I had a conversation with a friend this evening about game design jobs and what they actually mean any more. He came out with a line something along the lines of "Them coders and artists need someone to design for them". Which I pointed out was basically wrong. Many a coder founded the games that built this industry, and many an artist likewise. Hell, isn't Miyamoto an artist by trade? And what about that Will Wright fellow?
So, I asked him, what are we for?
There was (still is a bit) a period when designers were hired by companies largely on the basis of how much they could write, or whether they could wave their arms around a lot and be "passionate". This later devolved into requiring skills to place things, like triggers and objects, and check collision and basically be an implementer. Most of the "designers" that I know are actually implementers.
But going back to high ground for a second, I told him that I didn't think implementation was the be-all and end-all of what we are, and it tends to reflect nothing so much as a lack of street cred in developers and publishers. Nonetheless, I said, we do have a purpose in all this, and that purpose is?
Game designers (not implementers) provide context.
Simple really. In the old world of highly iterative, visually cheap game development, there was a lot of room to experiment, test and find out what worked and what didn't. Many games consisted of very simple structures played out in interesting scenarios. As projects grew, it became apparent that developers had to concentrate on specific areas of the project. Artists became divided into animators, character artists, landscape artists. We had coders who specialised in tools, rendering, UI and so on. A multiplicity of fields brought about a multiplicity of perspectives.
Seeing this, the gap was made for a designer, someone who would map out a vision or something. The problem was (and still is) that most of those people hired in those jobs had no basic idea how to do that, or what was required. So a lot of bad design happened that spawned a corporate culture that liked big documents and waffle about gameplay experience, but it rested the power of decision in the hands of the producer.
Which is like making an accountant the director of a show on Broadway.
So design's star rose and fell on a wave of incompetence, and today many designers are basically held in the esteem of those who are slightly above QA in the pecking order, or those who are basically in training to be producers. And yet the problems remain.
Look at many modern games that are now coming out. They are over-featured because coders always program features. They are over-visualised, using bloom all over the place and creating cling-film-o-vision or Uncanny Valley simulators. They are tedious, unadventurous and basically dull. Why? Because coders like features, artists like prettiness and producers like visions that can be sold. Nobody is saying "This just doesn't work" with the authority to change it.
That's where I come in to the equation.
What's my job? My job is to say no.
My job is to say "nice idea but it doesn't work". My job is to say "yes I understand that the desired visual effect is not being met, but no, you can't chop the levels into 1/10th their size". My job is to say "there are only 11 mechanics in this game and no more". My job is understand the gameplay of the desired game (whether it be my own or someone else's), define what the game is and what it is not, craft the design constraints of the project and then ram them down the throats of people who just want to exercise their discipline without consideration.
That's why I liken game designer to the role of film director more than anything else. What most people don't realise much of the time is that a film director's job is to say no. We have this image of them as creatively spoilt children, but often as not they are actually ringmasters of the circus. The actors all want to over-deliver lines, the cinematographers all want to make the film as beautiful as a snowflake. The director knows that he's making a simple action movie. His job is to say no.
My job is to say no.
If you intend to be a game designer, so is yours.
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