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November 17, 2019
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Tales of a Middling Designer

by Steven Caywood on 06/24/19 10:27:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Meier, Miyamoto, Miyazaki, Molyneux, Wright? Despite almost 20 years in the industry as a game designer, I wouldn't hold myself up to these old titans of game design. Also, my name doesn’t start with M, upside down or otherwise, so that appears to put me at a disadvantage.

So I can't hold a candle to the masters, and I’m not a programmer capable of creating anything that pops into my brain. I'm also not an artist, slim chance that I'll create imagery in my game that will tilt the scales in my favor. So gameplay, a designers bread and butter. Which, let's be honest, bread and butter is pretty great. Especially with spaghetti. But… am I a master of that? Surely if there's brilliant, life changing, mind expanding gameplay that must be created that's what I can do.

Nope. I warned you. Not one of those titans above.

Why not?

Well… maybe I’m bad at it? Considered at least. My career has been at small dev houses, never one of the gorillas. Only working for them. Indy, work for hire etc… For 18 years? Yeah, so sue me it has some upsides and I’ve loved it. In those smaller dev environments you learn a lot and not just about your discipline, but all of them. When you’re with a small team you have to adapt to whatever needs doing, and you don't have the luxury of endless personnel. You can't specialize for very long. You have to go broad, not deep. You learn very quickly there is no room to say, “That’s not my job,” or, “I only focus on X, I don’t do that stuff.”

“Too bad. Figure it out. Have it on my desk tomorrow because we have a meeting to schedule it all out at noon and it’s being implemented on Thursday.”

Hit the Googles and figure it out fast. As a designer at a small studio, you're in for it, in a good way. You'll design systems, you'll develop story, create characters, write dialogue, craft gameplay, deal in both big picture and minutiae. You'll interface with all the disciplines and be exposed to many if not all aspects of dev.

Not every designer at the smaller studios will have this experience and some of the small teams at the big houses will, but it's nearly inevitable that you'll be tasked to dive on something you've never done or maybe wanted to do. Embrace it. The jack of all trades master of none has truth, but the flexibility you can offer a team is substantial and all that experience is valuable.

So that’s what I’m bringing to the table. A little experience in everything. A sampler platter of game dev experience. So it’s likely that my first time out will also be middle of the road. Not just a smash success of art or style or some unique previously untapped functionality. But something kind of grey. Yum?

Why then? Why grace the gaming community with your inferior creations? Why burden us with more rough indie noise? Let’s see good and bad reasons. Passion, spite, necessity, dreams, destiny, opportunity, inspiration. Yes, I said destiny, give me a break, I’m feeling passionate.

I have to create. Tell stories, provide a smile, or a laugh, or an occasional grimace. How many fiction novels released last year? In my head it’s like a bajillion or something. Some will go best seller, some will only have small audiences, some will get missed or overlooked, but there is a flavor for almost everyone out there. I feel like our gaming industry is at that same point, if you make it, it’ll speak to someone, you just have to find a way to get it in front of them. There are so many people out there, someone must want pistachio and sardine flavored games. Someone will like the flavors I put in there and how they’re arranged.

It's completely possible that I was wrong headed in my approach, but here's how it started: I was laid off. It happens to the best of us. It wasn't something I could control. Thankfully, it happened at a time where I had the opportunity and resources to decide what I wanted next. I’m stubborn as hell and wasn't going to leave game dev, and I've been doing this for so long, I've seen every aspect of development. Maybe I can make the next stardew valley or something? No, no, no. I knew that was a mistake. Don't plan a success, just plan a game. Plan fun. Plan right up to the edge of impossible. Plan something you can actually execute on and finish.

So your friend completes their first marathon, it was brutal and taxing, they finished 679th place. Do you tell them, “Oh, you shouldn't have even ran.” No. You say, “Damn. That's awesome— You did it.” That's what you need first, you need to finish. Just plan to finish.

Alright. I have to finish, but I also have to move quickly. Like really quick. I'm far past the ability to be a starving artist. I have a mortgage, car payments, health insurance, family, growing kids, adult kids, you name it. I’m adulting hard. So what as a designer can I create quickly but with some amount of quality? Well, new and never before seen mechanics would cost too much for this round (not a programmer). Next dev cycle for sure. Brilliant visuals are beyond my expertise and cost too much (not an artist). Next dev cycle I’ll farm out, but not this time. So, I can tell stories, I can write, I can dialogue, I can script, I can plan, I can map, I can make lists that are too long, I can iterate (like a boss), I can be goofy as all hell, and I can put together smidgens of decent gameplay. Maybe that's enough?

It'll be an adventure, at least (yes I'm going pun with that). I've literally gone the adventure game route. It's a great medium for telling stories, and some brilliant games in our lexicon were early adventure games that helped build the industry. Some great companies started there, maybe I can travel through time in a way and walk the same path, hopefully not getting lost in the woods.

Hey dummy. You’re not a master of adventure games.

Oh, right. I’ve shipped 20 plus titles, none of them adventure games. That could be an issue. I've experienced multiple times now getting to the end of a year cycle on many different games and realizing, man I really understand this genre now, I’ve gone from novice to journeyman levels of experience for this genre.hat's great, it feels good. If I can make another game in that same vein, I’ll level up again. Expert. A few more cycles and I could be a master. But then the next project you get assigned to is something completely different. The phenomenon of you snooze you lose is a real thing.

While you've moved on to that next genre the experience you've gained will decay. Don't worry, your previous level ups gave you an experience bonus modifier so when you do go back to one of your previous genres it'll come back to you relatively quickly. This isn't unique to genres. Games are so unique these days that it happens within them.

Players are an example of this. Take a master Starcraft player and measure their understanding of the game and its mechanics, then do the same with a newb. there are depths the newb has never even considered that the master has dedicated hours and hours of thought to. Development is the same. Yes general experience applies everywhere, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Stop picking my nits.

Now, at the end of the project, I do feel like I’ve leveled up in regards to adventure game design. Probably not a journeyman quite yet, but by the end of the sequel I certainly will be.

So, my future games will be better, that’s encouraging. Hopefully that’ll give me success I need to keep this train rolling, or my face is about to hurt from all the falling on it.

That rollercoaster is a real part of the process, hope and fear, confidence and insecurity. I’m proud, I’m going to finish. It’s not good enough, the quality is too low. I love the characters and the world I created. It’s trite and derivative. But I did it on my own. Whatever, hire an artist. Some of the gameplay is solid, and there’s fun in there. Yeah, if you like things that suck. There’s an audience for everyone. Sure, but you won’t find them. The next one will be even stronger. Quit now, you ain’t got it. I’m confident I can do this. You’re terrified and you’ve already lost.

My poor brain, it’s like a war zone in there. Bombs dropping. Death and destruction. That line from Ghostbusters that everyone misquotes. Just a mess. So I’d be honored if you’d take a look at my game, it'll be good for my torn mind. Thanks! Here’s a link to the Steam Store. 

https://store.steampowered.com/app/1024100

Steve Caywood

Secret Forest Games


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