Most people we encounter with ambitions to work in the games industry want to be ‘game designers’. Funnily enough, this term is often misused outside the industry as an umbrella term for a number of different roles across the development team. In reality, it is a particular individual position, though one that can have a variety of responsibilities from project to project.
Jimmy Baird is one of our game designers, and he explains just what that role entails.
What is a game designer?
A game designer designs games. No, that's too vague.
Let's look at traditional games: they're not exactly designed, are more agreed upon and usually have a natural evolution. Even young games like Monopoly have a natural evolution. Nearly every family or group of friends I've played the game with have their own house rules, either prior to commencing or emergent rules during a play session. You can also see this playing pool (8 ball) where every player, in every pool hall, in every city, in every country has their own little variations.
Video games can come across as more of a static collection of rules, and even though the average player cannot modify the rules of a specific video game, you can still see the evolution of the rules as people start making their own video games. This leads to genres; who ever thought that Space Invaders would lead to a genre called Shooters, which leads to a genre called First Person Shooters. Drastically different experiences, but holistically the same.
You can see an evolution of rules, mechanics, and conditions when working in a team. Artists, producers, testers, programmers; they all have their own personal histories of playing games. If we kind of unify games as "same", then we can happily take everyone's experiences, implement, and test it, hopefully verifying whether it should be in the experience the team is crafting or not. Please don't read this as design by committee, this is just part of the natural ebb and flow that a traditional game would go through, just in a very focused and condensed state.
The term game designer is very young, and with that it is very niche. It's not exactly a specific role, but it sounds like it is. Game designers almost enjoy terrible pigeonholes in an already a niche role, you hear terms like systems designer or combat designer, this is all semantics, garbage, noise.
A game designer simply facilitates an experience.
Which other areas of game development have you worked in?
Professionally, quality assurance (QA) and production. Even having the most elementary experience of these two disciplines is important. If you don’t know firsthand what QA and production go through to ensure you’re working at your best, you’re probably taking things for granted.
An incredible amount of the fun in a game can come from really satisfying game mechanics, media feedback cues, or control paradigms. Do you have a theory about what makes such features fun or not?
In this context fun is a subjective term, so bear with me as I make this objective as possible. It’s a compounding combination of complex reasoning, positive reinforcement, and function. The function by itself isn’t fun, it just exists. Firing the shotgun from Quake in an empty room might be the most exhilarating experience when you first do it, but on average it will quickly lose its appeal until it’s given purpose and limitation. It’s up to the player to discover how to use said function, and this is the key and the gate.
Not only do you have to teach players how to play the game via reward, you also have to teach them what the rewards are and why they’re meaningful. You could surmise a reward as the final cue in a series of success. However, this series of success needs a lot of media and timing cues to indicate the correct behaviour a player has to exhibit in order to receive said reward. This is the positive reinforcement I mentioned. Associate specific cues with success and failure to allow players to make connections to how they’re supposed to behave in a given possibility space in order to succeed, and you’re organically teaching players the mechanics of the game.
As players manipulate the possibility space they’re using complex reasoning to work out the best ways and results in order to achieve goals. Whether they’re player set goals or strict game goals matters little. With this in mind, as long as players can succeed and that success is acknowledged, they will probably have a more enjoyable experience than with a game that doesn’t offer such things, or offers them inconsistently or incorrectly.
Control paradigms on the other hand are a slightly different scenario, and a much simpler one. Once learned, controls must be invisible. Once controls are visible, immersion is lost. Controls take a lot of work. This idea doesn’t need much explanation, it’s pretty binary.
What are the critical elements of any game design that just can’t be omitted?
Games exist for a myriad of reasons, but I find the most common thread is that games offer a specific learning experience within a boundary set by its rules. In this boundary someone can safely experiment with the pieces of the game. Through the events of the game you can justify why you’re asking a player to learn specific skills, whilst ensuring you’re providing a positive learning experience. This is arguably the most fundamental and important thing.
While the functional science of a game is at all times completely fascinating, one cannot forget that games are entertainment as well. It is worthwhile to articulately pursue the themes you wish to convey or use. It’s important that the themes chosen represent the learning experience and vice versa too. You can make the best game in the world out of blue and red wooden blocks, but you can make a far more engaging experience by making it relatable.
These two elements complement each other, and become an infinite point of reference. Two sides of the same coin.
If someone wanted a career as a game designer, what guidance would you give to start them down the right path?
A lot of people say live and breathe games, along with a few intangible video game-centric cultural things. I would say live and breathe making. I’ve found people (as I have done in the past) might scapegoat circumstances like finances or inability, and that’s not a healthy attitude. You can make a game from the items on your desk! Learning how to build amateur toys, then place rule sets on them. You have to persevere through experimentation, with that comes the ability to embrace failure, and throw things out as needed. The more experiments you have, the more experience you will have.
As far as tangible advice goes. Start with small experiments, and by small I mean you have a reasonable expectation to complete said small experiments. Anywhere from a few minutes of work, to half a day. Something you’re not scared to trash when it fails miserably. There is no point clinging onto something that doesn’t fundamentally work, it will lead to unsatisfactory results.
There are a few elephants in the room about a video game design career I’ll touch. You should probably be able to program some kind of language. Even if it’s a terrible one actual programmers hate. Who cares, can you understand and use it? Does it work for you? Then don’t worry. Can you understand some kind of pipeline of getting data and content assets into a game? Good, because all those terrible things you modelled and painted quickly have to go somewhere. Understanding the design portion of the job is something you’re going to chip away at, it’s not supposed to be something you master. If you think you’re good at it, you’re wrong, because the next idea, the next inkling you have should challenge you.
Most importantly, all of these things fall over when you don’t realise the heart of it all. Design is communication, on every level. If you are mute you will fail, so express yourself.