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The Game Designer Class - What does he do?

So you're browsin' around on Gamasutra, curious to learn more about being a game designer. However, game designer sounds a big vague...Do you know what the game designer does on a daily basis?

Adriaan Jansen, Blogger

February 19, 2012

7 Min Read

This blogpost is written with great care and attention at Abbey Games.

After finishing your favorite game, you may have stopped and thought: "Wow, what an amazing game! I wish I could make a game as awesome as this one!". Then it hits you. Why not? But how can I become a game designer? Which skills or talents do I need? What does a game designer actually do anyway!? There are many important questions to be answered before, so I decided to make a series of blog-posts about them! Because we're talking games here, and because it's fun, let's treat these blogs as an RPG character creation guide, shall we? The different "chapters" are:

  1. Role: What are the tasks of a game designer?

  2. Passive Abilities: What are favorable character traits?

  3. Powers: What are important skills?

  4. Weaknesses: What are the biggest pitfalls?

Of course, these are just my humble opinions, mixed with some wise words of Jesse Schell, local hero Joost van Dongen, and the guys from Extra Credits. So, to the first part: What are the tasks of a game designer? To keep it simple, I'll just talk about 3 of the activities that I do the most.


Role 1 - Crafting the Experience

A game is actually an experience. The experience of being a medieval hero, the experience of being a soldier or any other kind of experience. Even the most basic game is composed of strings of experiences. Take Pacman. You experience what it's like to be a collector (which is a low paced experience), and switch between the experience of being hunted and the experience of being a hunter (Which are both more exciting). The player is having fun because he's experiencing something he likes, and it's YOUR job to make sure those experiences are top notch! Note that you're not necessarily the one coming up with the core experience. If you want to make an eel-adventure-party game and one of the techboys comes up with a brilliant rpg where you play a witch, the team is probably going to agree to make the second game. It's your task to make sure that the player is going to feel like a scary, powerful and mysterious witch.

Let's say we're making a game where the player is a superhero. That's a compelling experience! Everyone has wondered what it's like to be a superhero. You've got the initial attention of the player, but that doesn't mean the experience is already done.

  • What if there are no challenging baddies? This greatly interferes with the experience of being a superhero, because a part of being a superhero is the superhero-drama! Think about your favorite superhero going down to the baddy in that one episode, and just completely kicking his ass in 3 or 5 seconds. There is no tension in that! Superheroes come in just in time, and win by just an inch. We have to make sure the player experiences that!

  • What if there are only challenging baddies? So a lot of tension right? Ok, so we put in some arch-nemeses, and we're done! NO! What is a superhero, if he can never distinguish himself from the common man he protects? You need to show off your  power! We need the 500 goons to show the player that he's a superhero that can take on 500 goons easily. Being a superhero is being powerful, and the player must feel it!

  • What if the controls are buggy? This seems a bit out of our lane, but it's really important. How would you feel being a superhero, and not being able to control your body as you wish? You would look totally lame crashing into that building, because you couldn't get the controls right. It interferes with the player's experience of power and awesomeness, so it must be fixed.

I could go on hours and hours about experiences, but let's keep that for another time. The point is, you create the experience. You try to make your experiences as convincing as possible using mechanics, timing, story, possibilities, controls, game properties, rewards, punishments and to a lesser extend art-style, animation, and sound (this is more like the artists/sound designer's job). This brings us to...


Role 2 -Pitching & Communicating

You've got an idea, now its time to bring it to the team! This aspect seems easy. Just tell em, right? But you have to do so much more. You have to convince the team that this idea will enhance the experience and is worth the time and effort to implement. See how many things are already in that sentence?

  1. You have to convince the team... This means you need to take time to have a clear conversation together. Organize stuff, anticipate on questions and make sure that everything is clear. A good game designer designs his pitch.

  2. ...that the idea will enhance the experience... You don't tell the team what to do. You try to make them experience what you have in mind. Here at Martian Flytrap for example, Bas (the programmer) often thinks critically about the ideas I present. He should, because if they suck, he's wasting time and money! I have to show him the context and use of the idea, so that we share the same view on the game. Sometimes, small narrative changes are all it takes. "No, that character isn't jumping, but using a jet-pack", gives a different view on the game, while the mechanics might still be the same.

  3. ...and worth the time and effort to implement.  This one is easy. Know what your team does, and know how hard it is to implement your idea. you're not the expert, but you can get a good hunch. If you know the costs of implementing your idea, you know if it's even worth bringing up.

Naturally, this is not a one way street. You have to listen carefully to the team as well! If you've discussed your idea and the team still thinks it stinks, two things could have happened. Either you didn't do the pitch well enough, or your idea just stinks. The latter is 100 times more likely to occur, especially if you're working with open-minded, listening people. Keep in mind your ideas could not be as good as you thought! It's part of the process!

By the way, writing game design documents is also a form of communication!  

 Role 3 - Testing & Tweaking

So, you got your experience set, and you asked the artist and programmer to implement it. The game is done, and so are you! Hahaha, no. Now comes the big part. The game designer should test the game on people, and tweak it according to their feedback. That's just a lot of work, and it takes up a lot of time. Especially towards the polishing-stage of the development process. You're going to test, tweak, test, tweak, test, throw away, test, tweak, etc. forever and ever. Tweaking can range from changing a few parameters to totally changing the way you approach the experience. You'll be set back to role 1, the crafting of the experience, often. Re-crafting, in this case. Also, note the "throw away" earlier. Sometimes, something is just plain off. We take it out, and try to fix the problem with something else. Don't be afraid to throw things away, it's a vital part of the process. This also encourages you to test soon and often, so you can change things earlier and easier.

It's also important to get the right people to test your game, and inviting people is part of the game designer's job as well. You have to think about the right audience, right game experience, and the right knowledge of your game. Sometimes, it's better to test the game multiple times on one person, and sometimes it's better to test it on new test subjects.  

Hopefully that wall of text was useful for you! Thanks for reading, and next time, we'll talk about favorable character traits for the game designer!

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