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The game industry has grown up in recent years -- right alongside many of us who have grown up with it. Once upon a time, the leaders in our field were people who worked in garages for next to nothing and made games because they wanted to build something that entertained them. We were the market, and phrases like "publicly traded" had very little meaning to games, except perhaps when referring to baseball cards. (Even huge cultural phenomena like Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering were unheard of ten years ago.)
This young industry has given birth to a new breed of career professionals -- pioneers who have spent the entirety of their working lives making videogames (or, more broadly, electronic entertainment products). The electronic entertainment industry has risen to compete directly with movies for the public's leisure dollars. Large and highly successful corporations spend and earn billions of dollars each year to make it in the gaming world, and every success comes down to the people who create the games.
The bottom line: making games is a job, and a very serious one. The games that you and I are building today aren't merely games any more: they're products. The distinction between the two words is more than mere semantics: it's a matter of responsibility.
Starting Down the Road
We've all had our ideas for the next great game. That is, after all, why we're working in this industry. At one time, simply taking a great idea for a game and figuring out a way to make it happen was enough. Back then, audiences were far smaller. Selling a million copies of a game wasn't important, and the only people that game builders had to answer to were the people who shared the task of creating the game. The corporate environment in which we now work is no longer quite so flexible. Each product must answer to a number of sectors in order to achieve the financial success that is the goal of any company.
As designers, it is our responsibility to shepherd a game's vision from initial conceptualization to finished product and to maintain that vision's integrity. The overall concept and all of its components must all fit within the constraints of the marketplace, and designers are the first line of defense against straying from the path that is laid out for a product. Designers must be aware at all times of the many responsibilities that a product has -to the company, to the marketplace, and to the player.
The first role of the designer in this process is to build, maintain, and communicate the game's design document. Every game design should have two major documents. The core design document is set out at the beginning and provides the framework for the entire development process. While it is not, by necessity, absolute law, the game design document should clearly communicate all of the essentials of a project's development. Anyone should be able to look at this text and understand what the product is, who it is aimed at, when it will appear, and how it will satisfy all of the responsibilities that the team have as game developers.
The second document is a living document -- the design bible -- and is responsible not only for breaking down the overall design into systems and subsystems, but also for documenting the process that the team goes through while actually creating the game. (This is a subject worthy of some analysis, but I won't go into it in this article.)
The creation of the core design document is the point in product development where the majority of the design responsibilities must be addressed, and it will pay in the long run to consider what might get lost without proper design.