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Lead Designers Who Only Say 'No'

Lead designers are hired to make decisions - YES for what they want and NO for what they don't want. This is my rant on lead designers who only seem to say NO.

Timothy Ryan, Blogger

November 17, 2009

6 Min Read

Have you ever had a boss who couldn't make up their mind on the design?  They make edicts about what will not be in the game, but the most they can contribute to what is in the game is a vague reference to other games.  Even with the things they're sure about, they'll back away from those decisions and toss out weeks of work.  It's that utter lack of conviction that I want to discuss here.

How on earth does someone like this get in charge of design? Sometimes they have worked so hard and earned an opportunity to lead, but they get in over their head.  They lack the vision, imagination and the confidence that a lead designer needs to succeed.  Sometimes they're not designers.  They're managers, art directors, producers or studio heads who design by making edicts without a deep understanding of what their decision means. Regardless, I think anyone who has worked for a decade or more in this industry has encountered this situation.

Example #1: The HUDless Design Movement

About five or six years ago, there was a widespread drive to remove the HUD from our games.  This coincided with the evolution of 3D graphics capabilities of the 360 and PS3.  Realism was the big selling point for the game, and a HUD made something too "gamey".  Many games tried to remove the HUD entirely or compromised with toggling the HUD on as needed.

This is what I would call a design edict that came from art and championed by producers.  Unfortunately, it threw out the baby with the bathwater. Gone was the very important means in which to communicate with a player.  And what did it get us?  Well, for all of us that did focus testing on these HUDless schemes, it got us a lot of confused and frustrated players who didn't have an objective marker to tell them where to go, a health bar to warn them they were dying, or any idea what weapon they had holstered.

The edict gave way under pressure from focus tests.  The HUDs came back, but not before some serious frustration on wasted efforts to work around the edict and some damage to the design.   Imagine how linear levels get when you're not allowed to use objective markers.  Imagine players not finding or using weapons because they're not called out on the HUD prompting the player to pick them up.

In short, someone high up in the design chain said "No" to HUD with vague hopes that the environment art, level layout and character animation and FX would make up for the loss of an important means of communication.  Eventually, they were proven wrong.

Innovation often occurs by defying tradition.  However, you can't just refuse to do something without replacing it with something equally effective.

Example #2: The "No" Identity

I've literally had a boss say to me. "Sorry, you can't do that.  It's not what Halo would do."  In fact, "What would Halo do?" was his motto.  In this case, he's not defying tradition as in the previous example, he's just not thinking beyond his competition.

It's all well and good to model your design after some successful game, but it's not a recipe for your own success.  Every game in development will ALSO have the advantage of learning from Halo's success.   Your game will never stand out if it limits itself to only being as good as a game published a year or two ago.  Your game needs a unique identity to stand a chance of being successful.

In my case, my boss eventually figured out that our game had no identity but far too late in production to make us successful.

Example #3: Designer Apathy to Ammo & Health Pick-Ups

Pick-ups or "gimmes" have long been a way to reward a player.  They drop from enemies or can be found out in the world.  It's a traditional part of gaming since the 16-bit days.  The problem is a thousand games have relied on pick-ups to be the bulk of their gameplay.  Some designers have abandoned tradition by doing away with the need to pick-up ammo or health.

That's all fine as long as they replace it with something more compelling.  Case in point: Gears of War.  Gone is the health pick-up, but in it's place are superior cover and coop systems.

But what if your lead or producer or director just says, "Hey, no pick-ups!  We'll just regenerate health over time and you're equipped with what you start out with."  Now that game mechanic is gone and there's no reason to explore the map except for some stupid achievement pick-up like war-journal pages or skulls.  That would be like Gears of War without the cover system and coop system for restoring health.  It would be empty and boring - the end product of a design leadership that only knows how to say "No."

Learning to say "Yes" and "No"

Strong design leads have convinction.  They say "Yes" to the ideas they think are good and "No" to ideas that detract from the game.  They back their decisions by being analytical and prepared to present and defend better ideas.

Good design leads add a positive force to the decision-making process by suggesting ideas of their own or promoting others' ideas. They don't eliminate ideas simply because they didn't exist in other games. They don't throw out a traditional solution to a problem without solving it another way.  They offer concrete examples of what they want and don't want, not some vague, half-thought out reference to other games. 

Good design leads don't automatically say "Yes" to every idea either.  They show backbone not just to their team but to their boss.  Heaven knows bosses don't always know the impact of their suggestions, but a good lead will explain the impact in a way that helps a boss or co-worker or subordinate rethink their suggestion.  In theory the design lead was hired to make decisions, not just do what they're told.  They shouldn't be afraid to say "No".

Good design leads are capable of prioritizing and pushing for the best and most important ideas and dropping less important ones when negotiating with art and tech directors for implemented features.

Whether you are a lead designer, manage one, or just aspire to be one, you should understand the importance of being able to say both "Yes" and "No" in design decisions.  It's a balance that you have get right if the game will be successful.


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