Question of the Week Responses: Unsung Heroes

In a nod to the underappreciated and overlooked members of the game development community, this particular Question Of The Week asked, “Is there an individual or a particular job role which you consider an unsung hero in terms of video game innovation, and why?” We intended both specific industry figures and whole classes of game professional to be referenced in the replies, and indeed, this was exactly what happened in this round of QOTW responses.

In a nod to the underappreciated and overlooked members of the game development community, this particular Question Of The Week asked, “Is there an individual or a particular job role which you consider an unsung hero in terms of video game innovation, and why?” We intended both specific industry figures and whole classes of game professional to be referenced in the replies, and indeed, this was exactly what happened in this round of QOTW responses.

Illustration by Erin Mehlos

The General

With development teams getting larger, individual achievement may sometimes be replaced by collective success. But, while some specific roles in the video game industry get a high profile and correspondingly ratcheted respect, a number of other professional roles are sometimes overlooked, and our correspondents pointed some of these out. Particularly referenced in the list of disciplines are tool creators, sound designers, and game testers:

Texture artists might heavily contribute to the game's wow factor as eye candy, but I would like to see texture art lauded more for its game design virtues. The devil is in the details, as they say, and few things can compare to the impact that the clever use of textures can have on storytelling, level design and overall game design.
-Marque Pierre Sondergaard, Powerhouse

The tools department. They get almost no glory and have to deal with constant requests from artists and programmers. They receive little praise for accomplishments, and always hear about it when things are not working correctly. I'm not a tools programmer, but spent quite a bit of time helping out and see the pain they go through.

Package designers for low profile games that influence your decision to buy because of game box aesthetics.
-Zach Fyffe

Without a doubt it's QA. No other set of people ever has such complete knowledge of the games in development and the passion to go with it. When a game goes into testing, great QA people already know whether it's going to get out on time or whether game will be late. Great QA people can rate your game and are accurate to within about a point of what the average review will be (compare the ratings of a good QA department with MetaCritic, and you'll be amazed at how close they are). Great QA people are persistent in ensuring programmers and artists fix issues that tangibly improve the quality of games, even if they hate the game. The biggest problem with QA is that not enough producers and developers talk to them, and when they do it's hard for them to hear as the critiques are often so brutally honest.
-Mark Klocek, Empire

I think that sound designers never get enough credit because music is normally relegated as a background experience in most games. I think there is a lot of untapped gameplay innovations regarding sound and music, making it a more reactive than passive. Jaws is a great example of reactive music. When viewers hear that classic theme, they picture this vicious predator, even though all they really see is the fake dorsal fin in the water. The overactive imagination takes over and is one of the reasons why that movie is so memorable. Imagine if we had something of that magnitude in videogames.
-Carlo Delallana, Ubisoft

While the role of the game writer has certainly been undervalued, compared to its huge contribution to advancing innovation in games, I think the biggest unsung heroes are definitely the level designers (or mission designers). They are the ones who really connect the player to the core of the game and make possible the innovative features for which a game's designers and programmers receive so many accolades. There are exceptions, with some sports games or puzzle games that don't have uniquely identifiable levels, but really no other development discipline has such a direct effect on the player's experience within a game, in my humble opinion. Thinking back to Super Mario Bros, X-Wing, Homeworld, Halo, and many of my other favorite games, all had outstanding level and mission design that made possible the evolutionary features of those titles.
-Coray Seifert, Large Animal Games

Quality Assurance! In so many companies they are left to fend for themselves, are treated with less respect then the other disciplines, and are very rarely used for the talents they can provide to a development team. I mean who else plays more video games than QA? These guys have seen tons of games at home and on the job. They know what works and what doesn't. When development takes longer, QA gets less time or has to put in the same amount of hours in less time than before, often resulting in the worse crunches out of any department. I did QA for 5 years and it is hard to stay upbeat when you're putting in lots of overtime because someone up top didn't schedule right. Add all that onto the fact that no dev likes to hear about their game breaking, and you have a pretty tough "please don't shoot the messenger" job. There's no doubt in my mind that the unsung role is Quality Assurance!
-Sheri Pocilujko, High Voltage Software

The tools programmer is who I consider the unsung hero in game development. The tools programmer is where the rubber meets the road between programming's executables and the assets created by art and design. It is the hidden software package that needs to be created before the final game can be assembled. A smooth, intuitive and stable tools package can make a good game great. And no matter how great a team you have, if the tools aren't there, then art, design, and programming aren't speaking the same language and it all inevitably falls apart. This makes the tools programmer an essential and critical member of any team that is all too often overlooked.
-Brian Jennings, Unspeakable Productions

Sound guys. A game that contains sound that is engrossing in its environmental contribution is essential, so that a gamer is submerged in the game world. In fact, if the sound has been done well, it is not even noticed as a standalone aspect. That is why they are unsung. The only time you probably notice sound at all is when it is done poorly. But take a game like Half-Life 2... the sound is spot-on perfect. Only at silent times when levels are loading do you realize how important the sound really is. At all other times in the game, the sound makes the game real. The graphics get a big nod, but without that ringing after a grenade or the quiet scratching/chirping of a headcrab, the game would not have been so celebrated.
-Todd Howard

All the concept artists who create game characters and environments out of their imagination without feedback or input from others. These people help to define the look of our industry and perhaps just like in the film industry they are often overlooked. Often times, game designers and directors rely on these people to help bring their stories and game ideas to life.

I believe sound designers are unsung heroes because there seems to be much more emphasis on music versus sound design for games. There seem to be many video game awards for best 'soundtrack' (music), while there aren't very many awards for best 'sound' (voice, sound design, etc.). The Academy Awards differentiate music and sound, why doesn't the game industry?

Programming. Why you might ask? It's not because game designers and animators do nothing. It's just the fact that they get most of the credit, when in reality the programmers tend to be overlooked because their work isn't “seen”.
-Luke Weatherlow

Writers are often overlooked. If not for the obsession with computer graphics technology, the game industry would have developed a better way of using creative writers (both design-oriented and character/dialogue writers). The industry cries out for intelligent, experienced writers who can craft concepts intelligently - but as long as game writers are to have their career path harassed by unprofessional feedback processes, low pay, insignificant tasks, and other forms of creative butchery, Hollywood and its higher rates of union-standardized pay will draw professional game writers “back into the fold” of traditional non-interactive entertainment.
John Boomershine

Quality Assurance. They get paid like McDonald's workers and work in filthy conditions.
-Darren Thomas Bennett, Empire Interactive

I would consider entire development teams unsung heroes. From under-rated QA teams, to artists and programmers and everyone else that doesn't get to give interviews or get credit for an entire game. Don't get me wrong, directors and producers work just as hard as anyone else but if it wasn't for complete dev teams games would never get done and innovative ideas would just remain that... ideas.
-Bryan Erck, Shiny

The Specific

Our respondents also managed to pinpoint a few individuals that they felt have made a signification contribution to video game innovation, individuals they consider to be true unsung heroes in some way, shape or form:

Chris Crawford. His explorations may not have always been lucrative, but at least he's building a foundation someone with better business sense may one day need to thank. I give him the most credit for aiming high and aiming for tomorrow instead of simply profiting from adding icing to yesterday's games so that the same clients will play them again tomorrow. In a culture dominated by corporate rock, corporate film and corporate art, Crawford bangs the interactive story drum all by himself.
-Ryan FitzGerald, Nihilonaut Productions

An unsung hero of mine is Gumpei Yokoi. His untimely death soon after the Virtual Boy leads him to be remembered mainly for the Virtual Boy and original Game Boy. However, he should also be remembered for the Metroid series and Fire Emblem series, only last year finally released outside Japan . Both series under Yokoi's direction had demanding percentile rating screens upon completion, encouraging dedicated players to get maximum replay value from these games.
-Emill Szynsky

Carol Shaw, who programmed the game River Raid for the Atari 2600 video game system, in 1982. It was published by Activision. I nominate her for these reasons:
-First 2600 game to use randomly-generated landscapes, so the game played differently every time.
-First top-scrolling game that let the player fly at variable speed, choosing their own preferred style of play.
-Game powerups (fuel barges) that you could EITHER blow up for points OR fly over to pick up fuel, depending on your needs of the moment. Up to that point powerups had been single-function only.
-All this in 4K of ROM and 128 bytes (BYTES!) of RAM.
-And all done by one of the first-ever female game developers, to boot.
-Ernest Adams


[Article illustration by Erin Mehlos.]

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