[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.
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.