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If you take a look at the credits of any recent AAA game title, you will find 500+something names listed there. We do believe that in these companies legal councils and different leadership positions play part in game production process and are really important, but, hey, we are talking about game development here and I doubt that someone in the legal department in a big company even knows how developers in production teams look like, let alone knowing them by name.
So in this article, we will be discussing the most important production roles for indie developers. The presented list will be the absolute minimum, so without any of those roles being on the project the chances to succeed are very slim.
In every game project (actually, in every project at all) it all starts with the idea. But without proper execution, the idea is worthless and at the beginning it doesn't cost anything. Being one of the most important roles in game dev, the game designer is the person capable of bringing game ideas to life throughout the iterations. He should have very strong organizational skills to keep all assets and documents created and organized in a way they can be understood by other game dev team members.
If your game is something more complex than an endless runner, you will probably need a story worked out. Having a story in a game means having characters. Each with its own hair, clothes, height, etc. Throughout the game, characters face challenges, interact with each other, in other words, they live their virtual lives. That’s where the story designer comes in. His responsibilities are to keep players engaged till the end of the game. This is accomplished by writing dialogue lines, progression, character’s biographies. When you have a lot to know about the game world (events, locations) — that all the story designer’s work.
Almost every game consists of multiple levels, which must have a gradual difficulty increase, introduce new mechanics on regular basis and be attractive. The job of the level designer is to literally bring worlds developed by game and story designers to life. If the level is boring, there’s a lot of backtracking, the mechanics are way too repetitive, there are unexpected difficulty spikes — the level designer is the first one to blame.
Though there can be more categories of developers, depending on the tech used by the studio, we initially assume that modern indie game studios use 3rd party game engines like Unity3D or Unreal Engine, because there’s little justification these days to develop own game engine. So, in our case anyone on the team that participates in coding is called a game developer. Developers are responsible for creating logic and game entities’ behavior as described by the design team as well as developing any tools that will be used in the process.
Creation of every game is a never-ending battle for the resources. Minimizing memory requirements, minimizing draw calls number, optimizing shaders, combining meshes, textures. Optimization is a very delicate matter because almost always it is a trade-off between visuals’ quality and performance, so it has to be carried out by the experienced professionals, who know how the image rendering actually works. The problem of using modern middleware like Unity or Unreal Engine is that they encapsulate much of the under-the-hood processes away from the user and in theory, one could create “something that works” without knowing the basics, which usually leads to dramatic results. Therefore rendering engineer in your team must most likely be the most experienced person, who attempted to write custom game engine previously.
Whatever game you create, you need to make sure it looks consistent. Do an experiment (if possible) - ask two 3D modelers to create a spaceship. Star Wars fans will most likely create something of a cornered forms from the 80s while Star Trek fans will stick to rounded shapes. And then, if you use both these models in one project simultaneously, you’ll get guaranteed eclectic looks. Concept artists are there to avoid such situations. This person works closely with the game designer throughout the project to bring his vision to drawings.
The number of textures in modern games exceed all possible and imaginable limits. While production of some textures can be somewhat automated, the original source textures must be painted manually. Painting textures requires a lot of experience because they have to be looking good when scaled and transformed, most of the textures should be seamlessly tiled. A typical game has thousands of textures, so it is a great piece of work. The texture artist should have a better understanding of tech behind the game development process to produce good-looking results.
Most of the recent games are created in 3D and most 2D games use 3D models as the source material, so having good 3D models ready is really important. The catch here is that not every 3D model works for games. 3D artists should follow a single rule: use fewer triangles. They also need to be clearly aware of the conditions under which 3D models are used, the size of final rendered objects, camera angle, etc. Game optimization journey, discussed previously, starts here. We will dedicate an article to optimization tips that are always good to follow.
While some 3D models can be animated directly in the game engine (i.e. infamous spinning cubes), the abilities of built-in engine animation are quite limited, so most of the complex animations are created with professional software like Autodesk’s 3DS Max or Maya. This person should know how to work with rigging and IK. It would be honest to mention that most AAA titles use motion capture techniques for characters’ animations, but we assume that MoCap facilities are unavailable to indie studios.
No modern game can exist without sound effects. There are explosions, environmental and ambient sounds, almost every game object has its own sounds. While it is OK to look for game sounds in countless royalty-free libraries, you have to know what to look for. Can you imagine what a space engine should sound like? Can you find something similar in the real world? How does a robot’s movement should sound like? Which sounds should blade swing consist of? Well, most of us would struggle with all of this, but not sound engineers. These are not only the people who can properly master sound file using DAW, but they also select and create sounds for objects that often do not exist in the real world. They are not technical, but creative workers, much like artists.
Just as with sounds, most of games require music environment for a deeper player engagement. But unlike the sounds, it is generally a bad idea to use royalty-free libraries for the game music, because the choice is quite limited and it is really difficult to find a music track that 100% matches the mood. Additionally, some games use procedural music which follows the game’s situation and plot tension and changes its pace. That’s the way to “full custom”. Of course, not all the game development studios can get Frank Klepacki onboard, but there are some tools that might help you produce music in-house (provided that you have skills, obviously). One could easily get away with Apple’s Logic Pro X and its extensive bundled sound libraries as the only DAW tool. Of course, depending on your music style there are better instruments out there. Some of them come at a premium price, though.
Looking at the number of bugs in modern, even AAA titles, it is easy to come to the conclusion that even big companies suffer from bad QA processes. It is always easier to release several ten-something gigabytes patched than spend additional time on QA. The issue is that players got used to such an attitude, which is not right in our opinion. Don’t make beta testers out of your most loyal users! Respect them and plan QA carefully. Games with a large amount of content took months to get QAed properly. Take this time into account and don’t rush with your release!
So, who are QA engineers exactly? They are professionals who are familiar with QA principles and have a passion for the game genre they are involved in. They should have vast experience as players and have critical thinking minds. Also, they should be involved in the process when first pre-alpha versions become available so that they know how the game works, what it should contain, etc.
Most indie game studios prefer to self-publish games as modern digital marketplaces allow doing it relatively easy. We are talking about such distributors as Steam, PlayStation Network, AppStore, Google Play, etc. The publishing processes and builds submissions are often cumbered by paperwork, strict processes, timelines and can even be a subject to fines and penalties when not executed properly. So the release manager is the one who knows how release processes work in such companies as Valve, Sony, Microsoft and can organize submission processes. For the most part, this is purely a management role and can be shared with some other activities. Just make sure the person has enough time available to perform these activities because keeping releases synchronized between multiple platforms takes a lot of time.
In order to carefully monitor budgets, stick to timelines and keep teams synchronized a dedicated person is required. The project manager organizes work and processes between different departments. High organizational skills are a must for this position as well as the ability to find compromises between challenging departments of a game development company.
So, we have outlined the most important roles in game development. In the second part of the article we will see how can jobs and roles be combined within a single person using an RPG game as an example and review potential bottlenecks of such combinations.