.

Simon Cooke
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Minority endeavor?

It's not the most important - I'm a huge believer in synergy between disciplines, so in my mind they're ALL equally important to get right - but it's certainly not a minority endeavor.

First to start crunch, last people off the project, the people consistently there working their asses off the whole time... that's typically your programming team.

Has Lewis ever actually worked in a games shop?

Corwyn Kalenda
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What I'm getting from this isn't that the problem is "Game developer" as a term, the problem is that far too many people don't understand what a game developer actually is.

That isn't going to change if you alter the term. People just won't understand the new term. The key here is to educate those that need it, not dress the emperor up in new clothes-- encourage teachers, media, etcetera to use the terms as they should be, and the problem eventually mostly-evaporates. But becoming "game creators" just means eventually those will also be misunderstood.

If 'game developer' was really the problem, then we'd all be wondering why real estate developers don't have programming degrees, right?

Bart Stewart
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Wow, indeed.

Of course good computer games require good design. Of course they benefit from good art (and sound). Of course all these people, whose creative effort is directly applied to developing computer games, should be called game developers.

Was disparaging the creative contributions of programmers necessary in order to arrive at that conclusion?

Howard Stern uses shock value to get attention for his advertisers. Is that really the model that Gamasutra wants to follow in the opinion pieces it chooses to publish?

Dave Endresak
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Basically, he's talking about the problem of semantics. This is a problem between all individuals or groups. For example, even in academia, different fields have different semantics for terms such as "simulation" and "game".

I disagree with his claim that people outside the game industry consider "game developer" to mean "game programmer". I"ve never seen this, myself, and I've followed electronic gaming since the days of the Pong. I've managed amusement centers for a major retail chain, worked in software retail, and worked for a (very small) startup company. Sure, I've met some people who make that connection between the meaning of "developer" and "programmer" but that's not the usual type of comments or views that I've seen. I haven't seen any studies on such perceptions, but I just wanted to offer my own experience for contrast.

On the other hand, his basic statement about programming and its role is correct despite the rather outraged replies we see here. I've also worked as a programmer for a major insurance company during year 2000 changeover and I know other programmers, analysts, etc who work in other fields such as automative or banking. Programming is actually a support function just as he says. The vast majority of programming is maintenance, just as the vast majority of work in many other fields is maintenance. Even in cases of brand new, start from scratch projects, it isn't the programmers who are making the ultimate decisions. It is the business clients and analysts who make choices about what projects to actually perform and how to perform them. As he puts it, programmers are considered a "necessary evil". Programming is not taught as an art form, but it SHOULD be. The fact that programming is taught only as a technical skill is the biggest reason why so many programs in all disciplines are poorly written, poorly maintained, and poorly optimized for both users and the hardware that users run them on. Gaming is no different in this regard; it is merely one application of programming skills just as automotive or financial applications are.

As an analogy, audiences who watch modern movies, even academics who teach acting and other aspects of film as a field of study, do not tend to analyze the techniques used by the many CG artists and other technicians who help create the final product that they are experiencing. Audiences of all types note the director, actors, and perhaps of a few other contributors such as composer or writer, but that's about it. The director is the one credited with bringing his or her vision into life in the final film (or failing to do so, as the case may be). This excludes instances where the director is also acting in the film, writing the film script, etc; those are exceptions to the general creative process of film. If they listen to interviews or commentary tracks, people might hear directors defer to other creative staff who contributed their ideas to the final product, but I don't think we can say that these other efforts get the recognition and reward they deserve, nor do I think that we can say that many directors would not simply do away with other input if they had the freedom to do so. Of course, this is the difference between an individual making a film or a very small independent team versus the studio process, but it still echoes Pulsipher's arguments about game development. Normally, actors are not free to interpret characters as they see fit; their job is to perform the character as the director tells them to. This is also true for games. If you think that you hear bad acting in a game, the first person you should blame is the director, not the actor.

At any rate, Pulsipher's main point is the divide in semantics between the general populace, academics, and people within the gaming industry. People make claims that a certain game is "good" or "bad" because of developers, but Pulsipher is saying that most people equate "developer" with "programmer" even though programmers are not the ones who are primarily responsible for the perceived quality (or lack thereof) of the final game product. I can offer a related example from an interview with Roberta Williams from a couple of years ago on the web site Adventure Classic Gaming. One point that Roberta made was that when she and her husband Ken founded Sierra, their development process was to create the game they wanted to create first, and then go to the programmers to ask them to make the tools necessary for the game. This often led to programmers having nightmares because of her design demands, but so be it; the result was Sierra's phenomenal success during the 1980s and 1990s. She pointed out that this is not done today, and that games are usually made by licensing an engine and other middleware tools, then developing the game within the confines of those tools. In some ways, this makes the development process easier, but only as far as getting to a final product that can be shipped. It's closer to an assembly line process for developing games; more can be created at a cheaper price and a shorter time frame, but the ability to innovate or express creative freedom suffers.

Obviously modern game projects are often a team effort. However, students often do not understand this or have the necessary perception and communication skills to work in such an environment. Also, various independent game efforts as well as mods for various products are often individual projects or the result of very small teams. It seems that many students tend to think that this is still the norm in game development studios despite the many reports to the contrary about how things have changed. I think Pulsipher is correct in pointing out some misperceptions that exist even though I do not agree with some of his generalized claims or all of his suggestions of how to fix the misperceptions. Still, the problems certainly exist, and I think that was his main point.

E Zachary Knight
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Yep. I see the disdain the author has for programmers. I can't really believe it. Programming is not the heart? What the crap. Without programming, there would be no game.

If we are going to compare games to living beings, programming will be all internal organs, skeleton etc, artists would be the skin while the designer is the one who decides what type of creature is made.

So what we have here is if you take out the programmers, all you would have is a hollow skin with whatever external features the designer wants but with no structure to support and give it life.

Philippe Rostaing
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I'm afraid that many of the respondents to this article are jumping a little too quickly to the conclusion that Lewis Pulsipher simply hates programmers, almost in the same way that George Lucas hates actors: if he could do away with them entirely, he would do so in a second.

I don't believe that was the author's intention. After all, his point of differentiating the work of a 'game developer' from that of a programmer is valid, given that a game developer can just as likely be someone who creates pen-and-paper games as well as electronic games. The same term applies to both jobs, which are essentially the same: designing the mechanics and context of a game. Even when someone does take on both roles, as a programmer and a designer, that person is still filling two distinctly separate positions that can realistically only be combined on smaller independent projects. The demands of larger projects usually make such dual-roles nearly impossible.

If you think of the game creation process as being the same as the filmmaking process, then the role of the programmer is essentially the same as that of the cameraman. It is a crucially essential position, one without which the film could simply not be made (professional cameramen are often big beefy guys because no one else can take the strain of carrying and moving a camera for 12 hours a day), but where your job often comes down to doing exactly what the director (game developer) is telling you. Certainly the cameraman puts his own little grain of creativity into the process, being that he is the one actually framing each shot, but should that grain begin to boulder it could topple the entire film. The shots he is taking don't frame and accentuate the same elements that the director wants them to and the intention of the scene is lost, as is the consistency of the entire project.

In the same sense, the programmer must translate the directions of the designers and artists into code (just as a camera translates actors and a background into a single image). If they stray from these directions, the overall game design can suffer because this particular element on which the programmer projected his creativity now runs the risk of being inconsistent from the intention behind the rest of the game. The only exception to this, again, is when someone takes on both roles. But just as you will almost never see a director sitting behind the camera for every shot of his film (Steven Soderbergh is the only currently-living exception to my knowledge), the demands of each role are so substantial that combining them becomes prohibitive.

So the role of the programmer is an essential one, without a doubt, but it is also very distinct from that of a game developer. And if the two terms are commonly mistaken for one another, then it certainly is important to differentiate them, because only through this distinction can each role be truly recognized for everything it contributes to the overall game creation process.

PS: On a side note, I disagree that the term "game developer" should be replaced by "game creator". The former term is problematic only in the sense that it is misunderstood by the general populace. The latter doesn't necessarily remedy to that misunderstanding because "game creator" strikes me as a broader term than "game developer", and in fact can still encompass the role of the programmer (programmers are also helping to "create" the game, are they not?).

Rather the solution should lie in a more precise term than "game developer", one that more clearly differentiates this role from that of a programmer. In that sense I would propose "game designer" as a more appropriate term. It refers more specifically to the actual tasks undertaken by the game developer / designer, and avoids any confusion because a programmer will never actually do any design, whereas they do still contribute to the "development" (i.e. to create or produce especially by deliberate effort over time) of a game.

Raul Aliaga
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Maybe we haven't see the geniality of the author's idea: To expose a serious lack of understanding about game development by showing it in the writing itself :)

sean lindskog
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Games are a marriage of design, artistic, and engineering endeavors. This is one of the things that make it so interesting. And so hard. It is true that games are limited by the technical capacity of computers. But the author interprets this in a completely incorrect manner, somehow associating the limitations of computers with the contributions (or lack thereof) of programmers.

The laughable claims by the author about programmers show a fundamental lack of understanding about what games are. Does the musician who thinks of a melody complain that he must use his technical skills on an instrument to play it? Does a novelist complain that he must use his technical skills of vocabulary to write the story? Does an architect blame the laws of physics for not being able to create any imaginable structure?

Of course not. It is because these things, like game development, are a craft. Part of a craft is mastering the technical skills, and part of a craft is knowing it's limitations.

Some of his statements further reveal his lack of understanding of game development. For example, he claims "patches can typically fix programming problems, but rarely fix fundamental design problems". This is incorrect. It's often as easy to fix a programming glitch as it is a design glitch. It's often as complex to fix a fundamental programming problem as it is to fix a fundamental design problem.

The author seems to wish for some kind of magical box which creates a game based on a vision in his mind. This is an immensely ignorant view - a huge part of a game are it's mechanics. And game mechanics must be expressed in a logical form. This is called programming. There is no universe where you could make a game without expressing it's logical rules. Except the universe the author lives in by himself, along with the imaginary fuzzy bunnies and happy unicorns which he will use to populate his imaginary game worlds.


- Game developer.

James Hofmann
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Programmers cannot reliably function in a "support role" until we've hashed out standardized technology, which we haven't. We have a smattering of game engines that give you an 80% solution at best. The best of those engines are expensive, so you can't drill into the internals until you sign a project using it, and once the project's over, you can either spend again to get that engine another time, or your knowledge is lost. If you go the home-grown route, every new hire at the studio has to go through a substantial training period. No matter what you do you're contributing wasted effort.

Some of the problem could be attributed to the old usage of games as "software" to demo the hardware with, and not as entertainment. At thirty years, we've only just started transitioning away from this business model, since hardware has finally matured enough to make the software side sustainable.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Programmers seem to take this op-ed personally, and it's easy to do that if you take pieces out of context. I have seen at least one person whom I greatly respect have a similar reaction. The ad hominem remarks, as though it matters who wrote the piece (logically it does not, of course), help indicate how personally some have taken it. Yet no one said programmers aren't valuable employees. No one said programmers don't make contributions of ideas. Separate the programmers (people) and programming (an activity). Programmers may also be outstanding game designers, obviously, but then they're designers, they're not programming. Programmers can contribute ideas, but then they're acting as designers, not programming.

This was not an indictment of programmers, it's a discussion of why the term "developer" is unnecessarily confusing in the context of computing to many outside the game industry. (Yes, "developer" has a wider meaning, but in the context of computing, which is clearly where we're at with *video* games, it means "programming".) Those who take it personally turn it into something it never was.

To answer some of the ad hominem remarks:

Yes, I have worked with brilliant programmers. An outstanding programmer is tremendously valuable. But his or her programming is a minor contribution to what makes a game enjoyable, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of games--some selling millions of copies--that involve *no programming at all*.

Yes, I worked as a programmer (not for some time now, and not in the game industry). Nonetheless, I can see that any knowledgeable businessman who wants to make money recognizes that programming is a last resort, a very expensive and time-consuming way to solve a problem. (Read some of the many books about the likelihood of software project failure, about the inevitable bugginess of computer code.) Like computers in general, programming has no value in itself, only in what it accomplishes. What it accomplishes in video games is to make them work the way they're supposed to, *as determined by designers*, *not* to define how they are supposed to work. When technological limitations become paramount, programming can become a prominent part of the design, because what the designer wants to do may not be attainable. But as time goes on there are fewer and fewer video games where technology does become paramount.

As technological limitations on games have gradually become less important, those who strive with and drive that technology, programmers, have become less important to games. That trend will continue. Already we have noncommercial video games without *typed* code (through Gamemaker, Media Fusion, etc.). Someone who knows nothing about programming can use Gamemaker for a remarkably short time to make very passable (and often much better looking) versions of classics such as Pac-Man, Breakout, or Space Invaders. How many of the Global Game Jam games were made with those or similar tools? What will we be able to do in 10 or 20 more years?

Why do so many video game industry people start their definition of "game" with "something that requires programming?" In 1998 Greg Costikyan made a speech at GDC called "Don't be a vidiot" ( His subtitle was "What Computer Game Designers Can Learn From Non-Electronic Games". Yet we still see video game industry people being "vidiots", entirely forgetting that games do not inherently require a single line of code.

The titles of magazines and organizations don't create the confused point of view, but they strongly help perpetuate it. On the other hand, if those titles all changed to "Creator" (or whatever other suitable word one might come up with), then I'd bet that in 5-10 years many game creators, especially the non-coders, would no longer call themselves game developers, though the programmers might (and it would make sense for them, wouldn't it?).

Defining those who create games as "developers" is confusing to the many people who think that a developer, *in the context of computing*, is a programmer. I'm trying to do the only thing I can think of to quickly help educate those outsiders, by ditching a term that MEANS "programmers" in the context of computing, for one that doesn't necessarily mean "programmer." Doesn't this make sense now, and won't it make even more sense in the future?

Lew Pulsipher

Andrew Hopper
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What I see here is someone with an artist's perspective on making games (making games that express some specific though/feeling/idea), without an actual clue as to what the fundamentals of art actually are.

A game without programming is just an idea: Ideas are all well and good, but the fundamental purpose of art is expression of an idea in a constrained medium (a definition I like because it can really cover anything that is considered "art", but that's a can of worms for a different discussion). Programming is a constraining medium out of which art is created, in combination with the constraints of design, visual art, audible art (music/sound effects) marketability, technology, etc.

How does a Katamari roll? A programmer told it how. The complex combination of scripts that make some of the greatest RPG classics memorable, like Persona 3/4 or Planescape: Torment? That's more programming. Even a sequel made with the exact game engine as the original is built on the backs of the programmers for the original, not to mention new features, new scripting, etc etc etc. Creativity occurs because of limitations, not in spite of.

Simon Carless
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To a couple of commenters that have asked whether Gamasutra is right to post an editorial like this: clearly, we're not interested in trolling for the sake of it, and there are far more low-rent ways to get website traffic, I'm sure. We just thought Mr. Pulsipher had some interesting points, and he wanted to air them here. That's why it's an opinion piece, after all.


(Gamasutra Publisher)

Omar Aziz
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As a gameplay programmer in this industry for over 7 years you've completely discredited every hour of every day of my job. What I do makes the game fun. Everyday. Yes I collaborate daily with artists and designers. Yes a wealth of ideas from both disciplines...However, at the of the day all these ideas...many of which have been my own "realistic" interpretation of artist/designer input...go through my hands. The artist and designers I've worked with throughout my career will all testify to the fact that I've been able to bring to life any and all ideas brought forth to me and in the process add my own touch to everything I've worked on. This notion that programmers don't make the game fun is preposterous. That's why you never seen gameplay programmers getting interviewed in game development media isn't it? Cause the designers came up with everything and the programmers just implemented their great ideas? Absurd...I'd be more interested to hear from the gameplay programmers on Ninja Gaiden...who probably were more responsible for the fun in that game than any designer was. If you have fun moving/jumping/running/driving/swimming in a game it wasn't because some artist or designer thought that would be fun...its because some guy at his desk wrote some code to bring to life those ideas. Sure he put a few variables out there to tweak but designers tweaking these variables does not count as making the game fun.

The truth is that ALL disciplines are necessary to make a game fun. Not just art and design. I've worked with many extremely talented people and at the end of the day have never taken full credit for any of my work. Its the executive and marketing folks that get to do that. The good designers and the good artists know the value of a good programmer. Its a triangle where any discipline can be the top point. It just depends on what you're building.

Thanks for the shameless article. If you are teaching the kids in the world this now...they will be surely surprised when they show up to work for us.

Jeff Beaudoin
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The idea that there is nothing creative about programming is ridiculous.

The idea that programming for games fills nothing but a support role is ridiculous.

The idea that Designers and Artists are the only ones that contribute anything meaningful to a game is ridiculous.

It is easy to pretend that your design vision is unique and important and that no one else has anything to do with the creation of interactive entertainment, but reality demands that game creation is a team endeavor. The best example was already given, with the L4D AI director. L4D would be 1/4 as fun as it is without this incredible achievement in programming.

The comparison between programmers and cinematographers or editors is appropriate. The director may have a good idea, the set and costume designer may create a unique look, but good cinematography and editing are what make a good movie great or a great movie fantastic.

This is about the third article I have seen from Gamasutra in the last couple of months that portrays programmers as standing in the way of the designer's perfect vision of game design. This is, at best, offensive and naive.

David Paull
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The Author said, :"Programming is the minority endeavor"

Listen up buddy, its a lot harder to "do something"(programming), than it is to "think something"(game design).

Its my experience that "game designers" cant program, but "programmers" can do game design. So, who needs the "game designer" anymore.

GTFO!!! Your fired!

Peter Olsted
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That programming just is an support is like saying that the ONLY (sorry for the caps) thing that matters is the person with the idea.

Who cares about artists & programmers? They are just there to bring one persons vision to life.

c l
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One of my fellow programmers pointed out that the act of instructing a computer what to do is roughly the definition of programming. Even if you were to eliminate "programmers," whoever is translating art and design into something that functions on a computer would be the de facto "programmer."

That being said, the author's assertion that programming is a negative thing is totally ridiculous. He is completely forgetting that a computer doesn't do anything until you tell it to do something. Programming is always a POSITIVE contribution because you always ENABLE things to work. We don't limit artists and designers. Reality does. We enable them to do things as close to the limits of reality as possible.

Disregarding the real contribution of programming to game development is incredibly naive.

Aaron Knafla
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Those that can't do, teach.

Call me when Miyamoto or Mechner start bashing programmers. :)

If the guy wants to bash me, I can return the favor. Last time I checked, this guy hasn't designed a single smash title. Not one.

Check out his game design credits. Look at it carefully. See anything really groundbreaking? See a really great or original mind?

Me either. I'm not sure why your opinion matters that much. I'm easily as talented at programming as you are at dreaming up games.

Only truly great minds can dream up better ideas than the average person. Because, everybody can do it... Programming--on the other hand--is a skill. Not everybody can do it.

I'd rather be a mediocre programmer teaching software design than a mediocre game designer teaching game design. (Then again, I studied computer science--not game design. So, I am biased.)

Game over, Lewis. Have a good one.

Simon Cooke
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Lewis, of course it matters who wrote the article. It's the difference between an informed opinion and an uninformed one.

In my experience, most people don't think that game developers are programmers. They universally assume that game developers are /designers/. I don't know where you've been hearing your version, but it completely is NOT what the gaming public assumes.

What's more, I think you have a total misunderstanding of what the role of a designer is vs. the role of a programmer.

Once you get away from the plumbing aspects of programming, the role of the programmer is to take the designer's concepts, and ensure that they are:

a) Coherent with the rest of the game design as it stands

b) Coherent with the rest of the game systems as they stand

c) Actually possible to implement.

Now, some game designers are good at this, and they're worth their weight in gold - because they won't argue with you when you try to explain why something doesn't fit with the existing game mechanics - in fact you never reach that point in the first place.

But ultimately, game design and games programming are two sides of the same coin.

The game designer comes up with blue sky ideas, and are expected to go off on flights of fantasy, and explore the "what if".

The games programmer has to take that, and turn it into something that can actually be put into the computer. And you know what? It's not always possible in the form it is presented. At that point, the designer and the programmer collaborate and compromise until you end up with the final thing.

(This is, of course, an oversimplification - there are people who straddle that gap and leap back and forth across it with ease).

I would suggest that you read the book "No silver bullet" by Fred Brooks some time. You can use all the CASE tools you want, but ultimately, no matter what you do, you're going to end up programming at some point. Because the action of programming is specifying the details of a system in fine enough grains of sand that the computer can follow it. It's not just tweaking a couple of sliders.

End of rant.

Simon Cooke
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Actually, not end of rant.

Lew, tell me how to make a cup of coffee with cream & 2 sugars.

If you can do this to the point where anyone who does not know what coffee or a coffee pot is can successfully make it, then I'll believe you. Although if you do that, you're programming.

Aaron Knafla
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And, one more thing...

Who cares what the average person in the street thinks of your job title? Why is that an issue?

Having trouble meeting people at parties? Maybe you are boring them by breaking into a diatribe about game design.

Mick West
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Lewis, can you provide any evidence to support your assertion that "to people who don’t work for video game companies, a developer is a programmer, someone who codes software. "? Because I suspect that this problem is of your own imagining.

Jeremy Alessi
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This author's opinion comes off as somewhat infantile. First of all the term "Game Developer" signifies all the positions within the industry. Artists, programmers, designers, writers, producers, testers, etc... are all game developers. The term is a great one.

Now for the infantile factor. When we are born none of us can speak and while that may seem like a limiting factor for a baby, it is actually the very trait that allows us to excel as a species. Learning to communicate is a part of life and programming is simply one more form of communication.

At the end of the day it is this particular form of communication between man and metal that allows us to create video games. That said, the language of computer programming is becoming more abstract everyday. It is now easier than ever to learn a programming language and write the code for your own games. Take the time to learn and perhaps one day you will be a great video game developer. I promise that learning the intricacies of programming will only enhance your overall creativity.

Aaron Knafla
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Lewis is clearly an academic. We all went to college. Remember the things that academic computer science professors taught us?

How many years have academics been running around telling us that today is a magic day when things have changed in software design?

Seriously. I want to know. Because, I heard that stuff when I was learning Pascal.

Yet, somehow... that magical academic world fades when you step into the real world..

If Lewis were a programmer, he'd be selling Java and "write once, run anywhere" standards to us--as a truly viable way to write top notch game software.

Sure, there is Java in moblie development right now. But, you should go tell your college professor that you avoid creating objects at all costs... and you use globals liberally.

I want to hear from successful people that are on top in the industry--not academics.

Bob Stevens
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"In my experience, most people don't think that game developers are programmers. They universally assume that game developers are /designers/. I don't know where you've been hearing your version, but it completely is NOT what the gaming public assumes."

"Lewis, can you provide any evidence to support your assertion that "to people who don’t work for video game companies, a developer is a programmer, someone who codes software. "? Because I suspect that this problem is of your own imagining."

Highly agree, if this assertion had more support it would be a better starting point. The people suggesting that well known individuals know very little about game development may well be right for reasons other than the suggested one: that they confused "game developer" and "programmer".

Jacob Goins
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Modern games are increasingly composed of simulations, and you can only "design" simulations from a very high level. The real creativity and ingenuity comes in filling out the details, i.e., programming the simulation.

How involved were Spore's designers in determining how the user's creatures were procedurally animated and how they interacted with the game world? How involved were F.E.A.R.'s designers in specifying the behavior of Jeff Orkin's AI planning system? (Apparently a lot of the game was actually designed in response to that system.) How involved were Far Cry 2's designers in determining how the dynamic fire system propagated flames, etc.

P.S. I think the point about the title Game Developer was merely that "developer" is a traditional term for programmer in the computer industry, which is true.

Jorge Barros Cabezas
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I agree with Simon Cooke. Well I'm not in the game industry, but as a software developer, I give more comparisons to what he said:

- the programmer is the person who writes the 'Matrix' of the game. You cannot have a 'Neo' if you dont have a 'Matrix'... and agent Smith cannot clone itself if the 'Matrix' does not allow that to him.

- anyone can draw a house, but only civil engineers know how to build them from the base to the roof. Despite that, they don't put the bricks.

- A click of a mouse is worthless if you don't have an operating system to handle it. With the clicks you can draw art in Photoshop, but you needed a programmer to build a Photoshop software alike.

Jacob Goins said: "I think the point about the title Game Developer was merely that "developer" is a traditional term for programmer in the computer industry, which is true."

Well that happens because the programmer is the one that knows how to solve a problem in the system, because he knows how it's build from the core itself. The same happens with a videogame, you cannot jump 100 meters in an olympics game, you cannot reach 400mph in an f1 racing game and you cannot make Mario dive 1 hour without oxygen/coins. It's true that somebody said: ok don't let the runner in an olympics game jump 100 meters, don't let an f1 car reach 400mph and don't let Mario dive 1 hour without oxygen/coins. But it is also true that: somebody created a rule to avoid a runner jumping 100 meters in an olympics game, another rule to avoid a f1 car reach 400mph and so on. If you want to change those rules, for example, Let the runner jump 101 meters but not 100 meters, please contact the programmer, he developed it. Long life to programmers (or developers) hehe.

Joseph Falcone
profile image article that demerits technical development skills. And by a guy who does pen and paper gaming, no less. It would be nice if we could all count on the power of pretending to make our games for us, but in the real world, programmers and graphics artists are a necessity, and are the backbone of any game, and will be the primary factor that determines how a game design is received by the public.

What school does this guy "educate" at? I'd like to know where I can go to school in listen to an instructor with about as much game development talent as my cat.

Mick West
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Jacob Goins said: "I think the point about the title Game Developer was merely that "developer" is a traditional term for programmer in the computer industry, which is true."

I don't think it is true at all. I've been in the industry for 20 years. There were always programmers, artists, designers, and audio. The term "game developer" came later to encompass all of these disciplines.

Mick West
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For example, the writers of Edge Magazine do not "create games for a living", any more that Pulsipher's anecdotal: "some newly-minted college instructors who teach students to make games". Yet how many of Edge's "Hot 100 Game Developers of 2009" are programmers? About as many as are artists, designers, or even producers.

In fact, I'd challenge Pulsipher to produce ANY published reference to support his contention that the term "Game Developer" is taken by ANYONE to mean "Game Programmer". Even a brief review of the literature shows that the term is primarily used to refer to game development companies, and secondarily used to refer to people who work in the game creation industry as a whole."game+developer"+-magazine&bt

Joshua Dallman
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This whole article is discredited by a single instance of a game like AudioSurf or World of Goo. In both games, the programming is an integrated part of the gameplay and art, not a separate part of it. If you understand those games, you understand how vital the programming is to their artistic success. Setting the audio algorithms for how the music should be visually transcribed and displayed in AudioSurf is every bit as creative and elegant a process as creating the game's design or art. Tweaking the physics interactions between goo balls is every bit as creative and elegant a process as creating World of Goo's level design or art. The author has overlooked the subtle in favor of championing the obvious.

If you look at the author's website, you'll see that he created some board games in the 70's and 80's, then quit games for 20 years -- the 20 most interesting years of game evolution -- to return to it just 5 years ago when he started teaching part-time, with full-time teaching for only the last 2 years. Most of his experience is steeped in board games which have only tangential relation to video games. By his own admission, he says, "I have never designed a published computer game, largely because I have not known anyone able and willing to do the necessary programming and artwork. Nowadays, of course, computer games are the products of large teams, not of individuals." So we have three lazy excuses for never developing a game, and somehow this person is qualified to write an opinion piece on game development and what "game developer" means when they are not even themselves a game developer. That is ridiculous.

I'm sorry GamaSutra but you need to do better homework on your authors, that it's an opinion piece is no excuse for this uninformed rubbish.

Chris Chiu
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I think the author has the wrong idea about how much programmers can actually contribute to designers staying on the ground.

Sure it would be nice to have unrestricted creative freedom to design and do whatever you want. But not knowing the scope limitations (which obviously exist by electronic games being restricted to what is possible in "reality", i.e. technically) severaly impacts the quality of a game.

Knowing the technical limitations enables you to do the things you CAN do better. Not knowing them might endanger the entire project resulting in a lackluster game experience simply because the designers and sometimes artists didn't feel like they should be "restricted" by limitations.

Not to mention that programmers often are there to fill the void between wishful thinking and actual practical implementations (especially when thinking about implementing responsive controls, for instance).

Of course "programming" doesn't sound sexy. It sounds like databases and UML and other boring things, but games are defined by interactivity, and interactivity in electronic devices are technically powered by software. Electronic games often _are_ software. So I do think that one of the distinguishing factors of games does come from programming, and I think programming does contribute to a lot of great games in a positive way - way more than the author of this article thinks.

Derek Smart
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I really had an entire litany of things I wanted to say when I first saw this article. Then I decided to sleep on it. Now its 5:30AM and so I decided not to waste time and just instead stay

"What a crock. The writer obviously didn't do enough research to warrant an article. In fact, he's patently clueless. Either that or he lost a bet with the Gamasutra editors. This is yet another example of what is wrong with the industry. Thank God this is just another fluffy piece filler for Gamasutra and which we don't have to pay any serious attention to, let alone take seriously."

Derek LeBrun
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I think the author is thinking towards games in general. You don't need a programmer to design and implement table top games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer 40,000. He raises the question that video game design might benefit artistically from less of an emphasis on programming.

As an Artist/Designer, I personally would love a hyper-easy to use Unreal Editor-like development toolset that could enable me to make games with little to no coding knowledge. Something that had pre-coded templates for things like collision and AI from previously successful games.

This sort of toolset might become a possibility one day, but you will never be able to develop a toolset which automatically generates art or design.

Aaron Knafla
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@Derek LeBrun

There is a term for using somebody else's game engine to make your own design--with little or no real programming skill. That's called modding.

You don't need to wait for someday to make a mod. You can do it right now. And you will be labeled and respected as a simple modder. Because that's the term for doing that: modder.

Notice how I never used the term "game developer"? That's no mistake. I said modder.

Furthermore, there seems to be an ACADEMIC-based idea that video games will grow beyond the hardware. That's silly. That's not going to happen.

Gamers and press alike expect their game software to push the hardware to the limits--and play to the strengths of the platform. Do you really think the innovations in hardware are going to end soon?

You also seem to be expecting a set of tools to mod.. I mean.. "design" your games that will fully take advantage of your chosen hardware platform. You are also expecting no bugs or speedbumps along the way. This magical modding tool is going to fix everything, right?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but modders are limited by the power of their tools, aren't they? How can you be truly free to make anything you want if you are depending on a set amount of tools to do your work for you?

You need a programmer.

Steven Ehrensperger
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I feel compelled to pile on here; in case the folly of this opinion wasn't evident enough already.

While I can understand how an “outsider” might derive the opinion that programmers are merely “implementers” of design concepts, and that perhaps could shape their perception of the terminology they hear us using in our industry, the idea that a purported “insider” might suffer from a similar lack of perception is ironic, to say the least.

There is a reason why programmers made games without the apparent benefit of “artists/designers” in the early era of games. Games are inherently a structure of limitations. Deal a card/roll a die/press button to jump X height (press twice rapidly to double-jump to X+Y height). The compelling aspect of games is almost universally found in the tuning of these limitations, and this almost always falls directly within the responsibility of programming.

Programming is an art. If you don’t understand that simple truth, I can’t help you understand the more complex issues of game development.

And beyond that, you are unprepared to explain to “outsiders” the art of development.

Mario Garcia Lazaro
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If you give a designer more and more control over the game systems he becomes an hybrid between designer and programmer.

If a designer is less and less specific about design implementation and leaves more decisions about the game, the programmer becomes also a designer/programmer hybrid.

And the more complex the game is, the more complex the work of both jobs are. And the more difficult is for one single person to do well in both.

So, you can have a programmer that designs a game with simple design implications, and also a designer that programs a simple to program game. But when things get complex in any side, you need to be too good in one or in both jobs, so you need experts... Or be a genius.

The best programmers and designers I have met are that hybrid in some proportion. Specially in the systems/gameplay side.

Muzie -
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Opinion piece or not, I expect Gamasutra to accept articles from authors who actually have a minimum of credential to express an opinion.

This is an opinion piece from an author who hasn't actually contributed to any electronic form of electronic entertainment in his life. Even worse, it's an opinion piece about what the different roles in a game development team should be, from a person who has actually no hands-on experience in how modern videogame development is actually conducted.

Would we expect a layman to get published in a medical paper to explain his views about what doctors, nurses and medical technicians should do? Of course not.

This reflects badly on the qualify of the content at Gamasutra. Opinion piece doesn't imply no filtering whatsoever on the quality of the source and content.

Derek LeBrun
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@ Aaron Knafla

I realize what modding is. I'm talking about the professional development suite that Epic licenses out to other developers, not something built around an existing game like Unreal 3. Epic has said themselves that they built the engine specifically to put less need on programmers.

I'm certainly not afraid of being limited by such a toolset, and neither are many well known developers. Seeing as how I cannot code, it would be a blessing to be able to use something that required even less code.

What is so wrong with taking programmers out of the equation of game development, and rather placing them in a software development role, making artist-friendly development tools? It's not like you'd be out of a job, and such a change wouldn't be embraced by the entire industry.

Someone made a comparison with film making. I don't see the coders of Final Cut Pro sitting in the movie studio coding its functions on the fly. They code the application, and the end users (artists) use it.

Jacob Goins
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Because, as everyone has been pointing out, a game is defined by its mechanics (code), not its art assets. A movie, on the other hand, is defined by its "art assets." You could replace all the Locust models in GOW with clowns, and it would still be the same game. If you replaced all the drugs in Requiem for a Dream with cotton candy, it would be a totally different movie.

Aaron Knafla
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@Derek LeBrun

Yep. You said all that. And, your dream world of "game development" is actually just glorified modding. I knew that term would get under your skin and I'll use it again for effect right here: modder. :)

And, we really don't need any professional modders. I can sell games that allow users to make content of their own and share it themselves. That creates a community around the title--and makes it more interesting.

Following your logic, those toolsets are going to fall into just about everybody's hands. Everybody will be a "game designer"...

The programmers certainly won't be out of a job. But, you will.

Alexander Conserva
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@ Tim Carter

"People disparage Pulsipher (who is an experienced designer) - using ad hominem remarks - and yet they do so in total oblivion to the irony of where the game industry is now: lost in a sea of sequels and franchises. If we did give design over to the designers, we might see something fresh - other than rehashes of WW2 shooters and fantasy MMOs all the time."

I am not quite sure I know what point you are trying to make here. I have never worked on a project or heard of a project where the programmers stepped in and said "On the next game we have decided to make a sequel of the last game!"

I think you have ascribed more power to the programmers then they really have.

Most development teams have designers that are in charge of game design. If you took away all other roles on a development team by making them not necessary, you would still end up with the same set of games that we have today.

Of course if you went to a purely hypothetical "art for arts" sake universe, sure every game would be a unique pretty snowflake, but thats not reality.

Aaron Knafla
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@Tim Carter

Give me a break. Cut the pretentious elitist garbage. The complaints about originality in entertainment get on my nerves. Nobody really wants that.

The second word of the term "game business" is "business". It's about making money. You need to come to terms with that. It's about the money, man.

And, you make money by giving the people what they want. If you don't like what the gaming public buys, complain to them.

If the world really wanted originality, they would vote for it with their wallets.

Get that ultra-liberal pretentious elitist garbage outta my face.

As for the creativity remark, programmers are taught to be problem solvers. That's why we take the higher math courses. We don't dream up the answers; we just invent a way to get there.

The author of this article is original? Is that why his stuff is all based on medieval and Tolkien-like themes? Because, I've never seen or heard any stories based on that before... *rolls eyes* Someone with so many original bones in his body should be able to do better than that.

Alexander Conserva
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Well the code it self might be a tool but the implementation of the code is an art.

Making a control system that feels good is not merely a matter of throwing a specific set of symbols together and getting a control system out of it. The code is a programmers tool to creating a great control system. The "perfect" control system would be what you would describe as an "intangible" elements.

So I guess I am agreeing with you in a way Tim. Code is a tool. The programmer is the artist that uses code to get a living breathing game.

Aaron Knafla
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@Tim Carter

Fact: If you want to provide clear, attainable, and concise instructions to a person--you always benefit from some understanding of the process.

I think game designers should have a knack for art, code, and music. The great ones do.

David Paterson
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@Tim Carter

"People disparage Pulsipher ... they don't have an original bone in their body." - um, pot, meet kettle.

And not intended as an ad-hominem, but I wouldn't consider Lewis Pulsipher to be "an experienced designer" based on his portfolio.

You also seem to have a strange view of the programmer's role in development. We (yes, I'm a programmer) don't live in a comfortable world, with no reference to content, design or ludology; we interact with designers, artists, musicians and other "creative types" continually, effectively giving form to their ideas.

Your analogy to Michelangelo is very apt, except that in my view he was as much a programmer as he was an artist or designer. He knew his materials and tools, knew the limitations of his materials and craftsmanship, and applied many skills to create his masterpieces. (The references to architects and civil engineers above are also very relevant.)

If you think that game code is merely a tool, you're completely misunderstanding it. You're also misunderstanding, and severly underestimating, the abilities of programmers if you think they have no creativity. My experience over the past 30 years tells me otherwise.

And no, a designer doesn't have to be an expert programmer, but a good designer should have a reasonable understanding of the practicalities of coding - and art production for that matter - so they can determine whether their ideas are feasible, and can be implemented (or understand the reasons why when told they aren't).

It's easy to make broad sweeping statements about any sector of the development community, especially when you're at best on its very periphery, but those involved in it day-to-day understand that all of our "crafts" are equally important.

Bob Stevens
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"People disparage Pulsipher (who is an experienced designer) - using ad hominem remarks - and yet they do so in total oblivion to the irony of where the game industry is now: lost in a sea of sequels and franchises. If we did give design over to the designers, we might see something fresh - other than rehashes of WW2 shooters and fantasy MMOs all the time."

I think it's fairly well established that the author has never worked professionally in video games.

And originality has nothing to do with this discussion, so there's no irony to be had. It might not be tactful to disparage the author and I think he's gotten a lot more of it here than he deserves, but he wrote an audacious article from a position of ignorance and it's perfectly fair for people to cry foul on that.

Stephen Horn
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A lot of people are offended by the tone that Pulsipher takes with programmers, and I think they have every right to be. By intent or otherwise, the entire section listed "The Difference" is almost entirely written to cast programmers as liabilities to any given project.

Pulsipher's view on programming is utterly misinformed, as though the creative processes used to solve game design problems had no place in the programming world. To Pulsipher, coding is like dictation. You don't have to architect code the way that an artist composes a drawing. You don't have to design systems and processes the way an artist does rough sketches of characters before detailing them. This is utter, utter rubbish, plain and simple. If Pulsipher had left it at simply saying "programming is a necessary evil, because computer games are on computers," that would have been understandable. Sure, nobody liked us computer geeks in high school, so why should that change now that we're making close to six figures (or, for many senior programmers, a healthy six figures)?

Instead, he goes on to try and argue that not only are programmers unfortunate necessities, but that life would be better without them if only we could use one of those software-writing-software projects that were advertised in the 70s... you know, the ones nobody makes anymore, because they never worked as advertised or required - gasp - programmers to operate since they were essentially full-blown computer languages.

Then he goes on to say that whatever creativity programmers might apply is actually bad, referring to an article about an increasing minority of programmers that nobody wants to work with, even among other programmers! I have known a programmer I would call a "cowboy programmer," and believe me when I say that I have nothing but disdain for the fellow. On the other hand, a highly creative programmer can approach a problem in a way that makes nothing but total sense, and wow I sure wish I had thought of that approach when I did it X years ago. I'm not speaking of game design in the slightest; this is purely the implementation of the game's rules and necessary features as handed down from on high, Mr. Romero... er, Pulsipher.

If programmers are a necessary evil, it is because computers are the devil. Heaven certainly knows that Daikatana was unholy, and that was right around the last time the games' industry went on a big kick about how the game designer was the king of the show.

Would it help if I tried to make an analogy to board games? Is it really irrelevant to the game product if figurines are made of plastic instead of metal? What if the cards are printed on construction paper instead of card paper? What if the artistry are stick figures instead of quality portraits? Really, I guess artists are a liability, too, if you hire bad artists who can't think outside of an 8x11 sheet of notebook paper.

I can even turn Pulsipher's own paragraph around: Good design can certainly contribute, but mostly, design is there to structure the limitations of the board game's physical assets, and is a fairly abstract contribution to the game. But if it's poorly done, it can ruin the game. Further, new editions of the rules can typically fix design problems, but rarely fix fundamentally poor material choices.

Dungeons and Dragons are on their 4th edition nowadays, and Warhammer 40K is on its 5th. Try to tell me that there are not notable differences between their current revisions and their previous ones.

I had other points I wanted to make, but you know, the more thought I devote to this article outside of the section about the evils programming, the less this man's opinion seems relevant. It's a shame, too, because table-top game designers could probably lend an interesting opinion about computer games... maybe we should get someone from Wizards of the Coast to chime in.

Lewis Pulsipher
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This is apparently the equivalent of a religious matter with some of those who have commented. I expected disagreement, but didn't expect the personal attacks. This seems to be the pattern of some responses: "Let's make an ignorant assumption or two about the author, use that to denigrate what he's said, and consequently ignore the merits or demerits of the argument, then we'll feel better about the whole business." I say "ignorant" because a search of the Internet/Wikipedia would establish that many of these assumptions are untrue.

Let me explain what I meant with the reference to "Ad hominem" in my earlier response, which I supposed that programmers, being reliant on logic, would generally understand. This is a widely-acknowledged logical fallacy. It is defined in one dictionary as "appealing to personal considerations rather than to logic or reason: Debaters should avoid ad hominem arguments that question their opponents' motives." Wikipedia describes it thusly: "An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: 'argument to the man', 'argument against the man') consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the source making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim. The process of proving or disproving the claim is thereby subverted, and the argumentum ad hominem works to change the subject." Simon Cooke explicitly makes the error, others do without explicitly saying so. Well done, folks.

Evidently, if one isn’t part of the video games “fraternity,” one cannot possibly understand anything significant about the industry. Yet at the same time, that person can’t possibly be right about how those outside the industry view it. Neither of these makes sense alone, and certainly not in tandem.

Fortunately not everyone has responded in that manner, though not always practically. For example, how would one "prove" what most people think when they hear the term "game developer"? My experience, coming from computer programming and networking, is that "developer" associated with computing equals "programmer." Now that I'm in education, I've seen far too many schools where "game development" means programming, not design plus art plus programming plus ancillaries such as sound. But there's no way to "prove" what people think without trying to do a vast and expensive survey fraught with opportunities for bias, is there?

There also seems to be an assumption from some that only programmers can write instructions--or that everyone who writes instructions is a programmer. If you define "programmer" to mean whatever you are able to do well, or define "programmer" to mean whatever is good in video game design, then of course you can successfully disagree with me. Perhaps we could stick with the common idea that programmers write program code, rather than that programmers are the supermen of the game industry?

If you define someone who writes the rules for a game as a programmer, then of course my points make no sense. If you define a game designer as a "pie-in-the-sky" individual taken to flights of fancy, as one who needs the help of a programmer to actually organize a game logically, then of course I'm wrong. I disagree wholeheartedly, and once again point to the many thousands of commercially-published board and card games designed and organized by people without the slightest assistance of programmers. Those designers had to write rules that could be understood by people without the aid of a computer, people who could not be forced by a machine to play the game "right". That, friends, is not coding, but is in some ways more difficult, because less-than-entirely-logical entities (people) must understand and follow those rules.

If you ignore the evidence in front of your face, both from non-electronic games and from games made with Gamemaker and other simple game engines by non-programmers, then you can certainly assure yourselves that programmers are the foundation of game creation.

The more rabid responses here remind me that even within the game industry, many people assume that designing a game is easy, and that "anyone can do it". "That's kids' stuff". Oh, “programming is hard, design is easy.” Tim Carter identified this attitude very well (thanks Tim). This general disrespect is yet another reason why ordinary people look down their noses at the game industry, yet that attitude from the public is hardly surprising when the same attitude exists within parts of the industry itself.

The folks who ignorantly accuse me of being an "academic" with no experience or making games or of programming, as a way to satisfy themselves that I must be wrong, might search for my name in Wikipedia, or look here (, or have a look through my Web site (, or do a Web search on my name (which fortunately is quite unusual: “Lew Pulsipher” OR “Lewis Pulsipher”.) Among other things, you'll find that games I designed were published as far back as 1980. Keep in mind also that when someone designs a boardgame, 80-95% of the game (aside from art) is that single person's creation--a situation not at all the norm in big video games, where the game is typically "designed by committee" or by the team as a whole. Yes, I do have a Ph.D. in military and diplomatic history, possibly the best degree one could achieve in 1981 for the purpose of designing games, though that was not my goal. Having worked as a programmer and networking engineer for many years, I am presently a teacher as well as designer; I have never been an "academic".

You can look at trends and at reality. Or you can be a "vidiot" and pretend that the only “real” games that exist are commercial video games, which cannot exist without programming, hence programming must be the most important part of the creation of games, as conveniently self-serving as that definition may be.

Andrew Carroll
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In response to your opinions piece, Mr. Pulsipher, your points on some level are quite valid. The term "game developer" within the video game industry is a superset of what we all are: game artists, game designers, game programmers, game producers, etc. Your call for a distinction of the separate roles may very well have merit for clarity's sake to those outside the industry.

The disparaging remarks aimed at the technical crowd, whether intentional or otherwise, are quite unfortunate. Those comments take away from your core argument and really are unneeded to convey your point, which is that the term "game developer" is very ambiguous.

Please, in the future, consider how the words that you choose may make others feel. To imply that a large portion of the work done by these game programmers can only serve as a negative influence on a game is probably not your intention, but it is unsurprising that so many people are upset with your choice of language.

Thank you for taking the time to put together a (mostly) thoughtful opinion. I look forward to more of them in the future, sans the putdowns for very large parts of the video gaming industry.

Aaron Knafla
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Your article clearly addresses video game development--not games in general. Why defend yourself with references to board and card games? We aren't talking about board games and card games.

Questioning your qualifications to write this piece is perfectly valid. Your degrees and accomplishments simply do not qualify you. I'm sorry that upsets you. Most people are trying to tell you things that you should understand already--provided you had the experience to write this article in the first place. Your PhD doesn't mean a darn thing in the world of game development. You have no credentials.

Read it:

"For almost all video games, programming is a necessary evil, something that can only result in negatives for the game, not make it outstanding. What makes a video game outstanding is, first, the design, the gameplay or other interaction; second, the look and feel of the game, which is a combination of design and art."

Are you really suprised you upset people?

Did you notice the only reference you made to physical programming was in regard to stability?

Game programming is still based on C. Did you know that? That's because it's still about performance. Strong typing hasn't taken hold for a reason; because, customers want the richest experience possible. And, it's up to the people on the machines to find a way to deliver... You didn't mention that. Maybe you should Google some of that right now, Lewis. I think I might have lost you..

What you did was insult programmers. You essentially compared skilled professionals to hired manual laborers. (Rather you meant to or not, you did it.)

Programmers are part of a development team. That was stated multiple times. All we want is some respect.

We also want to read articles from valid voices in the video gaming community. You don't fit the bill.

Raul Aliaga
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Apparently, Mr Pulsipher himself fails to precisely convey his point, also mentioned by Tim Carter, that game design it's not just to dream games and that there's a need to boost creativity -without incurring in offenses to other disciplines, just as he claims the programmers did.

I think that the main problem it's just a battle of egos among art, programming, design and whatever. I do agree that game design it's a difficult craft, and I also agree with the need to look for new creative stuff, but none of them will be solved by putting a crown on game designers heads and make everyone else their slaves.

Programming it's not just "writing code", it's software engineering, and graphics, audio and writing have all their solid aesthetic backgrounds, design principles and history to rely on when creating video game art assets.

Does game design have a solid theoretical background? Is the game development pipeline clearly defined regardless of genre and technology? I think that those are the biggest challenges to properly train game developers, communicate our work as an industry and set the creative level higher.

Alexander Conserva
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I would posit the possibility that a lot of "game development" courses deal with programming is because its much easier to sink your teeth into educationally.

There is a lot of history with teaching engineering, software engineering, and there are subjects such as physics, AI, graphics, networking, etc. that can be quickly turned into a game curiculum.

With video game design however you are treading new ground.

Mick West
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Lewis said:


"For example, how would one "prove" what most people think when they hear the term "game developer"? My experience, coming from computer programming and networking, is that "developer" associated with computing equals "programmer." Now that I'm in education, I've seen far too many schools where "game development" means programming, not design plus art plus programming plus ancillaries such as sound. But there's no way to "prove" what people think without trying to do a vast and expensive survey fraught with opportunities for bias, is there?"

Mick West
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(previous comment got cut off, reposting here)

Lewis said:

"For example, how would one "prove" what most people think when they hear the term "game developer"? My experience, coming from computer programming and networking, is that "developer" associated with computing equals "programmer." Now that I'm in education, I've seen far too many schools where "game development" means programming, not design plus art plus programming plus ancillaries such as sound. But there's no way to "prove" what people think without trying to do a vast and expensive survey fraught with opportunities for bias, is there?"

Nobody asked for proof. What was asked for was evidence, which is not hard to come by. Specifically I asked for "ANY published reference to support [your] contention". I specifically asked for published references because it's hard to see how if every published reference to "game developer" indicates either a development company, or someone or works there, then how can the general public somehow be under the impression that "game developer" means "game programmer"?

Even a cursory glance at "Game Developer" magazine shows it is not just for programmers. Indeed, only 20% or so of the magazine is for programmers.

If you look at the "game developer courses" that come up in a google search, you'll see that the majority of them cover programming, art, and design, and NOT just programming.

Google evidence is easy to come by:

"game design course" = 14,000 results

"game programming course" = 6,530 results

"game development course" = 9,180 results

"game creation course" = 188 results

Have a look at the syllabuses of those game development courses, and see how many are just game programming courses. You'll find that they are generalist courses, including programming, art, and design, as the name suggests.

I'm sure you've come across a few of your peers who use the term incorrectly. However, since the vast majority of people use the term correctly, then perhaps, instead of trying to introduce an unnecessary and potentially confusing term, you should focus your energy on educating the few who are mistaken.

Ian Griffiths
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Mick West is absolutely right: there is little point creating a new confusing term to counter the small minority of people who use the term incorrectly. Fortunately as these are people you encounter you are ideally sited to educate them.

Also, could I just point out that the video games industry is less of a closed shop or fraternity than you may think.

In general we are obsessive game players - video games, board games, card games, pnp rpgs - and my own office is littered with games like Britannia and at lunch times littered with people playing games like Britannia. We do learn our lessons. We are inspired by other forms of gaming. We do appreciate good design and solid game play in all its forms. We do watch, listen, read and get inspired by a whole range of things.

Purnima Iyer
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Wow, this article is rather interesting for its comments than the content itself. ;)

I completely agree with Omar Aziz who mentioned,

"The truth is that ALL disciplines are necessary to make a game fun. Not just art and design. Its a triangle where any discipline can be the top point. It just depends on what you're building. "

That's such a perfect statement.

However, I was just wondering… if this article read that the core of game development is programming, instead of game design & art, then would there be so much opposition?

Arjun Nair
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"Ideally, we'd like to be able to tell a computer-based tool how we want a game to work, provide it with art, and it would write the software."

In a perfect world, if the above were to be true then maybe your definition of Game Developer to mean "designer and artist" may hold true (although "telling" the tool how the game works is a form of programming if you ask me!).

But in today's reality, the term Game Developer *would* actually describe the holy trinity of "Designers, artists and programmers". No one is more important or indispensable l than the other. Period.

Jacob Goins
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"There also seems to be an assumption from some that only programmers can write instructions--or that everyone who writes instructions is a programmer."

Yep, that's what a lot of us believe, so small wonder we can't agree. Further, anyone who makes a game in gamemaker by dragging and dropping pre-defined code modules is programming.

Alexander Conserva
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Actually we have a term for the the vision holder of the project "Creative Director".

This person does not necessarily design. They do however lead the process and are in charge of bringing it all together.

Thierry Tremblay
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"There also seems to be an assumption from some that only programmers can write instructions--or that everyone who writes instructions is a programmer."

Yes. That is the definition of programming / programmers.

Mike Smith
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Why do people keep drawing the lines between art code and design.

My question is who cares? I happen to be a programmer / artist / game designer. Why worry so much about labels? We make games. That's all that matters.

Is he offended that someone might think he knows how to program because he's a "game developer"?

If he is, he should just get over it.

Simon Cooke
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Oh lordy, you go on a several paragraph rant about ad hominem attacks when I question your credentials?

Let's address your credentials directly:

You are writing an article about the interactions between programmers, designers and artists in the video game industry.

* You have not worked on a video games team.

* You have not worked on a large video games project.

* You have not worked in the video games industry.

* You have not worked with artists or programmers, because - as your own web page states - you couldn't get them to work with you for free.

* You have worked on boardgames, which is not a part of the videogames industry.

... and you're complaining because people aren't taking your assumptions at face value, ignoring the messenger?

That's because your assumptions are just outright wacky and malformed, and all we're left with is the question as to how this article EVER got published.

I feel the same way about the crap you have posted on your website about Digipen & Full Sail. Yes, people in the industry do take degrees from those places seriously. They may actually be preferred, provided that the candidate is A-Grade material, because it's a neat shortcut that means you don't have to explain all the terminology, and you don't have to train people up vs. people who come from a straight computer science or fine arts background.

You have this habit of spewing uninformed facts out, and backing them up with the three pillars of "I've done boardgames!" and "I've got a PhD!" and "I teach this stuff!"

... none of which give your comments any valid basis on which to stand. You don't even get the benefit of these being anecdotal war stories, because guess what? You've not been in the damn war!

So yeah, sure, ad hominem attacks all round. That's because you, personally, are speaking out of the wrong end of your intestines.

Simon Cooke
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@Tim Carter:

Of course the designer is the most important. Your company is based around that premise; if that facade ever cracks, your investors will be pissed.

David Paterson
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@Tim Carter

"When they discovered this in film, back in the 60s, film went from people Saturday-morning popcorn throwaway entertainment into a true, mature, cultural force."

Are you seriously making the statement that prior to the 60's cinema was just "throw-away entertainment"? This sounds like trolling, and there are more than a few students of cinema, as well as fans and critics, who'd say otherwise. In fact, in my view, there are fewer great, artistic, movies made nowadays compared to those of 50+ years ago.

However, regarding the role of designers in games development - yes they are important, but they're not the most important part of any team. The key word here is "team", and the team isn't going to be successful without all members working well and working together.

I've worked on quite a number of projects over the years, sometimes with good designers, sometimes with bad, and games still get made even when the designers can't seem to string two ideas together. A poor designer is like a poor programmer or poor artist - the rest of the team work round them and compensate.

A good designer (who BTW should be designing, not doing art or programming...) is definitely an asset, and will help guide the development from concept to actuality, but the rest of the team will also have plenty of input into the creative process.

To take another perspective on who's important, a good producer or project manager, someone who really understands the development process, scheduling, budgets and how to look after their team, would be worth more to me than any number of shit-hot artists, programmers or even designers. I've known and worked with some, but sadly they're few and far between (and that's another topic for another debate).

Simon Cooke
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@David Paterson:

I'm in total agreement.

A little parable from a related industry:

It's opening night at the premiere of a new blockbuster movie in Tinsletown, and strangely, the whole crew were invited. As they're watching the film with a small number of hand-picked laymen, they're talking among themselves.

Director: I'm the vision for this film. If I didn't know what I was doing, it wouldn't get made!

Producer: I managed to get everything done on time and on budget. If I hadn't been able to shepard everything around, it wouldn't get made.

Writer: If I hadn't written the screenplay, none of this would have happened at all. It all came from my idea, my hard work, my words on paper. This film wouldn't have been made without me.

Actor: If I hadn't spent a year in Botswana training for this role, and if I hadn't reached down into the darkest parts of my psyche, this movie wouldn't have got made!

All of a sudden, one of the patrons in the row in front of them turns around. "Would you all please shut the hell up? I'm trying to watch the damn movie!"

... or in other words:

Without all the moving pieces, you won't get a game, never mind much of anything else.

Everyone thinks their involvement is worth more than others.

Ultimately, the end consumer doesn't care - as long as it's fun.

(A question for Tim/Lewis - which roles are equivalent to programmers and designers in the movie world? Are designers screenwriters or are they directors?)

Audio guy: You know, without me, this film would be a silent movie. Oh goddamnit ! Nobody thought about me until the last minute again.

Shaun Peoples
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I propose that we add even more new verbiage to the games industry lingo: "pulsipher". Example usage: "Man, you really pulsiphered that project!" The meaning should be quite clear at this point, it means that you stepped out of the shadows and decided to piss all over people that initially had no problem with you, but through your own self-promoting writing thought you could make yourself relevant.

Simon Cooke
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Civilization... back in the 1990s. Ah, I remember those halcyon days with fond memories... after all, it was the time when one man in his shed could make a game by himself.

"How much of the coding did you do on Civilization personally?

Sid: I did just about all the coding. I had some help with some tools and things like that. But I'd have to say that I did most of the coding in that game. And some of the art. "

Dungeons & Dragons? I'm not sure of the relevance to the discussion at hand of videogames here. The closest reasonably modern game to that which I can think of is probably Diablo II. You're certainly not giving your case any more weight if you're suggesting that Dungeons & Dragons is an example of why the designer is king when it comes to any kind of team-based video game development.

As for innovation... would you care to give examples of some games that would be fun that you'd care to develop? Surely it won't take you that long to throw together a prototype. After all, there are games creation languages, and tools like EA's 2D prototyping tool, and Gamebryo's recently announced RAD toolkit. That allows you to prove out the gameplay before you even hire the rest of the people to produce the game. Surely you can spend a few hours figuring that out before you even approach a publisher?

The reason for picking slots today is manyfold:

1. We know roughly what genres make how much money.

2. It's hard to explain to someone a game concept without a prototype. If you don't have a prototype, it's much easier if you throw them into slots. (These could also be called "tropes").

3. Franchises make a LOT of money. So most companies - short sighted or not - will go for the franchise and the chance at the big money, instead of going for quirky one-offs. It's sad, but it's inevitable. I mean, heck, look at the gaming venture capital community - nearly 100% of the money for actual games last year went into MMOs. All the others were mostly advertising or web portal plays.

4. Please feel free to come up with a new genre. Given technology limitations and human limitations (we just can't wire that damn headset into your visual cortex just yet, no matter how hard we try to wedge it in), the genres available to you are always going to be limited. But heck, it should be easy, right? Unfortunately no.

5. Games are really expensive to produce today. They're multi-thousand man-year projects. Expensive. That naturally limits the risk the financial people are willing to take. If you want to make a Braid in a commercial settings, then you're just plain going to need to make a prototype and sell people on the coolness and the feel.

6. The more verbs you have, the fuzzier the game concept. So sure, you can make a survival horror action RPG platformer, but most people are going to have issues with that description - they can't figure out what's going on there. So you need less verbs. Which means you need to stick to a genre. Which means either you need to create a new genre entirely (which will take me a lot of convincing that you have one), or fit it in the existing ones.

The existing ones exist for a very good reason. It's the same reason there are 37 basic story types. Namely, everything is a variant on one of those. The industry has settled there because that's what humans enjoy to do.

Brent Mitchell
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I love this thread, mostly for the comments.

Firstly, I believe any developer can see where the author could get his opinion that programmers are in the background of a game; they bring to life what the designers and artists conjure up, but in the way that, from the player's perspective, is simply exactly what the designers conjured up.

I think the big difference in opinion comes from anyone who has actually been through this process. Designers and artists can dream up whatever they want (and with tools, turn the dreams into rather good realities). But those tools, and all the other thousands of hidden tools that have been building up on top of each other since the beginning of video game creation, are the cumulative and extraordinary execution of turning vapid concepts into harsh realities by the progs.

Absolutely everything in a game is a system that was built by an programmer at some point. Each can still be refined and tuned until The End Of Days.

When you look down a hall in a game, a hall built by designers, tiny polygon way down at the end of the hall is a texture, built by an artist.

But that texture was built in a photo editing program, loaded by a rendering engine, morphed by shaders and bumpmaps, lit by radiosity algorithms, given Anisotropic Filtering and Anti-Aliasing passes and then... optimized so millions of these could be done over sixty times a second.

If the author thinks that that is in any way NOT the backbone of all modern videogames, then him and I are at a huge disagreement. I love being a designer with all my heart and soul, but I know I am forever indebted to those programmers for letting me turn my dreams into reality.

Come to think of it, ima go buy the programmers some drinks.

Arjun Nair
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"He said "instructions". Not code. Instructions.

Have you ever played a board game? There's this booklet inside it called the rule book. Inside it are instructions. There is no code in the rule book. The instructions are very precise. They tell you how to play the game."

Designers write instructions in a rule book to tell the player how to play the game. Programmers write instructions to the computer ("to code") to tell it how to do various things. As you can see, giving instructions do play an important role - in video games or otherwise! ;)

Brian Beuken
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uninformed, badly researched, antagonistic rubbish but someone who really has no clue what the "VIDEO" game industry is like or the actual genuine relationships that exist between the multitude of developers who make the whole process.

The flame war that follows it pretty irrelevant to the ill informed content that is troll fodder of the highest order. Every member of a team is important...all play their different parts and its best left at that.

Gamasutra....shame on you..whats next, pig farmers writing articles about AI in games?

@ Lewis...I'm sure you mean well and think you know what your talking about....but you don't...a retraction might go a long way to salvaging some credibility, but in future I think you should keep your nose out of things you clearly and demonstrably don't understand.