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What does a Game Designer do? An Introduction to Role

By Bluefirehawk | Published Jul 15 2013 09:39 PM in Game Design
Peer Reviewed by (Toothpix, sunandshadow, Gaiiden)

beginner game designer role careers level designer game designer

The Introduction to an Introduction


If you think of a small indie developmer team, many people imagine an Artist, a Programmer and a Game Designer. The Artists draws nice shapes with a pen, the Programmer punches his keyboard until the nice shapes show up and the Game Designer? What in the world does he do, a sacred design ritual?
It is a bit hard to grasp for anybody new to Game Development, it is also not an easy job to explain. That's why I hope to shed some light the role of the Game Designer and what he actually does and maybe even give a starting point for aspiring Game Designers. I also want to touch upon Game Design, it obviously has to do something with this role and what a good design is. So without further ado, let's get right to business.


The Role of a Game Designer


Let's make a comparison, a game Designer and Level Designer have a lot in common. As a Level Designer, you are responsible to put the assets of an Artist into a nice level for a player. But that is nearly not enough, the player has to like the level he is playing, it has to fulfill a certain goal, for example introduce a new tool to the player. Your job is not to dream up nice levels, you are making levels for a specific purpose to the player. You design obstacles to overcome, you design the level so the player has learned something after completing it. Now you made a prediction how your Level affects the player, a good Level Designer tests these predictions,you are playtesting your level. With your new experience, you can make more accurate predictions, make a better level, playtest, rinse and repeat. That is basically what a Game Designer does, but in a bigger scheme of things.

Note:  As a Game Designer, you are constantly testing predictions about how a mechanic or subpart affects the player. Even an experienced designer gets surprises on a regular basis. You should analyse the results and figure out why your predictions were inaccurate and how you can fix it.



As a Game Designer, you don't design one level, you think about when and what the player should learn, how difficult the levels should become. You are responsible the pacing of the gameplay, how the story is told and progresses. You design the character skills and you are responsible for the balancing of the skill system. Everything the player can do, everything the game reacts to, is part of your job to work correctly. This is frankly a lot. But when does something "work"?

Imagine that you are a Game Designer for Dota2, a team member comes up to you and says: "Hey, wouldn't it be nice to have a Necromancer Char with these cool skills?". And his ideas are indeed awesome, they fit perfectly in the visions of the game. If you are designing this character, you are responsible for two things:
1. The Necromancer needs to be balanced correctly, resurrecting a horde that kills every enemy player may break your game.
2. Make the mechanics meaningful. More often than not, you are playing a Hitman or a Ninja. And it's cool and all, but you somehow don't feel like a Hitman, like the Master Ninja you are supposed to be. Your job is that the player feels like she or he is walking in the shoes of a Dragonslayer, that you don't have to write "You are playing as the God of Thunder". When you did it right, the player knows.

As the coder is responsible for "making stuff dance on the screen", you are responsible for creating the experience the player has. You have the vision of the game, you know when a mechanic does or doesn't fit in the game. You calculated the statistics the items/skills/whatever should have in the game, how it could work. Chances are, you are not the only one developing the game. Your team members are drawing, composing, programming and getting new, great ideas as they go along. The Game Designer isn't the only one full of knew concepts, anyone can suddenly have a spark of genious. As diverse your team mates are as diverse their ideas will be. But they can't come up with good ideas if you didn't manage to give them the same pictures you had in mind.
As time goes on, you run into the danger of forgetting vital parts of your design ("Did it have 10% Fire Resistance of 25%?). Your awesome work is meaningless when it gets distorted and lost in the sand of time. You may not always be available for questions and wouldn't it be nice if the other team members also knew about the weapon system and how it is balanced? This calls for a way to write down your design. If you did it right, other people should understand your thoughts and decisions, why you added certain features or why you specifically left something out. Being able to communicate your plans, by talking or by writing, is maybe as important as planning itself. Only by communicating your plans, only if everybody understood what you planned, only then is your team able to build an outstanding game. This is a skill that also needs training if you want to become a Game Designer.

If you have found yourself in an Indie project, the game designer tends to also have responsibilities of the industry's producer. You have the idea of the game, you know the most important mechanics, the must have and the extra features. With this, you have the burden to abandon cool features you simply don't have the ressources to implement. No game is ever finished, there is always this little feature that would make the game that little bit cooler. But you don't have limitless time and money, there is a point where you have to ship and throw it at the Game Reviewers.


"Good" and "Bad" Game Design


Those two terms get thrown around a lot, especially when you read game reviews. But many don't ask, when is your design actually "good" or "bad"?

What is a good game?

Take your favorite game for example, if you can't play it in your head, play it again for five to ten minutes. Why do you like it? Why is it your favorite game?

I guess the most frequent answer would be: "Because it is fun!".

You probably picked a game where this is partially true, but I argue it is not the reason why this game stands out. Many things are fun, many games have been fun but vanished from the face of the earth.
I would say the same thing is true about movies. There are many entertaining movies, but the Batman reboot didn't stand out because they have been more entertaining than the old movies(well, not counting Batman the dark knight rises, my heart is still bleeding Christopher Nolan!). I say it is because of the story that we cared about. We could see the pain Batman went through. We saw a human, how he overcame his inner fears, how and why he chose to do the right thing. Batman Begins is one of the few movies I really cared about the protagonist. One of the few movies where the antagonist, the evil guy, wasn't far more interesting. It stood out because we could relate to Bruce Wayne and Batman, because it was an intriguing story. I argue the same thing is true for games.

Let's take Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's favorite game and analyse what he says about it: Watch his Silent Hill 2 review I selected him because he is simply the hardest reviewer to please and does not shy away from pointing out flaws in the best game ever.
To use Yahtzee's words: "the strangest thing about Silent Hill 2 is, from a cold critical non gushy standpoint, the actual gameplay of it is kinda shitty",in other words not fun, sometimes even outright bad. The reason you play Silent Hill 2 is for the story, but why should tell it in the game and not in a movie? Because Silent Hill 2 managed to tell a deep story without using words, it did it by solely through the Level Design, Enemies and the mechanics of the game (the combat is bad for a reason). Everything is a symbol for the Protagonist's psyche, everything comes together to tell a story in a way that hardly works in a different medium.

There seems to be this doctrine in the industry that only "fun" games are good (see reference 2) and every game needs to be fun. This is like saying every movie needs to be entertaining. How would Schindler's List have looked like if the directors said: "We need to make it more entertaining". That luckily doesn't happen for movies, but it sadly does for games. To end this section on a positive note, it seeems like times are changing. If you haven't already, look at ExtraCreditz's explanation on Spec ops: The Line and why it is so important.


Conclusion


Your job as a Game Designer is not to make an entertaining piece of software, your job is to create experiences. It can tell a story, leave a question inside the players head, provide a way to relax the mind, or scare the living hell out of people. You plan how the player and the game interacts, you test if the player sees what you waned to show. If you have done a good job, the player will do something only possible in video games, to walks in somebody else's shoes, to travel an other world. To explore your own mind and conscious. Those are the games we remember, those are the games we aspire to.


Further Reading



References

  1. So you want to be a Game Designer
  2. Beyond fun


Article Update Log


5 Apr 2013: Updated Teaser, Deleted "The Team and the Game Desigenr" and rewrote part of "The Role of the Game Designer", rewrote part of the conclusion.
26 Mar 2013: Article Created



About the Author(s)


Armed with programming skills of a computer science student, the willpower of a lion and a cup of coffee I started my first game project heads on! In only a few months, I managed to FAIL SPECTACULARLY in everything I hoped to achieve.
After some minor days of crying in the corner, I realised that, while not having a game, I aquired a lot of experience in game design and project management. Now iI can say very accurately where my expectations went off course, why and how it impacted the project. I am by no means an expert, but I try to get there and on my way, I try to share my experience in the hope that there will be less aspiring game developers crying.


License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments

I just made basically the same comment on another article, but it's even more relevant to this one.  The concept of a game designer is actually very simple.  A design is a synonym for a plan.  A game designer plans a game.  Specifically they plan what features they have, what the player will be doing within the game (in what order), how the game will react to the player's actions.  These together should make up a design document, so part of the game developer's job is documenting their plan so it can be communicated to others.  And the game designer also plans how the development team will go from this plan to a playable game.

 

Unrelatedly, why is each sentence a paragraph?  That looks odd.

It looks fine from my end in Chrome, I didn't write each sentence as a paragraph, that's at least what I hope I did ;).

 

Maybe I didn't understand you correctly, so if this response sounds weird, please tell me.

 

A design is a synonym for a plan.  A game designer plans a game.  Specifically they plan what features they have, what the player will be doing within the game (in what order), how the game will react to the player's actions. 

I specifically left out feature planning, because it may easily be misinterpreted as "The Designer gets to choose the features that get implemented", which I thought is not the case according to ExtraCreditz (Ref 1). I tried telling the reader that he/she is also responsible for the greater layout of the game, I mentioned pacing and my plan is to link to the article explaining it as soon as it exists. Do you think this didn't come across as I wanted it?

You're right, I didn't put in anything about the reaction of the game, that is something worth mentioning.

 

 

 

These together should make up a design document, so part of the game developer's job is documenting their plan so it can be communicated to others. 

I didn't write anything about the design document because I think of it as a tool to communicate for the Designer. I plan to link to an HowTo article about the Design Document in the "Further Reading" Section, but there currently isn't anything like that. As ExtraCreditz said, communicating is the the Designers most important skill, did I tell that badly? I am thinking of rewording "The Team and the Designer" section.

 

 

 

And the game designer also plans how the development team will go from this plan to a playable game.

Isn't that more of the producer's job (Reference)?

 

As I understood it, the Game Designer's job is to 'make features work', that each feature has the effect you intend it to have .But you're right, in there also lies 'planning', how you think the features would work, 'documenting/communicating' and also testing. And the planning is missing. I am thinking of rewriting the second "Conclusion" paragraph and maybe put some more work in "The Role of a Game Designer"

 

I hope I understood you correctly, thanks for your input!

I'm viewing this in Firefox.  An example of what I'm seeing in the formatting is "Then you HAVE TO TEST your prediction, you have to playtest.
With your new experience, you can make more accurate predictions, make a better level, playtest, rinse and repeat."  There is a newline after "playtest", which isn't right if the two sentences should be the same paragraph, but there is no space between the two sentences, so it's also wrong if they should be two different paragraphs.  This same issue occurs 3 more times.  I can just go through and edit the paragraph formatting if you want?

 

For questions of what the designer's responsibilities and powers actually are, I'm coming from an indie perspective, while the reference you are using is more of an industry perspective.  Because indie teams have fewer people and the designer is usually the project initiator and my also be supplying funding (effectively making them the producer), they have a larger percentage of the responsibility and authority than in an industry team where there are more people, each with a more specialized role, and the designer is employed by the game company, where there may be one or several people who outrank the designer.  In an indie team it is one of the main tasks to come up with features and decide which features get put into the game; perhaps the most important decision of the indie designer is to choose the game's main goal and gameplay genre.  So, both versions are right in different contexts.  The solution here might be to describe the difference between game design in the pure sense vs. game designer as a role in the bureaucracy of a big team?  What do you think?

 

I don't actually think communication is the designer's most important skill, but it's certainly important.  The most important skill would have to be designing itself.  Though, designing could be seen as a mix of 3 skills - creativity, judgment, and organization.

 

I submitted an article about design documents, but it hasn't been approved yet.  (Also it's in the wrong category and I can't figure out where to set the category).

I've been on this site a while.  I consider myself a game designer; a really good one, but I don't fall into the definition here.

 

Perhaps I am missing a specific role, and perhaps that role defines my view as to what a game designer is...if so, please tell me. 

 

For me, a game design is someone who sees the big picture of project.  They define the features and define the scope and limitations while forging and guiding the team down the path towards completion. 

 

The above is something that the majority of failed projects do not have...a designated leader.  Someone who understands the capabilities of the team, and can create a fun experience using the allotted skill and budget. 

 

You can NOT start game design with a storyline.  You can not turn a non-defined engine into a good game. Its the other way around. You need to write an engine with the feature scope in mind. To have a successful game, you need to start with the backbone of what you want to do with gives you a strong foundation to build an expandable and most of all, entertaining, game.

 

 

I have read many GDD's on this site, and most of them come off as irrelevant and pointless.  Explaining that your character can, "find guns and shoot people" is pointless.  A game designer needs to come up with more complex feature sets, i.e. (assuming 3d world FPS):

 

Guns differentiated by variables: reload time, shot speed, and damage.  All guns will have different models, with different particle effects for each shot.  Quick swap allowed via key press.

 

I would expect the above to be much more detailed and thought out, but as an example, I hope you get the idea.  The Game Designer helps set up the framework for programming.  Each feature needs to be well thought out in the game design doc so when the programmer begins, they have a strong understanding of how to set up their code.  

For me, a game design is someone who sees the big picture of project.  They define the features and define the scope and limitations while forging and guiding the team down the path towards completion. 
 
The above is something that the majority of failed projects do not have...a designated leader.  Someone who understands the capabilities of the team, and can create a fun experience using the allotted skill and budget.

Having a designated team leader, sometimes called manager, producer, or director, can be very important to a team not falling apart due to disagreements of vision or due to boredom/burnout/lack of feedback and praise. This role would also include things like overseeing kickstarter funding campaigns. It's a role often carried out by the game designer in smaller teams, and for that reason it might be useful to describe it here. But it's not actually game design, and doesn't have to be done by the designer. Major funders of a game project who have people/business skills but no technical skills may take this role instead, or it may belong to the person in charge of servers and web-presence, or it may be taken by the lead programmer, or sometimes a spouse, sibling, or best friend of one of the main developers. So it would also be valid to have a separate article about team leadership, motivation, and organization.

You can NOT start game design with a storyline.  You can not turn a non-defined engine into a good game. Its the other way around. You need to write an engine with the feature scope in mind. To have a successful game, you need to start with the backbone of what you want to do with gives you a strong foundation to build an expandable and most of all, entertaining, game.

That's an odd statement. At least half of games produced have standard gameplay for whatever genre they are with minimal inovation; in these cases there are already examples of several engines that have been used to make a good game of that genre, and thus could be used again. In this situation it would certainly be possible to start the game design with a storyline; the storyline is important because it and the graphics are the only thing that make the game distinct from others with the same gameplay. This kind of game might be boring to design from the point of view of someone who likes getting creative with gameplay design, but they're still legitimate games and make up a noticeable share of the market.

Guns differentiated by variables: reload time, shot speed, and damage.  All guns will have different models, with different particle effects for each shot.  Quick swap allowed via key press.

In some teams the lead designer may delegate subsystems within the game to a subordinate designer. I personally have been asked in the past to design a puzzle system for a game where much of the other design was already in place, and an avatar clothing system for a different game where most of the other design was already in place. Assuming one is a designer who is starting a project on your own, you develop as much of the design as you can, but you also have to realize when you don't know enough about a topic and need to get others involved so they can contribute ideas. Also many game design documents contain features not intended to be developed unless and until the game has a playable alpha; they don't need to be fully designed ahead of time. It would be a waste of time to design something months or even years ahead of the decision whether to include it at all. Finally, numbers in general need to be worked out in playtesting and can't be effectively designed ahead of time, though of course it's useful to have an initial guess or range.

@sunandshadow, thanks for your input, I am dropping the "The Team and the Designer" section and reword it for the main part. I am also rewording part of the main section. I am trying to improve on your suggestions, but on two points I am having a bit trouble:
1. action and reaction of the game to the players action: I think this is such an important concept that I can't do it justice in this article, at the moment I appended a sentence and just mentioned it.

2. The "documenting" part of it, I am unsure if I am doing a better job at explaining the designers responsibilities at it. I would be glad if you could give me feedback as soon as I updated the article.

 

Guns differentiated by variables: reload time, shot speed, and damage.  All guns will have different models, with different particle effects for each shot.  Quick swap allowed via key press.

 

I would expect the above to be much more detailed and thought out, but as an example, I hope you get the idea.  The Game Designer helps set up the framework for programming.  Each feature needs to be well thought out in the game design doc so when the programmer begins, they have a strong understanding of how to set up their code.  

I tend to partly disagree with you, for example from a Game Design perspective it is more interesting why you want to add Quick swap to your game. It does make sense for a competitive game like Counter-Strike, but it also makes sense to leave it out in a survival horror game like Silent Hill. I would say adding a Quick Swap isn't as important as the question why, and what effect it has on the player.

I am a bit unsure what you want to tell me, I am a bit short on concrete examples I agree, that is something I am currently working on.

The reaction of the game to the player's action is the heart of interactivity, and what makes games unique as a medium. :)  It's sort of why we are game designers designing games, instead of screenwriters or comics creators or something.  But I don't think it's necessary to cover the question of "what is interactivity" too deeply in this introduction to being a game designer.

 

Also, yay, my article about design documents made it to the peer review stage! :)  So I think you can view it now:

http://www.gamedev.net/page/resources/_/creative/game-design/developing-your-game-concept-by-making-a-design-document-r3004

Good game design? Story? My guess is that those studios making a game very much reling on deep story, requier a very good game writer.
Wich is another uniek skill set such team and game needs. But not all. As story focus is optional and a specific game audience seek for that in games.

But not all gamers. Gamers differ a lot. Example me I extreemly avoid story focused games. And dislike dramatic focus in any medium.
A good game for me has no QTE, level endbosses and cutscenes. And I like effective weapons so play mostly on hardcore mode where weapons deal damage and the heavy once do one shot one kill.

Have Halflife2 it came with a Gcard play it very shortly but quit it very fast. Got a demo of heavy rain. Well so not my thing. That so well known telltale game. After 2 eps not in the mood for ep 3 to 5.
But I do play FPS games from wii onrail shooter to massmarket games on PSN to milsims on PC.

If game designer want to make a game with good story and stand out with it. He must be a good game writer or hires one.

Note: Please offer only positive, constructive comments - we are looking to promote a positive atmosphere where collaboration is valued above all else.




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