After my recent Masterclass at UKIE one of the attendees, Arran Topalian, a game designer at Rare, asked me ‘What makes a good designer?’. It’s something that got me thinking more generally about what it means to be a game designer, let alone a good one.
The ideal of a game designer, at least for me, is a messy combination of skills from being the person with the creative vision, to someone who has to work out the logic and balance in the systems and find the fun. However, underlying this is always the function of a designer as a communicator who has to be able to make ensure that development compromises don’t kill the game.
Despite that, when I’ve worked with teams of designers either directly or as a consultant, their remit never seems to be quite the same. There seems to me to be almost as many definitions of designer as there are games.
For me, I first cut my design teeth as an amateur building traditional RPG and tabletop games. There was a tension between either building (rarely) flawless systems or narrative frameworks which created a momentum for the players. In the end it was just me and my partners in crime who had to do the physical work of making the board and pieces and explaining it to our players. Sure, I had to find the fun and consider the minutia of mechanics, but I could do this with a freedom and control of the experience that is at a complete contrast to any professional experience of video game design.
For many game designers the reality of the role is less about the creative realisation of your own ideas, but more about making the best experience within isolated game systems and then communicating that to the rest of development team.
The game concept is already defined by the creative director, or more likely, the client. This means that there are already huge constraints on what you can add to the experience. Instead of being free to be a true creator of game worlds, many of us will spend our time balancing numbers in spreadsheets, tinkering with in-game variables or writing use-cases about how sub-systems should work.
The idea of a designer in games is also complicated as the role itself covers a number of sins. To help us understand this lets attempt to categorise the different specialisations.
Please forgive me a few liberties in my definitions and remember that they are only intended to support an objective discussion.
For many game designers the reality of the role is less about the creative realisation of your own ideas, but more about making the best experience within isolated game systems
System Designers are often one-step away from coders in the way that they have to scrutinise the skeleton of the game mechanics and make sure that the logical flow and all of the variables in the game’s system are consistent and don’t break.
They need to have superb logic skills as well as the ability to think like an evil QA tester bent on breaking their own toys with edge case strategies. They often excel at creating games with meaningful emergent properties, but at the same time can kill the overall experience as they seek to protect the purity of the systems.
Experiential Designers have the task to protect the aesthetic framework and ensure that there is a balance between the control and camera systems and the sensory values of the game in terms of arty, sound, narrative, etcetera. The effect of rules and mechanics are often secondary and they often rely on progressive gameplay design where the systems are intended to resolve only specific scenes in a game and are (too often?) hand-crafted each time to get past the discrepancies created because of the emphasis to ensure that the story can flow. These are the guys who can deliver emotional values, even cinematic experiences, but at the expense of the players sense of autonomy.
User Experience Designers have to tear their focus away from the game itself and instead think about the experience of the player. Following the rise of free-to-play and service-based games their focus on the ’ease of interaction’ is only one part of the role. Increasingly, these designers are being called on to think about the player lifecycle, the first time user experience and even the route to monetisation.
Too often these guys are seen as subordinate to the more gameplay-focused designers but I think the difference between a UI designer and a UX designer is that they consider the end-to-end journey of the player. This is more than just delivering pretty menu systems and more about considering the whole player lifecycle from discovery to learning, engaging and eventually churning. The holistic player experience is as important and different to the experience of the hero or flow of the gameplay.
The more I think on it he more I see the role of the game designer as one of waste reduction rather than creation.
Vision Designers are the last type I want to explore, but don’t let that name fool you. These guys are often considered the high-priests or rock stars of design, usually unfairly. What I’m referring to here is the kind of designer who ‘owns’ the overall vision of the game and is able to think of that not just in terms of systems or snapshot moments of play; but as a flow – a journey. These guys have to consider the market conditions, the audience needs and the ability of the team to deliver on the project. However, to have this vision it’s essential to have a higher (helicopter) view of the game which inevitably means less focus on the individual elements of the design. Vision designers are not better than the other types I’ve described, but they are often better positioned to make strategic decisions because they see the project as a whole living entity.
Thinking about these different design roles in this way shows the problem with answering what makes a good designer, because being good at the skills and mindset needed for one of these roles, doesn’t necessarily make you a good designer in the others – indeed it’s probably a sign that you aren’t. Each designer type fits a different set of needs. A good designer is the kind that the project needs, but that doesn’t really answer the question.
When I spoke with Tadhg Kelly, author of ‘What Games Are’ on the subject of this article recently, he mentioned his upcoming book "Raw Game Design" and an idea he's been kicking around: "The more I think on it", he said, "The more I see the role of the game designer as one of waste reduction rather than creation. I'm like the bin man of the team, the guy who kicks out a lot of junk ideas before they become expensive, who deliberately tries to reduce the possibility space of prototyping down to something manageable. Sometimes that makes me the bad guy I suppose, but in my experience a designer has to be able to do that. That's their value to the team. That's what they're paid for."
That idea of the game designer as an assessor of the value of the idea for the specific project, rather than their role as a creator, is highly compelling. Coming up with ideas is rarely the problem and the real skill of a designer is to assess an idea in the context of the experience, product or service we are trying to create. How can we realise the best outcome and deliver the right product or service for the problem; which also fits with the classic mantra of good design – form follows function.
However, I think that also highlights another absolutely vital skill. The ability to communicate. It’s not enough to know the right things to deliver. We also have to communicate that effectively to the rest of the team and ensure that they are truly bought into the idea; building trust and taking them with us. Good designers are able to imagine the possible. Great ones are able to empower their team to deliver on it.