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Lifting The Designer's Curse

January 25, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Relic Entertainment studio design director Alexandre Mandryka outlines a framework for looking at how game design is handled, which he argues will both allow the discipline to grow in value and expertise while ensuring it serves the needs of projects.]

Over my 10 years in the video game industry as a designer, including three years as studio design director for Ubisoft Montreal, I've had the opportunity to collaborate on numerous projects from different companies and cultures.

While visuals and programming are better controlled, difficulty in anticipating, analyzing, and generally understanding the added value resulting from game design persists. While it is essential to game creation, this discipline is not clearly established and expertise is very rarely recognized.

This puts designers under so much pressure and gives them so little opportunity for reward and growth that they are trapped in a vicious circle of being at the same time paramount and overlooked. This is what I've come to call the Designer's Curse.

Practical Concerns

Most developers work in games because of their passion, which functions as a source of motivation, but it can also blur judgment as long as the pleasure of playing games and of making them stays intertwined. The beauty of a work of passion is that it is rewarding and fulfilling, as it caters directly to one individual's intrinsic needs, competency, autonomy and relatedness.

Because game design is such a young discipline, and also probably because games are generally viewed as not serious, its essence is not clearly established, making it a confusing path to follow, and grow in.

This article describes the difficult situation in which designers find themselves when not properly driven, offers a workable set of responsibilities and skills for them to own and develop, and defines a role for the game designer in the grand scheme of a project.

Design is Misunderstood

Like most things related to creativity, game design has always suffered from a lack of understanding. Most of the public thinks game designers just play games all day long. Executives tend to think they are the best game designers in the room or simply do not understand the designer role -- besides the fact that they need some on the payroll.  A game enthusiast even once asked me if I was designing clothing for characters in video games…

Designers or aspiring designers I have met and worked with are rarely at ease. Most of the time, they feel that they are not heard or taken seriously, that they don't have the tools and support they need, that the complexity of their work is not acknowledged, nor the value of it understood.

Part of the problem is that the job of game design is generally not well defined in terms of skills and function. Game design is not as established as programming and art. Its academic status is in its infancy, which makes it difficult not only to execute, but also to discuss, since we lack a proper vocabulary to describe it.

This generally has two consequences. First, because no clear technical task is given to game designers, they tend to travel along the path of least resistance, as players also do in games, and try to do what they believe "being creative" is: coming up with ideas, and trying to have them accepted and put into the game. After all, games designers must design the game, right?

But as ideas are being proposed without any technical backing in terms of feasibility or relevance, and consequently no established authority, the ensuing discussions are generally just exchanges of opinions in which a producer, as the higher hierarchical decision taker, usually has the final say.

It is only natural then, that a designer, whose main measure of success is how many of his decisions are being accepted, evolves towards the producer position, making the game designer job even more devoid of essence.

Second, in some teams, game design and product vision can be merged into one single entity. Saying that they are the same thing is missing the point that the former is a means to the latter. As with any creation, the form has to be subordinated to the function.

Design has to be used to support the game's intention, even at its own expense. Some games, for example, can propose awkward player controls just because they support the overall product intention, just as some music composers can use dissonance in order to create the desired effect.

Merging game design and product vision has the consequence of limiting the medium's expression to the typical conventions of design, instead of challenging it to bring new solutions to the table.

For instance, a designer working on controls will by default try to create the best, most efficient, easy-to-use input system, but if the intention commands it, controls may be done in a less transparent way to give flavor to the experience.

Let's take the canon example of the survival horror genre. These games share a common experience with horror movies and thrillers that rely on frightening the audience with different tricks. Empathy with endangered characters is a typical example; that often takes the form of someone trying to limp away from imminent danger.

Difficulty of movement creates trepidation and frustration that build up the feeling of helplessness and ultimately fear. No wonder games like early entries in the Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil series are almost infamous for featuring clunky controls, further hampered by camera angles that sometimes force the player to aim at off-screen foes.

Inefficient controls can be needed in order to create a specific experience for the player. Of course, in order to achieve this, you have to see beyond good design for the sake of it and understand how it can play its role in building the overall experience.

This shows the importance of the distinction between intention and technique. That's why design or any other technical field should not be taken as an end in itself.

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Ronildson Palermo
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"Designers or aspiring designers I have met and worked with are rarely at ease. Most of the time, they feel that they are not heard or taken seriously, that they don't have the tools and support they need, that the complexity of their work is not acknowledged, nor the value of it understood."

I cannot express how happy I am of actually reading this from a professional designer. I actually thought, for a moment, that I was all alone thinking like that out here. Glad to know that's something that initially comes with the job.

Gotta say I also appreciated the way you broke design competencies down. Though I always took into consideration the System, World, Content & Level Design division, I really like the neat and comprehensible division presented by your analysis.

Glenn Storm
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This is a beautifully written, well-informed and insightful holistic look at a fundamental industry challenge, with a reasoned analysis and thoughtful suggestion to find targeted improvements to organization, culture and thought. Thank you, Alexandre. My comments are targeted to "jumping off points" in your article, to augment this discussion just a little.

First, I appreciate the way you consistently remind us of the psychology of the employee throughout this discussion. This is very important in a field that requires lateral thinking, where "carrots and sticks" work the opposite way one thinks they would, and tactics like Self-Determination Theory prevail. Your graceful inclusion of psychology concepts are very welcome in defining the problem and suggesting solutions. Personally, I'm a big fan of applying these concepts both to the craft and to the development organization, as you allude to here.

At the same time, you balance this with a few keen observations from a practical business perspective; particularly the note about development trickling down from intention to execution, and the point that managers can take this article's insight and put it to work *right now* in communicating and collaborating with their designers. [applause]

Your focus on the problem "Design is Misunderstood" is at once, sad and fascinating. This is an articulate breakdown of the issue and the experience you bring to it shows. At the root of this particular issue is a strong deficiency (read: opportunity) in development organization, and creative culture. Thanks for making this point.

While your orthogonal breakdown of the essential skill set of the design is wonderful, you make the summary point that suggests these are the three areas we should focus on to further our craft. I just wanted to remind us all at that point, that there are also significant "close cousin" design industries with long histories and well established best practices. I'm talking about product design, etc. There is a wealth of potential knowledge to draw upon that can inform a designer's role. (see for example Design Council UK)

Brilliant and well-said insight on the distinction between intention and technique!

Minor suggestions:

Interaction Design could be summed up as focusing on the *responses* between games and players. (systems and users, networks and audience, etc.)

The point about Level Design status is well-taken, and the counter point not mentioned has to do with the scope of focus between game and level designers, where game design focus can include level design from a broader perspective; where all the levels fit into a broader experience design that is cohesive. But, the point you make could also state that level design is where a story meets the player; it is direct interaction and implementation of the beats of action, which takes another set of skills entirely, having to do with presentation, as in cinematography, theater and storytelling. It does depend on the game's intent and the tactics used to deliver the player experience, but both takes on it would seem to exist in some degree at all times.

And, at the end of the discussion on Motivation Design, you get very close to, yet never mention Flow, the psychology concept most closely associated with Csikszentmihalyi. If anyone has not seen this name, please find references to Flow and note comparisons to our industry concept Game Balance.

Big Cheers!

Patric Mondou
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Great comments on a great article.

I'd like to point out however that your breakdown of design-related tasks (and appropriate skills needed) lacks essential (technical) aspects such as balancing and prototyping. You mention how hard it can be to get your ideas accepted by producers and production teams, but a good table top (balancing) or mod prototype (features, interaction design) can often convince the most stubborn teammate. In my opinion, technical/artistic skills cannot be completely left out of account in our jobs because they help us communicate with professionals of incalculably different realities. 'Superstar' designers of the last years - Jon Shafer Kyle Gabler, Markus Persson, Chris Taylor and many others all have in common strong technical/artistic skills, or are downright jacks-of-all trades.

Your article is very true, but again, I don't think we can disregard the importance of well-rounded skills for designers and I do think we constantly have the occasion of proving to coworkers the well-founded of our designs.

Brandon Davis
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Just a really great article--it belongs in a book on game design. I appreciate the numerous references to the psychology of gaming, which is my personal and professional focus.

Brice Morrison
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This is a true industry challenge. I've worked at studios before where Designers were given a great deal of respect and games were immaculate as a result despite tough deadlines. I've also worked at studios where no one understood what a Designer was supposed to do and the game experiences were sloppy even with ample time.

Question for everyone: In my experience, a designer can't be a designer without a leadership role, just as a movie director wouldn't be anything without their leadership role. Is the answer to make sure that designer positions are always senior enough to command respect, or do you think that designers can exist and be well understood lower on the development ladder? I tend to think the former.

Glenn Storm
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I can understand the tendency to place authority in the hands of those managing ideas and challenges, this happens in business all the time. However the answer to this question has to come from the nature of the culture with which the designer operates in.

As you allude to, some cultures are ready to accept a designer's expertise, and the basis for that trust and acceptance comes from a common understanding of the role. Without that common understanding, without the culture's experience working with that expertise as an integral component to the development process, there is little for another culture to base their trust and respect. A culture without this understanding would have fall back on "known assumptions", or tropes and hearsay, to establish some working relationship. And as expected, a faulty foundation of understanding often results in a faulty working framework.

This question raises another for me: Do we have any way to "measure" the creative culture, and its propensity to accept design expertise?

Kamruz Moslemi
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You can measure it by counting the number of commonly known respected names in the field. In the movie industry people pay attention to who directed said movie as a measure of its quality much more than which studio bankrolled the project. This is however not as much the case with games.

In Japan there are a very large group of well respected personalities in the field whose name carry both the weight of their legacy as well as their well defined unique artistic vision, and approach to game design. You have a good idea what to expect from a game made by Fumito Ueda, Shinji Mikami, Shigeru Miyamoto, Goichi Suda, etc.

Outside of Japan though I get the feeling that there just are not as many recognizable names, and the handful that exist are mostly holdouts from the early days. I could be wrong though, since I dont pay much attention to happenings outside of Japan.

Mark Venturelli
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It depends on what you consider a "leadership" role.

If you mean having control over the DESIGN, yes.

If you mean telling everyone what to do, no.

If there is an established design process on the company, there is no need for the designer to be some kind of director or anything like that. Design is not more important than art, sound or code - it just usually (should) come up with the guidelines and constraints for these areas' work.

Joe McGinn
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I think you are correct Brice, and the article mentions this, how decision making is usually co-opted by the more senior level (typically producer). Ar our studio we are experimenting with a different org. Four team leads at the same level, tech/design/art/producer. Each responsible for decisions in their area. So far the four have been collaborative and consensus-oriented.

Agreeing with Mark above this post too ... it's not about putting design in charge, but removing a layer of decision-making authority over that. It's very much about creating a balance between art/tech/design/production needs.

Alan Jack
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I've got to agree with Mark, it depends on your view of team roles and authority figures.

Designers, in my opinion, should have not be viewed as being "at the top" of the creative process, but the ones shouldering the burden of making sure the game is "fun". They, technically, work for everyone else on the team, mapping out what they should be developing, guiding the individual creative processes of the other team members towards the envisioned product.

Matthew Woodward
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Heirarchy doesn't create respect, it creates obedience. If your designers are being deprecated because they don't have the respect of the rest of the team, putting them "in charge" is mainly going to generate resentment.

I'd argue that if you want your designers to have more actual respect - and be listened to because people want to listen, rather than because they have to - your best course of action is just to have all designers at all levels communicate their work and their thought process to their fellow developers.

The reason I generally find that design isn't respected is that people don't have the first idea what a game designer actually does from day to day - so educate people! When you're briefing an artist or an engineer or a QA tester on a particular design, explain why it does what it does, what the problems you're trying to solve are, and where the potential weak points and key factors are. Invite questions, and answer them clearly. Once people understand how much thought goes into design work, how much knowledge is leveraged, and how little it revolves around "having ideas", then the respect and the attention should naturally follow.

(Of course, this all assumes that your designers are actually good at their jobs!)

Glenn Storm
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Agreed, Matthew.

The tricky part is when you consider what is being proposed here in this article, to some existing organizations, is a culture change. This is much more than presenting a new paradigm as the better way to go, it is encouraging a consideration that the current way of thinking might need to change. That is an entirely different task, a very difficult one; one that falls squarely under management and leadership.

Someone recently turned me onto a book on the issue of encouraging transformative change:

and in relation to hierarchy -> obedience, Dan Pink had some neat things to say about managing lateral thinkers:

Michel McBride-Charpentier
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Insightful! I'd love to read another 3 pages on the role of the level designer.

I'm not sure the top down approach from intention to realization is always practical or possible. "Form Follows Function" is the classic design aphorism, but in AAA games I think "Form Follows Fun" might be more accurate. That is, the design needs to accomodate what playtesters find fun, not what the designer assumes in advance on paper. Or perhaps the reality of the situation is simply "Form Follows Funding."

Michael Eilers
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You could edit this article and replace the words "writer" and "script" for "designer" and "game." Not to take away from the article - it was excellent, and very well done! But the plight of creatives in many industries is similar to this - everyone with a reasonably high IQ thinks that design is a natural, innate process and anyone can do it, just like any sufficiently intelligent and educated person also assumes they can write well and have great ideas. Concepts such as intention and vision will ALWAYS drive the bean-counters and engineers crazy; you're talking about a cultural separation that begins as soon as the nerds split off from the jocks and band geeks and drama fans and future accountants and arty types. Educating the non-designers to have them better appreciate the role of the designer is a laudable task, but it is also Sisyphean.

Being an educator that specifically teaches game design, even after a decade we struggle to define the role of the designer as discrete from the art director, lead programmer, producer, etc. in terms of the leadership role and decision-making progress. Perhaps the way to defeat the "designer's curse" is to recognize the deep codependency (especially in small teams) and mutual needs of the team rather than trying (yet again) to better define the designer's role.

Mark Venturelli
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A very much needed article and discussion in an industry that still struggles to even understand what a game designer does (or is supposed to do). I really admire Relic's design and would love to see more from Alexandre. On the other hand, I disagree with maybe half of the author's ideas on the separate field.

"System Design" was the more underdeveloped section, and I would say that it takes the bulk of design work. Also, I don't think that it can exist as something separated from what you called "Motivation" design, and specially would not agree that most of it revolves around math, algorithms and game theory.

Systems is the core design skill: indirectly crafting player behaviour through mechanics and dynamics.

I would also add Level Design (or "Spacial" design, to be more widely useable) to the "Holy Trinity", while merging "motivation" with systems, since if I had to divide a game's design between 3 people working on the same project, it would certainly be Systems, Space and Interaction (although I would call it Usability and Ergonomics). These are sepate enough areas that you don't need full control over the others to do your own work effectively.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I agree. Ultimately, what you come up with in the "Motivation Design", you put it in the game rules/mechanics, which is the domain of the "System Design". That was what I immediately thought when I read the part about Motivation Design.

In addition, I think there is also the marketability/profitability aspect. Stuff like micro-transactions, which are picking up steam in the Western MMO industry, and how closely related it is to psychology (the idea of "impulse buying").

When the author said level design is of higher level than game design, I think what he means is that level design varies greatly from one game to the other (like from puzzle games to FPS games), while skills you learn in System Design, Motivation Design, and Interaction Design are like prerequisites that all designers should at least have basic familiarity with.

Level Design skills are specific to the genre of the game you are making.

Though if we are talking about skills that a game design student should learn, I definitely think Level Design should be included, perhaps as electives, each course specific to a certain genre, wherein they should choose at least one.

Christian Allen
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What, I'm not getting paid to play games all day?...uh-oh.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Yeah, you just need to tighten up the graphics on level 3.

Bart Stewart
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Great article on my favorite game-related subject, and great responses.

Glenn spoke to the primary point I wanted to make: "...the counter point not mentioned has to do with the scope of focus between game and level designers, where game design focus can include level design from a broader perspective; where all the levels fit into a broader experience design that is cohesive." To extend that a little, I'd note that mathematical and pure logic skills, along with specific knowledge of human factors engineering, are most useful to the designer who's figuring out how a particular subsystem needs to work. Combat design, economy design, level "flow" design, and so on -- these are examples of specific gameplay areas, each with its own specialized pieces of how-to knowledge. For a big game, these should be filled by designers who like being hands-on with systems and who have some of the knowledge special to each area.

But such a game also needs a designer with a slightly different outlook and toolkit -- this is the specialized field of the Systems Designer. As described, this is the person who should lead the strategic aspect of making a game: translating the top-level vision for the game into the set of interacting core systems that best accomplish the vision, and communicating the goals of these core systems to the hands-on designers at the tactical level.

And to address Brice's question, I'd like to see that Lead Designer at the same level as the Producer, with both of them reporting directly to the Project Director (who probably should be the person with the vision for the game). Putting the Lead Designer equal to the Producer *should* insure that making the right game and making the game right get equal levels of attention.

Finally, I think this notion of Subsystem Designers under one Systems Designer lends itself to the definition of a specific vocabulary of skills and native abilities/interests that the author advocates. Subsystem designers should be knowledgeable in the body of art for specific core systems such as world-building or dialogue. And a Lead Designer should be conversant with and enjoy the process of organizing multiple subsystems into a unique and coherent whole package.

Of course, under this scheme it will help if the Lead Designer and Producer don't hate each other's guts, but that's a subject for an entirely different article....

Eric Ries
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Really great article. Covers a lot of incredibly relevant ground. Thanks!

JB Vorderkunz
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Let me jump on board and say this is a fantastic article! I plan to cite it in a paper aimed at academic publishing and would like to fit its insights into my thesis - thank you for the excellent work!!!

Alan Jack
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This is a fantastic article, and one I'm really glad to see posted here.

I'm going to be critical of it, but its only because nobody else is poking at any bits of it and I want to see what falls out:

“But as ideas are being proposed without any technical backing in terms of feasibility or relevance, and consequently no established authority, the ensuing discussions are generally just exchanges of opinions in which a producer, as the higher hierarchical decision taker, usually has the final say.”

This is, to me, why I feel like designers should be multi-talented people who can get their hands dirty in prototyping projects, build their own unreliable code and sketchy models. It serves two purposes - the first being to give them a little authority in the field of the people whose work the designer is affecting.

The second is to deal with how one "sketches" a game design. Writing a verbal description of a game design is about as much use as an artist writing a description of a painting - no matter how skilled they are in descriptive writing, you won't know what the painting looks like until its painted. In the same way, we can only know so much about a game design from a description, or a pitch, or even a diagram - none of those will compare to being able to actually experience the game in some form.

There's so much that a "designer" has to know and understand, its really comforting to think of a future involving sub-level designers as described here.

Glenn Storm
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I can appreciate the poking, Alan. :) If I can respectfully counter...

When the designer presents the prototype to authority, in simple terms, it can be thought of as just another form of presentation in the same way a written proposal, a sketch, a pitch or an idea in a brainstorm meeting can be. It is a communication, and the point here is that it can be received in a myriad of ways, depending on the audience and the culture.

For example, one studio may see this as expected input to the discussion of the problems faced, while another group may never have had this kind of input so they don't know what to make of it, and another may have managers who see it as a reflection of their ability to wield authority, or to manage designers. The very same communication could be received as help, considered as noise, or rejected as a threat, depending on both (as you point out) how the idea is communicated, but also how it is received, and in particular, what assumptions are in place in the individual or the culture.

I think this is at the heart of what Alexandre is saying. This is an opportunity to provide us with a common practical framework that allows managers and designers to collaborate, a more solid definition of the roles and responsibilities, to help clear up false assumptions. This says, Design is not voodoo and is not management, it is experiential problem-solving on the details of our software design. (yikes, I know I'm going to catch flak for trying to sum this up) So managers should feel comfortable delegating those tasks to these employees, and supporting them to work as other lateral-thinking groups do: try, fail, review, learn, improve, create, share, etc.

I don't want to take away from the idea of communicating in different and better ways (presenting a prototype would be a near one-to-one relationship to the actual idea), and don't want to appear to say the designer is always 'right' (there's a train wreck in the making). I just want to point out that what is critical to this communication between designer and producer (stakeholder, decision-maker, management, the team at large) is two-fold: the communication and the reception of it. Without the latter, it doesn't matter how the former is presented; it doesn't even matter what the actual idea being communicated is. Without a receptive audience, there is no show. Without an ear, there is no communication.

That's a somewhat extreme position to take. And now I'll counter my own point and say, this is a clear challenge to designers to tailor their presentations to their audience, no matter what the environment is. Know your audience. If you have to work harder, get sneaky or perform voodoo to get the message across, just do it.

Tim Carter
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Game design isn't a value-add.

Art and programming are the value-adds.

Game design is the core component. It is the specification of *what the player does* - which is the core aspect of a game. What are the rules? What are the actions? What is the symbolism?

Take Chess. First you start with the rules. (Yes, it is possible to play Chess without board and pieces. Difficult, but possible. You can also simply use paper.) And also the symbolism. (The game is about war - not trading or business [e.g. Monopoly] or racing [e.g. Backgammon] etc. As such the board is a battlefield, and the pieces are soldiers or the commander [the king].)

Next comes the physical representations. The pieces, boards, etc.

So first you start with the design.

Glenn Storm
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Sure. I don't think this discussion necessarily tries to put that in question. I believe this is more about the team organization, to arrive at design; who does what and how to work together with the right expectations to foster better communication and collaboration. The point made by the article seems to be that framework is not consistently understood.

Tim Carter
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Right. To accomplish that, the first thing to begin with is this idea: that design is fundamental and must be respected. It's as simple as that.

In film, the screenplay is always respected (though, yes, it does tend to get rewritten a lot). The director, while he encourages collaboration, ultimately has the final say. This sort of thing. We're talking about creative control.

Gabriel Sabloff
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Someone mentioned before the parallel to a Movie Director - having gone to film school and working in the business i can tell you that the director's job is still very difficult to define. A film director does not need to have any definable trade skill so it's very fortunate that film has such a long tradition of respect for the job, or else directors would be as misunderstood as game designers.

Game Designers also inhabit that strange bubble that film directors inhabit. That nebulous creative space between the producers and money people on one side and the tradespeople doing the nuts and bolts work on the other.

I think given time, the game designers will rise to prominence. Even in this infancy of gaming, we have already started to see certain stars start to shine. But on the whole, I think the game industry is experiencing its studio era, just like the film industry did in its golden age. A time when the studio name was more important then any of the crew in selling a film.

First off game designers should lobby to have their TITLE changed to elevated them above the tradespeople. Titles are VERY important in commanding respect. Everyone respects the Director, but who would take the "film designer" seriously?

Luis Guimaraes
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Indie o/

Lewis Harris
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Very nice article that addresses quite a few of the intricacies of our craft.

There are a few other components to our position in the industry that I think contribute to a designers overall difficulties. One being we don't really have a well formed lexicon. Look back through this article and all its responses to see what I mean. We have 5 different names for the same thing/concept/job/etc. That makes it very difficult to communicate with one another as well those outside our discipline.

I am also of the opinion that "fun" (in which we designers are in charge of "creating") is even more subjective that art. I don't believe there's a Platonic Form for fun...


Glenn Storm
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Agreed. I hope articles and discussions like this one help to build that lexicon and help the craft to progress.

Tim Tavernier
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Personally I would replace Psychology with Behaviorology because the latter is well...better (but lesser known because of their perceived radical conclusions). Behaviorologists are the people you get send to if Psychologists don't know what to do with you. Also Behaviorology stands a lot closer to Neurology then Psychology and is better at formulating learning strategies.

Leif Westerholm
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Excellent article. I'm sad to say that I recognize the issues you describe all to well.