The road to lead game designer is often long and tiring. And once there, it is difficult to garner the authority and respect to truly conceive of and see to completion a strong artistic vision.
A big barrier to gaining wider recognition for game designers is many of the best and brightest are worn down by the grind. Because publishers are as handcuffed by the image of games as everyone else, there's an incredibly limited range of genres publishers are willing to take a chance on. This creates a franchise-driven stasis that clogs up the release schedules and limits opportunities for innovation.
The typical game development process devalues design. Modern game development is geared toward meeting the bottom line, with more emphasis placed on budgets and technical boundaries than innovating or maximizing design criteria. There is little in the way of freedom for the design lead on a game project.
As such, fresh talent often looks elsewhere to satisfy their creative urges. The game industry eats up hundreds and hundreds of eager, talented individuals and spits them out without realizing the gems in that rough.
Going at it in "indie" fashion can be a real challenge, even on a smaller scale. Supporting just four people for a year to work on a title will cost a minimum of $200,000 in most cases, leading small development teams to take on paying gigs that back-burner their real work. Working alone requires even more constraints, leading to radical changes to lifestyle or filling the cracks in one's life with the important work of game design and development. More so, return on investment is difficult. See the Money Problem section, below.
The handful that make it through to lead game designer have a difficult time holding onto the power of the vision holder. There are a number of reasons for this, but primarily publishers do not trust the lead game designer to keep true to their vision and stay on schedule and budget. Visions of Daikatana and more recently Spore serve as object lessons in why not to trust the game designer. Publishers believe in product, not artwork. Additionally, publishers often fear giving lead designers too much credit or cache, lest they abandon ship and take their valuable name to another company.
From within the development process, gaining the full respect of the team can also be difficult. Game design is one of those jobs that everyone else thinks they can do better. This leads to a lack of respect for the vision of the lead. In many cases, the lead is in part responsible for this dissent. Often the most talented game design visionaries have poor (or no) management skills. Being a lead is to be a boss, and all the vision in the world will not make up for bad communication and people skills.
Adding to this is a clear standard for how to capture the vision of the game designer. Certainly there are some commonalities in how designers write documents and manage their design teams, but for every lead working in the field today, there is a different methodology.
The film industry has a standardized process and set of roles for how screenplays look, the notation language of storyboards, and most every other facet of capturing the vision of film-making. Dance had Laban notation. Architecture has blueprints. Without similar development of best practices, it will remain difficult to fully capture and hold the vision of the lead.
Film, music, dance, and theater have figured out methods for allowing large groups to collaboratively work to fulfill a singular vision. In some ways, this is an unfair comparison, as these mediums have had relatively long periods of time to work out the kinks. So let's use them as cheat sheets to figure out how to get there more quickly.
What is more likely, however, is for the next generation of game developers to work together to change the industry's culture. The road starts in two places: IGDA and higher education.
The IGDA can continue to serve as an advocate of game developers. The association should take a leadership role in learning from other industries. It could as well begin a program to evaluate the working methods of both successful and unsuccessful game developers and publish the results.
Over time, with efforts to codify a flexible but shared methodology, it should become easier for leads to lead and bring to fruition their vision. The IGDA with its Credits SIG can also help standardize the credit a lead designer earns, and make the designer's role clearer to those within and outside of the industry.
In many ways, the solutions to these problems are in the hands of those yet to enter the workforce. Academia can train would-be developers and in the process instill new values relating to game design.
The many universities and colleges with game design, art and programming degrees and courses should embrace the idea of game design as the heart of the creation of games. Every game development student should take at least one course in game design so they can more clearly understand the craft and their part in creating play experiences.