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GameCity: 'Game Designers Are Undervalued'
GameCity: 'Game Designers Are Undervalued' Exclusive
October 29, 2009 | By Simon Parkin

October 29, 2009 | By Simon Parkin
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Game design as a scholarly activity has been continually undermined by forces both within and without of the games industry. This was the controversial message from academic David Surman, speaking at the alternative British video game conference, Nottingham GameCity, earlier today.

Surman, a senior lecturer in game design at Newport Art School and one of the event’s organizers was quick to point out that designers are some of the most poorly paid people in the games industry.

“Because we don’t value the game designer’s role, their vision is often subsumed within the views of the higher-ups, when really their contributions should be the most highly-prized in the development process,” he argued.

Surman claimed that our failure to imbue game design with identity, cultural relevance and to settle upon a language that goes beyond the utilitarian components of the process has ensured that there is still a stigma attached to the discipline for students studying game design.

“We need to open up the language and stop talking in purely mechanical terms,” he said. “At the moment we seem restricted to talking about design in mere manufacturing terms.”

The academic admitted that part of game design undoubtedly concerns these systematic factors, for example, deciding that Mario will jump for 0.7 seconds and that each level should last for 90 seconds.

“But we need to talk in terms that oscillate between code, design, opinion, bringing together the fractured, disparate roles of game creation to reach a language and conversation that goes beyond technical frigidity”.

In the past two years Surman revealed that he has seen game designers advertised as: ‘gameplay engineers’, ‘gameplay editors’, ‘user experience coordinators’ and ‘play technicians’, terminology, he argued, that demonstrates how out valuing of game design is limited to the mechanical and technical.

Surman conceded that it makes short-term sense for developers to orientate design towards manufacturing. “However, in the long term,” he said, “increased technical responsibility covers up a deficit in the creative coordination of game making.”

When we fully commit to the idea of the game designer being a visionary then they have real responsibility. There is a sense in current games development that game designers have an easy ride in comparison to the more technical roles. But a designer’s responsibilities should include considering public engagement, critical practice, project direction, creative contextualization, interaction with other creative sectors and reflecting changing demographics.

The designer’s role should be one of a ambassador within the team, defining the language of the project, not merely handing in a functional specification document and letting everyone else get on with piecing it together, Surman said. If we have a more grown up game design culture, publishers will relate to developers in different ways. All manner of structures will shift to accommodate the maturing of the medium.

Surman concluded that we must seek to “bolster and reinforce some contemporary ideas about design, while clearly critiquing some of the native tropes that circulate around a discussion about game design. “This is the only way that the medium can mature,” he argued, “by championing game design in a way few are doing at the moment.”

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Glenn Storm
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Hear, hear! (... said the Game Designer working at an academic institution)

I completely agree. He's hit the nail on the head. This is what has been motivating me to join the fight to define our terms and develop more practical methodologies of design, creative management and in our roles in development.

Just to head off an idea that is implied here, if accidentally; the goal of this effort, as I see it, is not to achieve greater control over production or management, for example. Rather the goal is to gain tools and techniques that make the design craft more efficient, more reliable, ultimately more valuable. (potentially more meaningful to the audience as well as a result)

Jason Hughes
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Typical game projects have 5-10 'designers' who have technical responsibilities to make gameplay. They can't all be visionaries. And the few who are visionaries with track records of producing are also some of the highest paid individuals in the industry... does Sid Meier, Richard Garriott, or Will Wright ring any bells? There are many others you don't know by name who are also very well paid.

I think Mr. Sermon misrepresents the treatment that game designers get. Yes, entry level designers are paid less than other disciplines. This is because the barriers to entry/tangible requirements necessary to perform the job function is lower than art and programming. That means more people appear to qualify for the position, hence supply and demand forces the wages lower. Good designers get paid better as their replacement value increases. It's practically a law of nature.

Note, I'm not arguing that all game designers are easily replaced, or even that most new-hires are equally good. I think it's incredibly hard to determine if a prospective designer is going to have good design sense. I humbly suggest this is why there's a tremendous amount of churn in the lower ranks of the industry. Since objective measurements of what makes good design are hard to come by (other than sales figures), I don't think this is going to change anytime soon.



Luis Guimaraes
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Really, game designers, go independent.

Daniel Gould
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@Jason Hughes : I agree with most of what you said, except that 'Sermon misrepresents the treatment that game designers get.'

I believe Sermon is pretty much spot on for the majority of publishers in regards to their designer. Publishers constantly undermine/ignore/edit design choices in hopes that the game will be less risky, or experimental because there is so much banking on the sales of the game. It is safer to do as the rest of the industry does than gamble a on making precedent in design choices.

But yeah, awesome article, and Jason does bring up a few good points.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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I think that time plays a great part in this lack of respect; early designers were pioneers, finding their way without any real preconceptions. As they rose to positions of power in the growing companies, their input became sacred. Before long, it was hard for lesser mortals to compare. I am not saying that the designers are bad people, many of them are wonderful human beings, but their legend has grown larger than they are.

As the industry turned from bedroom coders and small businesses to a multi-million dollar industry, the marketing people started to drive the industry. People formulated equations which could supposedly predict the success of a game, then the statisticians with their market-trends created the templates for games which the publisher would tout. Suddenly, you were encouraged to make sequels, or licensed games. Innovation was a risk, so it had to be kept to a bare minimum.

If you are giving a designer a half-complete GDD and asking them to fill in the blanks, why would you pay them big money?

And then people started to point out that all the best and brightest from the universities were either working on Godfather sequels or else creating casual games which they could self-fund. The true innovation came out of places like Zygna and 2D Boy, some of which even made their money back. This is not about low cost, but about freedom. Their low-budget was a constraint, but it also reduced the risk and let them try new ideas.

And this has helped swing the balance the other way; if you are losing revenue to a game like Mafia Wars, you start to question the established order and realise that you might have to take a few risks. This week, I was told by my manager (and I got it in writing!) that the next project has to be design-lead without interference from outside the design team. If that isn't progress, what is?

Maybe we will even get a pay-rise this year... ;-P

Emmanuel Cloutier
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6 months experienced junior game designer here (though I have been designing games, unofficially, for quite a while now). Of course my paycheck is nothing compared to what I earned during my 10 years career as retail and corporate sales representative. Nevertheless, I wouln't go back to my former life because, whatever the circumstances, I get to create experiences for a variety of users that like me, are looking for a good and engaging entertainement by playing their favorite titles.

In addition, working for a small yet very promising developper studio, I get to wear hats that many decade-strong designers, working for larger companies with deeper structures, will never get the chance to carry around. Yet, as I do my job, with all those many mistakes and good moves I deal with on a daily basis, I grow more experienced, confident, and I live with this voice inside who constantly whispers me : " Keep it up boy, soon enough you won't have to bother about gaining everyone's respect, you'll simply inspire it, and the paycheck that comes along shouldn't be a bother anymore. "

I chose Game Design for three reasons : Guardian, Thinker and communicator. That's what I always was, what I am today, and what I always will be...

To Anthony : A full scale design-driven project!?! I barely believe my eyes. I hope I get to witness something similar someday. Sooner than later. ;)

Great article, and equally great comments. :D

Glenn Storm
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It didn't occur to me that the subject of this reported talk was about money in particular. It seemed to be more about respect for the role a Game Designer could play, as opposed to the roles they typically fill now.

I heard the word 'vision' too much for my taste in the report of the talk (the lone visionary who bestows a plan for all to follow is an image I'd like to dispel), but he seemed to speak clearly about how misunderstood design is; how a production could wring more value out of designers who are utilized properly.

I guess this subject is just too close to the stereotype of the pining artist to be seen as much else and perhaps that is part of the problem.

Kevin Reese
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I was going to say 'Hear hear!' but Glenn S. beat me to it so instead I'll say "Rah rah!"

Bart Stewart
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It's always good to hear another voice speaking out for the value that a capable designer brings to making critically and commercially successful games. [This is where my rant would normally go that calls for producers and executives to stop interfering with creative design decisions and let the designers they hired earn their paychecks... if I were going to repeat that rant. :)]

As to determining the value of a game designer, here's what I'd ask: what do people think distinguishes a competent game designer from an novice game designer, or a game programmer, or someone not involved with making games at all? What skills and talents uniquely define a capable game designer?

Once you have that list of qualities, consider: how common is it to find them all in one person?

That's how valuable that person is to making games.

Follow-up question: Of the typical levels of goal-directed activity -- vision, strategy, operations, tactics -- at which levels do good game designers tend to be most effective?

Mark Venturelli
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This is called "Director", not designer. Design is not art, and I really think that the real stigma on Game Design is that our main job is "having ideas" and "holding the vision". Articles like this one only make this illusion stronger.

Jeff Murray
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I agree wholeheartedly with this.

Reading the comments, it already becomes apparent that there are misconceptions of what a game designer is actually *meant* to do. Unfortunately there are too many people who think that game designers draw pictures, design levels or manage the team. This is just not the case. A game designer has to represent the players during the dev process.

Any idiot can look at other games, make a checklist and say 'build that' (and there are too many so-called game designers who do exactly that) but it takes a real game designer to understand both technical and artistic storytelling. A games most invisible and most important details, its themes and goals, should be echoed throughout every single component, audio clip, physics value and color scheme.

A manager or producer rarely knows anything about this 'invisible' art and it is too easy for the credit to go to the programmers, the producers or the artists / asset creators.

Game designers should be treated like rock stars - literally - since it is a game designers job to entertain and everyone elses to deal with the technicalities. That's not to say the game designer should mince around being an ass, but it does mean that REAL game designers deserve a LOT more credit when a game goes right.

Gaurang Gheewala
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Dear Mr. David Surman, just one question.

Do you like a movie without a proper written story line, scripts, machanism and a flow?

If yes, Go ahead with your principles.

If No, Rewind your time and edit your mistakes..

Gaurang Gheewala
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Dear Mr. David Surman, just one question.

Do you like a movie without a proper written story line, scripts, machanism and a flow?

If yes, Go ahead with your principles.

If No, Rewind your time and edit your mistakes..

David Fried
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A great game designer can intuit the experience a player will have based on the design choices made before a single bit of code has been implemented or piece of art put into the game. The very reason to have a game designer is to save you the nightmare of building all the components to a game and realizing you've come up with garbage. But it's not just about having the vision and making sure that vision comes to fruition, it's about incorporating the good ideas that don't distract from the main theme that come from others as well.

The problems arise when people outside of game design start choosing things for the game and ignoring the game designer. The people outside of design may know how a feature or change of theme will affect marketing, or how a piece of code will mechanically work better, but at the end of the day, the designer is responsible for the player's experience while playing the game and that is what sells the product. If you ignore that. Well, good luck to you.

There's this idea floating around the game industry right now that anyone can design games. It's just not true. Some people have an intuitive sense of how an experience will play out. Others learn to develop that sense through years of watching people play their game and then adjusting the experience and letting them play again. However you develop that sense, it's key to good design.

Consider programming for a moment. Anyone can learn how to code, but some people think in very logical ways that produce very tight and well written code. Anyone can learn to draw shapes and figures, but some people can capture the inner essence of something greater and it comes through in their art. Anyone can write a document on game mechanics, but some people can see how all the pieces come together and will make for an enjoyable game...

Some people can't.

Fiore Iantosca
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Here's what I've come to understand. Every position UNDER management is underappreciated. It's a fact of the business world.

Anders Hojsted
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Game Design is a independent design desciplin that can be taught. It's a subset of interaction design, which have been around for ages. Anybody who wants to claim that they're de facto game designers should know at least the basics of interaction design & game design (Start with Rules Of Play). If not, then you're just a programmer/tester/producer/gfx artist with a new label on your business card (and likely to cost your company money by doing unessacary iterations or creating inferior products).

Game design (if taught correctly) is just as demanding as programming and the products are every bit as tangible as programming; - mainly as design documentation & creative direction during the development.

Unfortunately most of the game industry doesn't understand this as the usual way of doing things have been to promote selftaught employees to designers, based on their "ideas" (or more often: their trackrecord in other postitions in the company). Some of them have succeded, but the vast majority (around 99% of the projects) have failed miserably. Those that have succeded have done so through massive amounts of costly iterations. The whole idea of selftaught designers and that "game design can't be taught" should be obliterated from the games industry ASAP.

There's a huge difference between being able to tell if a existing game is good and whether a game concept (not an idea!, - a full concept!) is good. Good game designers are able to analyse how likely it is that a game concept will be a good game. A good game designer can scrap a design even before any documentation has been made and he will be able to tell you exactly what didn't work and why.

I know that a lot of people feel that they can do design based on their experience from other fields in the industry, but that's like believing you know how to fly a plane because you've been passenger on one.

Toby Hazes
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@Mark Venturelli: I think that hit it on its head! The game designer is not the visionary, the director is. It's just that in many small projects (and the great projects of the past were relatively small) those two roles were carried out by the same person.

Timothy Ryan
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I've been a designer for 16 years, long enough to say that almost without exception every game designer is a bit cocky. They have to be, since their role is to craft and offer opinions, and unless they have the skills to prototype it themselves, they only have their words to support them. But whether the designer is truly correct or whether they deserve to be side-lined is so hard to tell. Often it's not until a game ships that a designer is vindicated or proven wrong.

The danger of trusting a designer is he or she could be wrong. The danger of not trusting a designer is the design unraveling into a derivative heap of crap that's typical from non-designer driven games.

Toby Hazes
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@Bart Stewart: the qualities of a good designer. I think this is also one of the major issues. Not everyone can draw, not everyone can code, but it seems everyone can design. At least everyone has ideas.

So to not undervalue designers, what qualities have to be valued?

Vision, like a director? Technical ability which, as Jeffrey Parsons points out, has good reasons to be valued?

Brian Schmidt
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A great game designer holds a vision. They also have the ability to get others to see their vision and work towards it. They also know how much work and effort it takes bring the vision to fruition by other disciplines, letting the talents of their team show without venturing too much from the goal. IMO, great products (whether games or iPhones) look like they were designed by one person, top to bottom from the packaging & marketing to the UI. Apple is particularly brilliant at this. Bad products have a typical "designed by committed" look and feel. A great game designer also knows their vision so well, they have a handle on all the little details.

But a game designer is far more than someone who thinks of an idea and writes a 10 page overview of a says "there's my game--go make it." Ideas are pretty cheap, and there are lots of them. Knowing how to turn an idea into a game, and the effort behind it is not.

I've found for the most part the designers who deserve the respect from management frequently get it; not always, but not never, either. Those that don't leave, start their own thing and end up very well respected..

Shaun Greene
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Hard to argue with someone who tells me I should be getting paid more.

Rob Schatz
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Anders, I love what you said. Indeed, game design IS an art and it's something that taking a few classes just won't solve. I am a game design student myself and I'm finding there is a huge disparity between what a game designer ought to be and what the role really is in the game studio vs. academic worlds.

It's thoroughly confusing - what does one need to learn to be a good game designer in the real working world?

Bart Stewart
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Rob, while I've been peripherally involved in game development for a couple of decades, I've never done it professionally. So please judge the following advice accordingly.

Here's my one-line definition of game design: game design is high-level systems design in an entertainment context.

To put it another way, a good game designer is someone who's good at designing high-level systems intended to entertain people. And if that's true, then by implication the way to become a better game designer is to become better at high-level systems design.

A systems designer surrounds himself with knowledge about systems -- how they work, and how they fail to work. Because people love to create systems, that means studying human systems: economics, philosophy, history, politics, psychology. What enables a government to function, and under what conditions will it cease to function? What are the fundamental motivators of human behavior? Why do we call the notion of supply and demand a "law?" Are there patterns to the emergence, growth, and extinction of civilizations? Unlike most people, the systems designer never gets bored studying these things because all of them help to explain how systems satisfy their intended purpose(s) and how they fail to do so.

The good systems designer also studies science in order to understand the greatest of all creators of systems: nature.

Look at the head of a sunflower, and consider: why do the number of spirals of pips correspond specifically to numbers on the Fibonacci sequence? How do ecosystems maintain equilibrium? How do the strong nuclear force and gravity produce stable dynamic systems in a chaotic universe? I think what relates all these and other natural phenomena is simple to express: when you've got millions and billions of years to experiment, and you're not emotionally attached to any solution, eventually the systems you wind up with are going to be extremely efficient at satisfying their purpose because all the less efficient solutions were discarded.

The good systems designer is thus a student of natural science because nature is all about highly functional systems. They also study human organizational systems precisely because they are far less functional most of the time than natural systems -- human-designed systems provide powerful lessons on what doesn't work.

That's most of what a good game designer needs, I think. But the entertainment context matters, too. So I'd agree that a good game designer is a good systems designer who's played enough different kinds of games to understand "play" at a systemic level.

A couple of the best resources I've encountered on practical systems design are _The Design of Everyday Things_ by Don Norman and _Systemantics_ by John Gall. Again, the true game designer, as a systems designer, studies all systems. They'll have read hundreds of books to try to glean practical rules of effective systems design. But anyone who thoroughly groks these two works in particular and has played enough games to perceive most of the patterns within the "game" context is probably as ready to be a successful game designer as anyone can be.

Ultimately, then, to find a good game designer, first find someone who understands systems at a deep level and who's familiar with game design patterns. And then give that person a clear high-level vision document that says "what" but not "how," a list of resource constraints, and all the caffeinated beverages they can drink, and say to that person, "Yeah, I don't know, all the experts say it can't be done...."

Again, all this is free advice from an amateur, so it's worth exactly what you paid for it. :)

Lee Sheldon
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Video games are an industry driven by technology. It should be no surprise that programmers are more valued than the creators of content by people who have no idea of the craft and talent necessary to do the job well. Of course game designers are treated like kings compared to game writers. Game designers get a cubicle, a chair and a computer (and probably pension and health). Writers get a plane ticket. Round trip.

Glenn Storm
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Bart, you continue to prove my point that some of the best professionals around are amateurs. :)

That was a great summary of what game designer does on a high level. I believe that from this summary, one can trace a reasonable line to the various roles that designers currently play in the industry; which I hasten to add appears to vary wildly from group to group, while still holding roughly true to this description. One element I wish to include here is the word, "experience", so as to broaden this summary to include the idea that the intention of the design is to affect the experience the users of the system have. Understanding and designing systems, definitely, but to the end that a designed experience is arrived at.

The comments here (while very encouraging at times) point out one thing very clearly to me: Design is not generally understood, particularly Game Design, even within our industry. This gives a little more urgency to my current efforts.

Rob Schatz
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Bart, thank you for providing some really good details on what game designers need to know in terms being able to design systems that human beings want based on past historical success. Ian Boghost goes into this as well in his work Persuasive Games, specifically, procedural rhetoric. I would definitely add that to list of works you cited for game designers to read. Again, you're advice is great, I would say even on the level of a mentor from someone who's got some experience.

Glenn, I agree with you too. A lot of people (me included) feel game developers and game designers are synonymous and have the same role in a game studio. I think it varies greatly between the big name studios and indie houses. I was at PAX09 and chatted with a lot of the indie game studios that made the PAX 10 and in these places the role of engineer, artist and designer were clearly delineated, with the designer as the lead on the game who decides on what the game is. The engineers then get to work and make it happen, i.e., the procedural part of the game. This feels like the right organizational mix to me. Even so, one interesting thing they did say was that if I could learn to code, I should go that route because in the end, the engineers (which to me ARE the game devs), determine what gets put into the game by bringing the game designers concepts to life. Hmmmmm.....

I'm definitely glad there are guys like you who are willing to share their perspectives because for someone like me, it definitely feels like a black box - there aren't any case studies I've seen out there describing the organization of game studios versus older Blue Chip companies like a GE or IBM. But I guess that's a factor of recency of the gaming industry.

I'm at a crossroads of deciding whether to focus more on the coding aspect or game design and art/animation/asset creation. Keep the advice and resource recommendations coming, they are VERY helpful!

Zenorf Stewart
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As a lead designer of many games I completely agree with Bart's idea of the importance of systems. I specialise in mechanics and game systems and that is what brings me to my own point.

Design often fails, not because of what the designer does or doesn't understand but because of what other disciplines don't understand. I'm not just talking about executive meddling but instead the fundamental lack of ability to measure design ability and understand what designers actually do.

From an outside point of view code either works or it doesn't. Artwork is for the most part perceivably of a notable standard. Design can't be measured in this way and the ultimate question of "is it fun" can only be measured when the code (and art in many occasions) has followed through on the design. Sadly for many complex projects (especially in small and medium sized dev houses) this stage of development can be quite far into the project and therefore expensive to reverse.

The problem I have come across again and again with complex systems is that other disciplines don't understand them but think they can design and know "what is cool". The problem is that this often occurs in the initial GDD stage and sometimes even as early concept stage. When this person is your superior or more commonly the person paying the bills, you do what you are told because you have to realise that you are work for higher and it isn't your game, it's theirs.

Another common trap is the system creation order. i.e. which part/feature of the game is created in which order. If the project schedular gets it wrong or you fail to present them with the correct dependencies you can end up with system A and C in place and working as designed. However the game does not play well without system B in place and this should have been done before C. As a result system C looks like it doesn't work, there is money on the line and the client isn't happy with how things are and wants system C changed to work now, not understanding that this will break system B as well. Your games producer faces a monumental task trying to convince the client to wait for system B to be complete if it's going to take more than a couple of weeks. They might have to show it to their boss in a few days for example.

My real point is that for design to succeed, not only do you need a good designer but you also need the people above to accept that you know what you are doing from a design point of view in the same way that they trust that a coder will get the specular mapping to work or an artist will put textures on the models that are currently left bright pink to keep them obvious as place holder.

People should be under no illusions about the part designers play in most dev studios. Often they don't get to push their own ideas but instead have to try and make other peoples ideas work. It's a difficult job and there is little to no credit for it. It's not something to be bitter about. It can be a hugely satisfying job when you pull it off. The person paying the money is really the person in creative control. That's just the way the industry is in my experience.