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PRACTICE: Do Designers Need To Be Programmers?
PRACTICE: Do Designers Need To Be Programmers?
October 30, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

October 30, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Programming, Design

"I am half the designer I could be if I learned how to code," says Brenda Brathwaite – by way of a video Chris Hecker (pictured) showed at NYU’s PRACTICE conference.

Yet the ability to code can also work against a designer, who when unable to code is forced to find other ways to express him or herself creatively; in the recording of a casual conversation, Brathwaite suggested that perhaps she might not have made her widely-lauded board game Train had she had the option of approaching the experience from a programming perspective.

"The fundamental differentiator of games as an art form is interactivity," says veteran Hecker, who’s worked with Electronic Arts on Spore and is currently working on Spy Party. Interactivity is inherently systemic and technical – even in a story-driven emotional scenario, it’s still a machine entering code.

And "all of it matters – as you try to increase the quality of the interactive experience, everything starts to matter… one frame difference completely revolutionizes the game."

Given that in his view games are inherently systemic and that as quality increases every instruction matters, Hecker argues, "you want to close the gap between the implementation and the design," he says. The best way to create as tight a feedback loop as possible between the design and the programming is to have them in the same brain.

As for BioWare Montreal senior designer Manveer Heir, he says from a young age he knew he wanted to make video games. In search of a practical skill that could lead him into that field, he chose to pick up his Dad’s programming books.

As a gameplay programmer at Raven, he wrote systems – like a vehicle simulation for Wolfenstein that never shipped – until his colleagues observed he had a number of ideas about design they asked him to implement. Since then, luck and skill has made him a hybrid programmer-designer, he says. The ability to approach game development from both perspectives has benefited him, he believes.

"I know game designers who only want to work on paper and in excel sheets, and they want that to go as long as possible. I want to implement something fast and start playing with it, because so much emerges when you actually implement a system," Heir says. "When you implement a system, there’s a thousand decisions to make that you never would have considered at that paper stage."

"The dirty little secret is I don’t like to program," he says. "Programming is like the grinding quest I have to do to get that little piece of enjoyment and satisfaction that I like."

"I don’t think you have to program your own systems, but … understanding the systemic interactions [in] our games, the more we understand them, the more we understand what I think is the ‘true nature’ of games," he adds.

As a designer, why not have an extra tool in one’s belt, especially as it helps communicate with the programmers who build the systems? Heir challenged the room’s attendees to learn to program – and claimed he’d treat anyone who doesn’t become a better designer within a year to a dinner at one of New York City’s most expensive restaurants.

Though he concedes he might be a better designer if he were a better programmer, Nick Fortugno says he wouldn’t take that challenge. "I’d be a better game designer if I were a better artist; I’d be a better game designer if I were… a lot of things. The question is, what will make me the most effective at my job?" He questioned the primacy of programming over all other skills that could enhance the designer’s role, and suggests the inability to program doesn’t reduce the role of the designer.

"Game design is about systems thinking, but systems thinking is not a prerequisite of programming," Fortugno says.

"I’m not interested in making a game by myself because I don’t think working in my own head is a way to produce good content," he continues, disagreeing with Hecker. "The fact that I have to have a creative tension with an implementer puts me into design situations that I think are interesting and challenging."

The panelists extrapolated an interesting debate from the question of how close programming is to the essence of design: The role of friction in the design process. A designer who programs his or her own games has no friction or no gap in the feedback loop, as Hecker asserts. In his view, the faster that feedback happens, the quicker they can extrapolate meaningful feedback. He's passionate about programming as a core skill for designers.

But designer-programmers are carrying multiple roles and may also over-value their self-sufficiency or end up working in small teams or even alone. For Heir, having colleagues to bounce ideas of off is critical. Fortugno strongly believes that friction is actively useful to the creative process, forcing frequent stops to assess meaning and visual design.

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Gil Salvado
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very interesting news. i would like to read a whole article about this.

imho, if i would learn to program as the designer/artist i already am, i would still need a producer to tell me "no, not in time nor budget!".

Bruno Patatas
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This has been greatly covered by Jesse Schell on chapter one of his book 'The Art of Game Design'. Game Designers should be Renaissance men, capable to understand what artists and programmers work is.

Programming is just another skill that is good to have or understand. Not more important than art skills. I firmly don't agree on game design being viewed from a programming perspective.

Louis-Felix Cauchon
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Being a designer/artist is not as good as designer/programmer from an interactivity perspective.

Bruno Patatas
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I can't agree at all. I am graduated in Fine Arts and for me that helped me more in my job as a Game Designer than programming. I see Design as a very creative role, and I find more important a Designer to have artistic and creative writing skills than programming. I taught myself some programming that allowed me to create my small prototypes, and also allowed me to understand better what I can expect from programmers and what they can expect from me. A good movie Director doesn't needs to be a good cinematographer or good scriptwriter. It helps to have an understanding of those skills for sure, but it's not mandatory.

Zheng Yong
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I would like to think that a well balance knowledge in both art and programming would be the optimal choice. However the industry tends to ask the newbie to specialize either in art or computer science.. tact irony huh :b

Bruno Patatas
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Hehe... Having coding skills doesn't hurts anyone, that's for sure. But I like to come up with big ideas in front of the programmers. Usually they say: "You're mad!" - The next step is trying to reach an agreement to implement those ideas. Probably sometimes they are impossible to implement but through discussion we find ways to possibly fake it or implement something similar. And then... Magic happens!

Jack Everitt
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I think that if the the designer has too much knowledge of programming it would hinder or restrain the creativity of the game design. (i.e.,s/he might think that some aspect would be too tough or too long to program... and s/he could be wrong, too.)

Joe Cooper
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I sort of agree. Our team's next project is going to be designed by one of the lesser programmers, but he's got a vision for it. Us who've spent all our energy mastering the code are the ones who'll be able to say what's possible or not. (We have a plan to get a rigorous design out of it but that's beyond the scope of this discussion.)

In my previous work I built software for a guy who teaches Deaf students to read & write. Every so often I'd find out he had some idea or some problem with the tools that he wasn't telling me cause he assumed it'd be very hard. And too often it'd be a 1-hour, maybe 1-day or even a whole 1-week project. So I pressed him to always tell me when something was on his mind; I explained that programming is a very esoteric thing and only the programmer can judge what's hard and what's not accurately. And in the end we made a lot of neat stuff.

Louis-Felix Cauchon
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I'm actually in this situation and I can tell you that it only happen at the middle/end of the project. Never before the production start.

Jon Gregory
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To be honest, I'm in school looking to learn about Game Design and I really wish I had other avenues to go through to get there. I don't like coding in the least bit and I would loath being in a studio where my only job was to sit around and code things all day. Yeah, I'm sure it's good to have basic knowledge but to be honest programming is fairly poorly structured as far as teaching is concerned so I find it kind of annoying that my particular school only presents programming as a prerequisite for the Game Design program. I'd really like to see more covered. Basic programming, fine, but give us some composition, film classes, psychology, there's more to games than just programming and just because you program doesn't mean you can build a game. There's so much more that you need other than programming to be a designer and I hate the fact that so many institutions only provide that path in. I know plenty of people who are great at modding, building maps, working within the context of a game but they're in class with me every week struggling to deal with professors who don't care to teach just so that we can try and get through and get into an environment where we have people to work with and learn from and resources to go along with that.

Victor Reynolds
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if you are at a traditional college, there's nothing stopping you from taking the extra classes that you seek.

Robert Meyer
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If you're in school and looking to be a game designer, and you avoid programming classes because you "think" you may not like it, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. After the talk, even Fortugno told me that he tells his students at Parson's to learn programming.

There's no right answer to whether or not programming is more essential than composition, psychology, humanities, etc. to being a better designer (though I would argue that it is), but most everyone will tell you if you have the chance to learn it, and you care even a little about bettering yourself as a designer, you most definitely should.

Eric Chung
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Hey Jon,

What you've said about needing a variety of things to supplement game design skill is right. Programming is not going to be the holy grail. However, I also agree with Robert in that by not learning how to program can put you at a disadvantage. While high-level theoretical programming in most technical degrees aren't going to help, being able to bang out quick prototypes to test an idea or system is extremely beneficial.

Having a BA in Creative Writing and studying under Fortugno (MFA) for two years has certainly put me in an interesting position on this topic. Programming is handy. I used to do some in high school and I quickly realized how useful it can be in terms of rapid prototyping. Sure, you can consider Brathwaite's comment but how I see it is that programming is just another tool you have. Interactivity is the key here, some things are better digital than analog and vice verse. But if you can't test the digital then how will you know? Sometimes you don't have a programmer to support you like Nick does.

Even in an indie studio, though roles are clearly segmented it's sometimes the other way around: the programmers need support instead. Like a picture, a running digital prototype is worth a thousand words. That design document becomes are laborious artifact to sift through. I'm able to execute on an idea. While that execution is never perfect, it's faster to understand an consume.

What it comes down to is communication. When I look at the programmers' code, I have no idea what the hell is going on but I don't need to. When they look at mine, of course they're going to see a bunch of junk code flailing about, but it's a machine that runs. The design document isn't a moving thing--the programmer can't reverse engineer that. In this sense, my style of working helps support the team.

q groozl
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Many game design jobs involve some amount of scripting to control precisely how some aspect of the game should play out. It's not a hard core programming skill, but it's definitely a kind of programming.

You might not end up playing that kind of role, and you might not even want such a role, but it's definitely relevant to the role in general.

Thomas Eley
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I for one do not like programming at all, but in saying that as a Designer I know that you do need to know the basics at least. It helps you in your designing and it eventually helps the programmers too, as your not asking outlandish things to be accomplished.

But designers need to let programmers do their thing, communication is key ultimately. We can ask them if something is too hard to do on a design, that is only penciled in because we think it would be too hard from what we know and then it's up to them to say yes or no to it. That way designers get the thing they want or they haven't based a huge portion of their work on an unobtainable project.

So it's good to know the basics so time isn't wasted which means better project work, hopefully.

Martin Poulin
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As I debated at Login a few years ago... it depends!

For a smaller game it is a BIG advantage. On something like an MMO where the complexity goes well beyond one programmer, designers that program do not scale!

Joe Cooper
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I decided about a year ago I wanted to get into games (I was application programming) and what I did was start making them. I learned a lot about how they play and the difference between what I imagine the game will be like and how it'll actually play by building and testing them. Now I have my first job and I am making design decisions and I feel confident doing so thanks to my experience.

Programming isn't the only way to learn game design; folks have surely been making up games since prehistoric times and most mammals play. But that fact has to be minded too; if you're not programming, you should still be using other tools to draft games and not just writing design docs for your MMO and posting them on GDnet or whatever.

We wouldn't expect one to master music composition without ever hearing his own works.

All that said, it may well be the case that same folks will get on the ball real quick when they start play-testing (when developing with a team) and some may be really good at envisioning what it'll be like. I just recommend any kind of actual game making in order to develop one's talent.

Jamie Mann
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Hmm. Tough call.

On the one hand, if a designer is also a programmer, then this could limit their ability to come up with new ideas. On the other, if they have programming skills, then they're able to better tailor their proposals to the target system(s) and workflow processes.

For the most part, I'd suggest that having programming skills is generally better - but it doesn't hurt to have the occasional pie-in-the-sky suggestion thrown into the mix: it may not be possible to implement it, but it may be possible to fake it or implement something similar...

Brandon Karratti
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This is a debate that I've had with myself for quite a long time. I've got some art skills, but my strengths have always been design and production, but programming is something that has always been glaringly lacking. Being that the majority consensus seems to be to at least have some programming skill under the belt, then it's got to be a good idea. Time to crack open the books again, and force it into my head.

David Serrano
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The problem with requiring designers to also master programming is it's a right side / left side of the brain conflict. In general, the more gifted a person is in one form of thinking, the weaker they are in the other. Requiring designers to also serve as programmers limits the talent pool to abortions or to people who are jacks of all trades, masters of none. This only increases the likelihood of hiring a Steve Ballmer instead of a Steve Jobs. Game developers are simply not in the position to turn away the top new creative talent based on their ability to program. Require a basic understanding of programming as it applies to game design and take at any additional knowledge or skill as gravy.

Christopher Ellington
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I think we make too much of the "super hero" game developer with art, programming, and design skills. These people are highly talented, and deserve a lot of respect. However, its much more important to have a team of people with the right combination of skills, and (possibly most important of all) to have them all on the same page. I don't need to be able to program to be a good designer, but I do need to listen to the programmer. It's crucial to understand the system that we're developing, and the platform we're developing for, and that feedback will probably give rise to something none of us would have thought of before.

I think its most important for designers to put their skills to where they will be most useful for that particular project. If I'm on a team as a designer/artist, its much more important for me to be a great artist than a cruddy programmer! As long as I trust that programmers/scripters that I'm working with, that should be enough.

Jay Ellsworth
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Personally I have no team and programming has always been my stumbling block. I want to make the games that are in my head and I don't know any programmers to help me bring my ideas to life, so I've been taking matters into my own hands and taking the time to learn C#

Joe Cooper
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You can also try making games on paper. I'm totally serious here. I did a project once while learning game design and as a first step I drafted the game on paper and played it against a student of mine. (It was a spelling game and I was teaching English in my spare time.) From the first play session it uncovered all sorts of bugs and surprises in how the game would actually be treated and what affects minor changes would have on the flow of play. (When done I made a Java version, then a 3rd version on iOS in C++, but never mind that.)

Point is, there's a lot of artifacts you can use from grid boards to little figures for this Warhammer or whatever you call it games and dice and dice with a bajillion sides and traditional playing cards and balls and hoops and so on.

If you just have some grand vision but can't get people to make it for you, that might be a problem. But if you can get excited by and genuinely enjoy the work of designing game rules and seeing them played, than you can build great games that most won't ever think to because you can build anything.

Luis Guimaraes
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When I was around 5~10 year old, and our parents didn't have money to buy us every tabletop game or toy in the market, I was all the time making boards, cards, totens and all kinds of tabletop or mental games, and sculpting rally tracks on the garden (sorry, mom), to play with my brothers.

There are lot's of things that can be done for games outside of computer games, and will teach you important ways of thinking. I recommend learning to code, but start already with games, get Unity or something and start making. But don't let the lack of it hold you back, there are always other ways.

Alan Arias
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I want to riff off a point that Joe Cooper alluded to above, namely, how is a game production studio to judge the capabilities and talents of a potential designer without a body of work to use as evidence? Similarly, without that work, how can the game designer know his or her own abilities? As someone outside the industry but perpetually looking in, I find these questions interesting from a educational and career perspective. If the role of design exists outside of the code, sound, or art, then where does it live? And how does a person cultivate that skill? And how does a person demonstrate that skill? Having read through Schell's "The Art of Game Design" and experimented with programs like Game Salad, I glean that designers have to know about these other roles--at the very least, how they function and what their limits are--but when we say design, what exactly the action is and what it produces are still extremely murky, even more important, quantities that have to be figured out. Any help on pinning down what it means to be a designer would be extremely helpful to deciding whether or not the best designers have to be anything else.

Michael Joseph
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The obvious answer is designers don't _need_ to be programmers. Would it help? I don't think it would help that much. I think there's a lot of designers who start off as programmers only because programming is a means to an end... a means to make the games they want to make.

I think it's far more important for Producers/Project Managers to be programmers than for designers.

Having a designer who doesn't come from a coding background learn programming seems like trying to turn your designers into producers. Knowing how to program helps you to define project limits and rein in design, set schedules, and help keep the team focussed on the high priority tasks every step of the way. Do we want designers to be like producers?

Adam Bishop
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I don't think all designers need to be able to program well enough to manage every single aspect of the game they're currently working on. Not every designer needs to be able to program occlusion culling, for example. But I do think every designer should have a *basic* understanding of programming because there is a technical side to game development that impacts what ideas are feasible and how they can be accomplished.

So a designer should at least have a basic understanding of simple concepts like if/else statements, for loops, objects, etc. They should be able to program something really simple, like Pong or Asteroids, the kind of thing you can learn by yourself in your free time in a month. Given how many great step-by-step tutorials there are out there, like this one for Flash games:

Or this one for C#/XNA:

there's really no good reason not to take a few hours and learn how it's done. It's not an especially large time commitment, and it's always useful to have a more complete understanding of how things work.

Andrew Woodruff
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This article couldn't come at a better time. This exact debate surfaced again at work recently and the back and forth has been quite grinding on me. I've worked in content development as well as aiding on some of the designs and I always had that feeling that I was missing that key knowledge in implementation.

I think better designs could be formulated if a designer understands what is possible or even the degree of difficulty from the programming side of view. I don't mean that it must kill the "vision" of a potential project but everyone could be happier and far less confrontation in the end.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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By nature, the interactive substance inside our video games is closer to the code lines than the art. The game skeleton is code lines, not graphics.

That's why indie games can have so much to reveal. Lots of them can be cute, but I feel the succesful indie games have a lot of respect for their programmatic nature, versus large productions which are closer to their graphics and Holywood.

Do I need to mention Minecraft, Braids, Castle Crashers or World of Goo?

I think the large productions should reduce the dreamer's budget and pay more for the real stuff. Or have more dreamers who know the real stuff. IMO, Blizzard is on very large productions and has got it right. That doesn't imply that every designer should be a good programmer, but everyone has to respect the programmers' jobs because they are the guys who do the hardcore stuffs.

Assume that most of the time, the gameplay programming team knows better than the designers how a gameplay tick happens. It's no surprise if designers are ill at ease when they have to come and ask the devs "you code this spec OK?".

I believe something is going to change in the relationships between the programming and design team, and that this trend will be led by the indie game community.

Pieterjan Spoelders
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Well, if you can code as well and try out/prototype stuff yourself instead of wasting someone else's time then it definitely gives you a huge edge. Not learning how to code because it might make you 'less creative' as a designer: that's a rather weak excuse if you ask me.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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So true :-)

Claudio Rodrigues
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I agree, there isn't any reason for a designer who knows how to program to be less creative as any other.

If that was true, if knowledge really hinders creativity, then in game design schools it shouldn’t be taught anything else. Knowing about coding would result in less creative mechanics, and knowing about art would blind the artistic view of the designer.

Imho a game designer should be most knowledgeable as possible, even in things not related to games

Robert Hewson
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As a designer who can program, I completely agree that it can make life a lot easier. Communicating with programmers is much, much easier and it also forces you to think your designs through in a detailed and pragmatic manor.

However, while I enjoy Actionscript/PHP projects at home, I don't actually do any programming at work (other than working on the website) so I guess I do keep that divide. The fact is, while I can program and understand the concepts, that doesn't make me a good or even a competent games programmer - its take a lot of skill and practice to get to that point. So I do maintain that distance and also agree with the point about bouncing ideas around between individuals and teams to develop them - it's just easier to do that when you can talk the language of those other teams.

Perhaps on smaller scale, simpler projects being both a programmer and designer and having that closed loop is more beneficial than when working on larger scale console games.

Wally A
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Disclaimer: I'm a programmer.

Some of the best game designers are NOT programmers, for example everyone's favourite shigs himself.

However you need to have a deep understanding of programming concepts. The early game designers certainly did, down to understanding the electronics of the devices themselves. Satoru iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto actually shaded in pixels on graph paper and translated them to binary code, old school style. Check out the lovely "Iwata asks" interviews.

I think it comes down to, the designer realising that "game design" is in itself NOT a standalone skill. It is a composite activity that involves several other skills, and since a computer game is a computer program, it makes sense that a large portion of these skills will be shared with the computer programmer's skillset.

However there are other skills that come from such places as industrial design, psychology and fine arts which are no less important.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I think there is a misunderstanding about programming because of its association with nerds, math and not being seen as creative. This perspective is too narrow in the case of videogames and does the discipline a disservice. Programming is a fundamental skill like writing. It is a form of communication. When I hear designers saying, "I don't need to know how to program," I hear a person saying, "I don't need to know how to write!"

Does knowing how to write automatically make one into Shakespeare or limit creativity? Of course not. In the same way, knowing how to program and being John Carmack are two different things. No one is expecting game designers to all of a sudden build tools and graphics engines but a basic understanding of what the game is in physical terms (both hardware and software) can only be helpful, just as a basic understanding of words, sentences and paragraphs can only be helpful.

Shay Pierce
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I'm a proponent of the "designer/programmer" skillset because I think that there is, and should be, a place for games that are personal - works of a singular vision. Nick Fortugno has a point that there are benefits to having friction in the creative process - two heads are generally better than one. I've been on the programmer end of very healthy designer-programmer creative relationships before.

Some of my favorite games, that have affected me in the most significant ways - games like Passage, Braid, and Fathom - would have been impossible without the project being essentially a singular vision of, and creative labor by, one person. It's been a long time since most games were made by a single person hacking away in their bedroom... but such games can, and usually do, have a much clearer creative voice when they're primarily the output of one person.

The existence of "auteurs" is something that's very important in the medium of film and the critical theory surrounding it. I think that having "auteur games" can be (and has been) healthy for the critical thinking about this medium, and this sort of approach could help the medium of games garner more critical respect as well.

Jose Striedinger
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Very good article!

I do think programming is a skill that it may not be a "necessity" for designers but, it really should be important for them. The thing is that videogames are, at the core, software. Nothing more and nothing less. Just like software architects and designers need to know about programming, so does a game designer need to know a little about game programming.

Sure, you cant compare the software design role with the game design role, the second one has more of an artistic approach but, you get my point. Heck, its really hard to find a great designer whose also a amazing game programming. Simply because, well, as the rumor says: artists and programmers work with different parts of the brain.

My point is this: is highly recommendable, specially if you are a game dev enthusiast who's studying by his own means (my case).

Justin Kwok
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As a designer with coder and art background, I think it's incredibly important for a designer to know how to code. This doesn't mean that they need to be able to do it themselves but at least enough to communicate with the code team in their language what needs to be done.

The points brought up in the article don't really talk about any kind of advantage to not coding. Their arguments are that designers should collaborate more or design more on paper. All things that a designer who can code can still do. The advice should be that designers work better with the team (duh). All those arguments against knowing how to code are things that a coding designer can still do... a non-coding designer however, cannot follow the advice of the coding designer without knowing how to code.

Adam Moore
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Wow... looks like this is a rather hot topic.

I rather like the analogy Brenda used in her education rant at GDC this year, and I'd like to expand upon it. The full text of the rant can be found on her blog.

Imagine an artist. They have mastered the principles and elements of graphic design. They grok color theory. They can think up great compositions and can prove that they're great with thumbnail sketches. The only problem is that they've never learned the techniques necessary to create a finished work - to dip their brush in paint and drag it across a canvas, draw with charcoal, to use Photoshop, etc. They're boiling over with ideas that they don't have any of the skills necessary to implement - they need to hire someone that knows the proper painting techniques and give them documents and thumbnails detailing what they want to create.

I wouldn't call this person an artist - I'd say they're half-way to becoming an artist. They know their craft and they comprehend the principles and theories behind it, but the synthesis of design and implementation eludes them because they don't yet have the skills to finish the job.

If you want to grow as a game developer, you must be willing to come out from under your niche - whether that niche is design, programming, management, or art.

Shekhar Gyanwali
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I believe having programming knowledge will awesomely help Designers to make Good Game. Because Game Design process goes until it comes to the fully playable version, after hours and hours of play testing. Designers is not going to just write the fully featured game and leave it for programmer.

Agree with Chris Hecker

Ryan Sizemore
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Even though I'm not in the game design field (yet), I am a designer/programmer at my current job and I feel seeing both sides of the spectrum lets you see the big picture and enables you to create better content. You learn limitation but also tricks in programming where you can cheat design to function better.

Sure I wish I was a better artist some times, but I'd never give up my programming abilities...

Stuart Urback
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While I do believe that understanding programming at some level is important for designers. I think that being able to implement things quickly and test them leads to fundamentally better broad ideas and in that way better design.

But I'm just not sure that games are fundamentally about interactivity in the way that they propose... "Interactivity is inherently systemic and technical" might be true in interactions between computers, much of what makes non-video games interesting is the fact that the interactivity is not pre-programmed and that it can evolve spontaneously between social interactions.

For example, I'd say that soccer as a game could not have evolved from developers trying to produce tight game loops. Maybe certain game loops emerge just from the interaction of the players with the restriction, but in some ways allowing for looser game loops makes the experience surrounding soccer more enjoyable and fulfilling. I think viewing games from such a narrow, technical perspective could seriously limit the design space we are working with.