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.
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.
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.