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Measuring a Designer's Value

Out of all the disciplines, game designers seem to have it the hardest when it comes to evaluation during interviews. Their skillsets are difficult to quantify in a standard manner because they are, in essence, professional thought architects.

Out of all the disciplines, game designers definitely have it the hardest when it comes to evaluation during interviews and getting respect from other disciplines.  Their "soft" skill sets are difficult to quantify in a standardized tangible manner because they are, in essence, professional thought architects.

In discussions with friends who work on collaborative multi-disciplinary software projects in and outside of the games industry, one question came to mind:
Can a QUALITY product be completed WITHOUT a dedicated full time designer?

The conclusion we came to was a conditional "yes", but only if either of these two things were true:

  1. Each member of the team was fully capable of cohesively visualizing the ramifications of their component before actually implementing it
  2. There was infinite time to iterate on the implementation of bad ideas until they become good ideas

Time is rarely infinite and trusting everyone on the team to maintain a cohesive vision of the product can be a gamble. For that reason, most projects will involve people whose role it is to supplement the team's ability to visualize the details before time and resources are spent on the implementation of those details.

Depending on the industry, the people that are tasked to perform these functions hold titles such as Producers, Directors, Project Managers, Product Owners, Designers, or Planners. The idea behind these roles is two-fold:

  • Thinking about ramifications and managing expectations from all angles warrants a fulltime job
  • The cost of thinking is cheaper than the cost of doing implementation work that will be discarded

So... what are the metrics of this "product owner" position?

I believe that every industry can distill the evaluation of this pivotal role into three distinct categories:

1. Pre-Visualization and Target Synthesis
How good is the designer at running simulations in the brain before committing resources to an implementation of the design?  Nobody will be perfect at this... iterations will be a fact of life in any industry involving collaborative creation of product no matter how good any designer truly is. There is real value from being able to fail as quickly as possible and extract useful information from those failures.

If design can be thought of as iterative problem solving, then there are two ways to evolve a prototype into a final product:

  • One way is to throw random darts at the problem until a solution hits... and hopefully that designer will recognize a solution when they see it; Or perhaps do variations based on each possibility and outsource decision-making to a group in order to know what is best for the game
  • The other way is to incorporate the problem into a mental model with an effort to define success and failure conditions so that experiments get mapped within an intentionally designed philosophical framework

Experiments are neccesary, but they do cost time and money. The empowered "method" designer who believes in a governing philosophy will cost the company less money than the "random darts" designer who might be prone to seeking idea validation from external sources to compensate for a lack of internalized values for the game.

I pair mental simulation with philosophy because one without the other is useless, and the evaluation of this pair is often strongly coupled as one provides context for the other.

Sample Pre-Visualization and Target Synthesis Interview Questions:

  1. Design a product about X with constraints Y
  2. Why did you design product X that way?
  3. What would happen if you do Z to product X?

2. Converting Thoughts to/from Language
Pre-Visualizion takes place inside the designer's head, but that vision needs a reliable channel in order to result in effective output that can be used by other developers.

Team members (including the designer) may not have all of the information needed to perform their function. A designer will need to be able to understand the input they are getting as much as others will need to understand the output they are giving.

Specifications (the "what") are critical to the conversion of ideas into code, but being able to convey the reasons (the "why") behind those specifications is what separates a creative director from a worker bee designer.

The best creative directors I have worked with have a way of communicating not just the specifics of their ideas, but also the philosophy behind their ideas to the team. These mentors infect the rest of the team with a galvanizing self-perpetuating aesthetic compass that flows in one unified direction. This transferrence of philosophy in addition to the visualization of tangible details gives implementors an opportunity to internalize cohesive overall design values into their belief system for making the game great.

Put another way, the best designers I know have a way of making everyone around them a better designer through vocabulary.

Sample Communication Interview Questions:

  1. Describe a product you like/hate and explain why it is good/bad
  2. Deconstruct a product that you did not make, and explain some of the design decisions behind that product
  3. Teach us how to do something complex that you are an expert at

3. Managing Relationships
Even though communication may be clear, debates may still occur. People will not neccesarily follow blindly.  Unless the designer is going to work alone, this person will need to deal with human factors.

I have seen many highly skilled designers felled by a fatal flaw in this particular category.  The pattern was often the same:

  1. Person is highly skilled and competent (or just overly confident)...
  2. Person expects everybody to be like them (i.e. agrees with their mentality)...
  3. Person antagonizes people who are not like them (i.e. disagrees with their mentality)...
  4. An authority figure eventually realizes that the cost outweighs the benefit and fires that highly skilled powerful member of the team for the overall good of the project

... or in the other direction, people quit the team or become passive-aggressively dysfunctional because of a breakdown in relationships with other team members.

Like othello, the science of getting along is said to take a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. If games were to one day suddenly not exist in this world or become banned as an occupation, I imagine that the best game designers out there would eventually go into the world of politics as a systems architect.

Sample Diplomacy Interview Questions:

  1. Describe a product design that you do not agree with
  2. Explain why the makers may have chosen to go that direction
  3. How would you get the makers to change their mind about that direction?

The Problem:
Few developers ever say that they are a bad designer. Game developers who call themselves good game designers will rarely ever get tested for that skill unless they are actually interviewing for a game design position.

This can lead to a situation that is potentially hostile to game designers who are surrounded by unchallenged creative and frustrated individuals who believe that they can do the job of the designer if they weren't so busy making tangible game code and assets.

So how do you combat this mentality?

The Solution:
A design department can be framed as a service provider just like any other department.

If code is unstable or tools are difficult to make a game with, then that is a failing on the programming department. If art is not aesthetically suitable for the game or won't fit on that particular hardware, then that is a failing on the art department. If the design department is getting the support it needs from other disciplines, but the game is flailing in the formation of an identity or the solidification of a coherent set of systems mechanics, then that is a measurable failure of the design department.

Inside or outside of games, the design discipline is responsible for managing target aesthetics of the final product. If there is a good idea to be mined from somebody who is not in a design position, then great; that line of accountability still needs to be managed by somebody connected to the ecosystem of the game's intentions. Design, Planning, and/or Product Owning is a skill-based discipline with three categories of metrics that serve as qualifiers of competency within that discipline.

If you find yourself in a position to develop an interview process for a design position, then your process would ideally incorporate at least three RPG stat trees:

  • Predictive Mental Simulation + Philosophy
  • Thought Communication
  • Diplomacy
... and if you are preparing to interview for the position of "designer" in any industry, then consider this a suggested harness for self-evaluation.

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