At big companies, where specialization deeply takes root, there’s a question echoing through the halls asked by artists, programmers, business people, and audio experts alike: “What do game designers actually do?”
The implied answer is often “nothing”. They aren’t drawing the images, coding game functionality, negotiating funding, or making sound effects.
The lack of clarity about what videogame design involves can pose an even bigger problem to someone making a project alone – it’s entirely possible to get so involved in creating images, code, and sounds to overlook design considerations.
To people outside of our industry and interests, they may hear “designer” and think “graphic designer”, as in, the sort of person knowledgeable about expensive typefaces and making brochures. Videogame designers aren’t necessarily into that sort of design.
Whether experienced in videogame design or not, whether you’re familiar with the role’s meaning or not, I encourage you to read along all the same. The way that I think of the role might complement what you already know, or perhaps prove helpful in explaining it to others.
Rarely the Same Job Twice
The game design for Solar SFUN, Topple, iZombie Death March, the dozens of indie freeware games that I worked on before, and for my contributions to EA’s Medal of Honor Airborne and Boom Blox, all consisted of entirely different types of thinking, work, and deliverables. If we focused strictly on puzzle games, sports games, or first person shooters, we could present a more exact list of what videogame design means for those genres – but how does completely different work between different kinds of games wind up under the same umbrella of “videogame design”?
Not Just Tuning
The most visible part of a videogame designer’s work is tuning and balancing. This consists of tweaking values for jump height, run speed, reload time, enemy attention, puzzle piece probability, upgrade cost, and other numbers affecting gameplay. If set improperly, the values can make an otherwise good videogame sluggish, frustrating, unfair, boring, or oversimplified.
Numbers are often set by a combination of educated guessing (setting initial values by convention or aesthetic concerns), broad-but-rough adjustments to major variables (player health, cost of one army’s units based on another’s, other factors affecting the entire game/level at once), and final relative tuning through iteratively adjusting a select few numbers at a time until things feel right.
I’ve seen developers for complex strategy games use spreadsheets and linear models to approximate balancing – and I did something similar to this when developing TriChromic.
While spreadsheets can efficiently generate approximate starting values, these do not replace in-game iteration. In a game with any real-time element, how long it takes units to rotate, aim, and play animations can become a factor, and so can (depending on how collision detection is handled) how an artist models/animates a unit as it takes various actions. Even in a strictly turn-based strategy game, where those factors are equalized, it’s difficult for spreadsheets to account for the complex dynamics of groups of units will behave in close proximity on varied landscape.
The part that differentiates a gameplay designer from simply being playtester with access to data files: determining what values should exist to be tweaked. The videogame designer also has to consider solutions to problems which may involve fundamental changes to the functionality. For example, if the problem identified is that the player can die too quickly from enemy attack, rather than increase player health or decrease enemy damage, the designer’s solution may be to add a brief invulnerability time for the player to recover, noting that this solution encourages exciting moments as the player can behave more boldly when facing groups of attackers. (New variable to tune, introduced by that feature: how long should that temporary invulnerability last?)
Not Just Level Design
The other highly visible aspect of what a videogame designer does is in the form of level architecture and item/enemy placement. There’s more to level design though than setting up ambushes, building obstacle courses, and placing decorations modeled by artists. For some games – notably puzzle games or procedural action games – level design consists of none of those things, but instead come down to dealing with probabilities.
(For two examples of procedural action games, check out my old freeware games Burn 2 – see the Burn 2 Readme.txt for controls – or Battleship 88. Those games involved “level design”, yet there are no level layouts saved in either game. The levels are generated randomly from ranges of possibilities that affect numbers involved.)
For games in less established genres, or for games challenging established conventions, there’s the bigger question of what qualifies as success in a level, what sort of structures are navigable in a level, and how similar one time playing through a level should be to the next time it’s attempted.
In the same way that a musician putting 20 songs on an album isn’t just concerned with which songs are there, but in what order they come in for how the composition affects a first time listener’s overall experience, game designers can’t just think about isolated level designs. Consideration goes into how their ordering and variety can affect pacing, story, and the team’s content needs.
Inventing a Discipline For Every Game
It’s not a coincidence that many versatile videogame designers (not to be confused with people identifying specially as “level designers” or with skills limited to an established genre) express an interest in philosophy. This is not necessarily philosophy in the sense of what German Idealists said about old Greeks, but philosophy in the sense of metacognition – thinking critically about critical thinking, and planning about planning.
Videogame designers enjoy sifting through countless possibilities in search of meaningful patterns, to create terms and label and categorize. Inasmuch as philosophical banter evolved into the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, law, medicine, and mathematics, a major part of videogame design is inventing a discipline around making content for the current game project. They’re often quick study types, eager to dive deep into new information, apply it, then forget it just as quickly to stuff their heads with new systems. (Contrast this to the cumulative learning of specialists in more consistent disciplines like programming, business, or applied digital art.)
What are the relevant terms and concepts needed to discuss and shape the game’s detailed direction? What decisions will affect the options of future decisions, and what order can the decisions be made in to minimize thrashing of interdependent considerations?
To share an example simple enough to be covered here in its entirety, in 2004 I made a small “one of these things is not like the other” game for my fraternity’s Spring Carnival booth.
The gameplay in that game consists of four pictures being presented, one in each quadrant of the screen, and the user indicating which of the four pictures is unlike the other ones. There can only be 1 right answer, which much be identified by the user under time pressure, and the machine is pre-programmed as to which answer is correct (no explanation or justification is involved). The game was played by public visitors of all ages, approaching for a few minutes at a time, in a kiosk set up.
Simple, right? I immediately began receiving suggestions of things from well-meaning friends. Many of those suggested sets were unusable.
Here’s why: even though the fundamental goal, input, and content are simple, there’s still a right and a wrong way to come up with a set of 4 images to use for one of these things is not like the other.
Consider this set:
Say someone suggests this set, intending the Fish to be selected, since it’s the only one that isn’t a bird. This question is unfair! Do you see why?
The problem with it, as you may have guessed, is that the Eagle is unlike the others, too, for being the only one on the list that doesn’t spend significant amounts of time in water.
Or what about this set:
This question set also isn’t fair. Can you spot more than one reasonable answer?
Check them out written:
This time the problem isn’t with the subject matter. The Triangle is pretty clearly the only one on that list not related to dental hygiene, and it’s the only abstract object.
The problem is due to not paying close enough attention to the words, or to details of the image composition. Mouthwash is the only word on that list that doesn’t start with a T. The toothbrush is the only image that has a non-white background. At this point, there are at least three valid conclusions that could be drawn as the correct answer, making the 4th one unlike the others for not being a feasible answer. This kind of headache, especially under time pressure, leads to frustrating players by expecting players to read the designer’s mind to determine which criteria is most important.
Connection to Bigger Games
In the same way that considerations can be identified to rule out valid content from invalid content, fair from unfair challenges, the items and levels for real-time games can be created by a set of principles. How long into a level should the first action should happen? How many enemies at once should be in a room of a given size, with what frequency should new items should be introduced, at what pacing is it fair to raise the difficulty, and how much can the game reuse the same settings for consistency and cost-saving without seeming cheap and repetitive?
Franchise Feature Innovation
In an established genre, such as a space marine first person shooter, a third person survival horror game, or a falling block game, a videogame designer’s first objective may be to research what else has been done by competitors in that space to learn from their experiences and improve upon their mistakes. It’s a very different design challenge creating the 25th football game in a series, aiming to innovate enough to satisfy critics and excite returners without alienating the fan base.
To be sure, videogame design for a sequel still comes down to simplifying a complex space of possibilities into a manageable system of terms and concepts to be used as the foundation of furthered design and content development.
(Originally posted as GameDevLessons.com Vol. 6 Sec. 2)
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