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




[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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