Friday, January 17, 2014

You are a Game Designer (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Bud Leiser unveils the mystery behind what a game designer does on a project.

Is being a Game Designer the most mysterious job in the universe?  

I have the wonderful pleasure of introducing myself as a Game Designer. But then comes the follow up question. “What does a game designer do”? Surprisingly that’s a very hard questions to answer. And if I can’t answer it, if it confuses me sometimes, how can I expect anyone else to get it?

Well, at least that is not as bad as these responses:
  • Oh so you are an artist? (Not really…) 
  • So you are a programmer? (Not really…) 
  • What programs do you use to do game design? (Because they look positively shocked when I answer “Mostly Excel”) 
  • Can you fix my computer? (Sadly yes… I probably can. But I don’t want to.)

So what do I do? 

In a short sentence: “I create systems.” That doesn’t really tell the listener (Or HR Manager) anything he can use or wrap his head around though. So I usually have to go deeper and give some examples. You have played (Insert game) right?

 Ok so someone had to come up with all the different weapons in there...
  • And who do you think came up with all those prices for them? 
  • Did you notice there is a formula for those prices? 
  • Did you notice that each sword is slightly better and even feels different than the last sword you were using? 
  • How about those EXP points, notice how it always takes more and more to level up over time?   
How about the physics for your world...
  • How fast can you attack?
  • How long can you sprint before you need to rest?
  • Did you notice you deal damage at a certain point during the attack animation?  
Somewhere, at some time, someone had to make all of those individual decisions. Hundreds and hundreds of small details and decisions that somehow all lead to a unique experience.  Everyone on a team to contributes, but it’s the designer's role to lead the way.

A game designer:  Designs, tests and tweaks systems. He has to make systems work and *feel* right. Not just by themselves but also with other systems!

That “feels right” part is really really important. I’m not knocking programmers; they are super smart and talented. But they are also the first person to say “I don’t need a designer, I can do all of that myself!” 6 months later when their game has no direction, no end in sight, and they can’t “find the fun” they figure out that maybe working alone sucks, and everyone benefits by working together.

It’s that artsy fartsy “feeling” part that makes a designer special, stuck somewhere between technical and artistic (or autistic - am I right, high five!)  Sadly it’s also that part that lures would-be designers in. Making them think they are special without getting the technical or managerial balance to go along with that artsy feely stuff they love so much.
[This article originally appeared on Bud Leiser's personal blog.]  

Bud Leiser beat Nintendo’s original Zelda when he was just 3 years old. Then went on to win money and prizes playing: D&D Miniatures, Dreamblade, Magic the Gathering and The Spoils. He’s just returned from Vietnam where he helped manage Wulven Studios as their Lead Game Designer. He was responsible for creating internal projects, game design documents and communicating with clients to help them succeed in the post-freemium app market.


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