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The "Game Designer Polymath" Myth

There's a difference between actually being a game designer, and the aspirational myth of the game designer as monk-artist-literature wunderkind. The former exists, but the latter is a figment of hope.

Over on the Escapist a few days ago, the good people on Extra Credits attempted to answer the question of what is needed to be a game designer. On an excellently produced video (see here) they explained that the game designer's role is communicative, systems-oriented and team-oriented. They enumerate the basics, such as:

  • Communication
  • Not a Director
  • Not Being a Concept Guy
  • Systemic Perspective
  • Open to Criticism
  • Analytic Skills
  • Cost Awareness
  • Technical Writing Skill
  • Logic Skills
  • Basic Psychology
  • Medium Understanding
  • Mathematics Skills

Then they get onto what they consider to be the more rounded traits of what a game designer is and needs to be, and their list turns a bit ambitious to the say the least. Such as:

  • Thorough knowledge of literature, philosophy and myth
  • Understanding of world religions
  • Basic scripting and programming
  • Understanding of art principles
  • Understanding of audio design and musical principles
  • Understanding of graphic design
  • Thorough library of games to reference
  • Life experience


The Game Design Polymath Myth

Basically, what they're doing is projecting a version of what they think a game designer should be. A lot of people in the industry, or rather a lot of designers and design theorists who write weighty tomes on the subject, are of the opinion that a great game designer is a noble multi-skilled monk-like figure who is enlightened on all topics but who also cedes all authority to the group mind, for the betterment of all.

No wonder that students and would-be designers end up asking the question "What Skills Do I Need?" a lot: The person that is being described in the video above and in many books does not really exist. 

The reality is that game design is not as hard as these people are making it out to be. You don't need to be informed on world literature or the principles of Dadaism in order to be able to sit down and make a racing game, and a lot of what is being described here are skills that - while nice to have - are as often as not describing intellectual achievements that they think make them look smart.

In the real world, when it gets right down to it, designers who waffle on about Cubism or rhythmic syncopy or Gaudi's Cathedral as an inspiration for their Diner Dash clone are actually just bores. They don't get any respect because they come across as aloof, pretentious and generally the sort of people who are far too wrapped up in the meta idea of what games are to actually sit down and do any day to day hard work.

Is that too much? 

I certainly don't want to be making an anti-intellectual argument (given that I am quite the aspiring intellectual myself) but rather to say that a lot of what is being bandied around here as essential skills as opposed to just the traits of some well-rounded human beings, are in fact not required to be a great game designer.

It's a myth. You do not need to have picked the special blue lotus flower and climbed up to the top of Mount Fuji, studied martial arts under the monks for 7 years and returned to the West in order to be a game designer.

What you do need to be able to do, on the other hand, is have an idea.


What You Actually Need

1. Imagination

You know that trope about "ideas are cheap but execution is everything"?

This is a phrase borrowed largely from the products and software industry, and what it means is effectively that anyone can come up with an idea for a simple product, but how it's executed really sets it apart. In product development this is true: Anyone can have an idea for a book light or a cup or a smartphone, and replicate others' ideas of same, but how that light, cup or phone are constructed matters greatly to the final appreciation of the product.

For games, it's total garbage. And damaging garbage at that. Ideas do have different levels of quality, and the passion that makes a great game team click starts from the place of trying to have great ideas. 

The reason is that games are not a product. While the industry certainly may talk about selling product, games are a creative entertainment industry. The actual game itself is not a product. It is instead an object of entertainment, and entertainment that tries to do what product developers do - which is copy everything and execute better - usually end up creating damp squibs. All games, even the bad ones, represent the creative effort of some people to try and make a bespoke, non-replicable things. 

That's what makes games an art.

The idea behind a game matters enormously because it's the single biggest thing that carries the game to the public. The strength of an idea, whether immediately recognisable or out of the ballpark, is what gets mainstream, early adopter, casual and hardcore players to pay attention (but not all at once to everything - that's basically impossible). Without that initial magical seed that perks interest in a sea of well-executed clones, your game will probably sink without trace.

So you need an imagination. A really good imagination. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Exposure to other sources, as the Extra Credits guys described, is a bonus in this. It's good to know about more than the boundaries of World of Warcraft if you fancy being able to have a thought in your head that isn't World of Warcraft, but it's not necessarily so. Some people are just genuinely more imaginative than others.

Being able to accept criticism is also vital.


2. Coherence

You also need to be able to express what's in your imagination coherently. You need to be able to visualise not just scenes and scenarios, but underlying rules. A grasp of game mechanics is really critical, but more importantly what you need to be able to do is frame an idea in such a way as can be broken down into production parts.

That means being able to separate out:

  • Player actions
  • Game world rules
  • Physical constraints
  • People concerns
  • UX problems

And so on into discrete parts so that each can be individually examined, but at the same time with an eye on whether each of those segments continues to interrelate. Coherence is not just a systems-level understanding, it is also a contextual-level understanding, and it takes a lot of skill to hold all that understanding in one place and stay sane.


3. Leadership Skills

The Extra Credit guys describe that a game designer is not a director in the movie sense. This is true. Instead they paint an image of a designer as a contributor and convincer, someone who's good at getting different aspects of the team on side so that they are enabled to do the work. This is false.

A designer who does this sacrifices their power to other team members in the process. What that designer is trying to do is sell the team on the vision, so that the team is convinced and can start to bring the vision forth as a group. You actually don't need to do this, and it never works.

What happens is that everyone else starts to chip in their ideas, believing that since the designer is acting weakly and trying to bargain them into doing work, that they have equal creative stake. For small groups that is often exactly appropriate, but for large teams it's a recipe for disaster. 

What you need to be able to is lead the charge. That means selling yourself to the team that you know how the thing is supposed to fit together and fly, and so what you need the rest of the team to do is work on their individual parts.

In short, they have to believe in you and be willing to follow you into the inevitable muck that development will become on the promise that you will all emerge shining on the other side. A leader is able to take a vision and inspire the people around them to do great things by making them believe that their contribution is vital. 

Rather than sell the entire team on the entire vision and effectively end up submitting to creativity by committee, the skill you need is to make the programming team feel that the programming is vital, the art team likewise, and showing each part of the team that you empathise with their personal struggles (even if, in reality, you think they're just whining to be heard).

You need to be able to stand your ground when an arrogant producer or a dickish programmer are complaining. You need to be able to tell people that they are wrong to their faces sometimes, or to be diplomatic yet insistent. Leaders are not appointed nor do they issue directorial demands. Instead what they do is inspire trust. That's the skill you need. 

This comes with a word of warning though: In some studio environments, being the guy who's the leader taking the hits and telling people that they are wrong can result in getting fired. Blame is an easy game that all to many environments play rather than acknowledging that there are some serious flaws in the team or the game itself. 

But you know what, if you get fired from a studio for being the leader and taking the risk, chances are that that studio was a toxic environment anyway and you're better off going elsewhere.


4. Technical Awareness

In most studios a designer really does need to know some technical skills. In smaller studios especially, tasks like scripting are very much a part of what you need to be able to do because with the best will in the world, there isn't often enough consistent work 

A designer does not need to be a programmer, although being a programmer or at least having some rudimentary past with programming is often key to getting programmers to trust you. Programmers in particular are vital toward making a great game work well, but they are an inherently suspicious bunch - especially of a designer who knows board games and movies but has no technical awareness.

Technical Awareness means you are able to perceive the sorts of problems that a game concept is likely to run into, even if you're not exactly sure how they might arise or might be solved. If you can speak with at least some sense of acknowledgement of those kinds of problems then most programmers will want to work with you (as a lot of people working in production have no such awareness).


5. An Eye for Elegance

You need to be able to think in a class->object fashion. The number of people who cannot do this is huge, but in many ways it is the core of all game design.

Designers who cannot think in this way almost invariably end up coming up with game concepts that are like Homer Simpson's $80,000 car. Such designs are basically cobbled together from various parts and lack any sort of elegance. They are inefficient, will result in a game made of various mini-gamish-ideas which feel like much less than the sum of their parts, and balloon the scope of the project massively.

An eye for elegance is what separates idea guys from real designers. A game like the first Left 4 Dead is stunning not just because of any one individual part, but because the mesh of the game world rules, weapon choices, perspective and level design produces endless robust emergent results. It's terrific game design, possibly the best example that I have seen in the last 5 years.

On the other hand many roleplaying games are very poorly designed, with redundant systems, half-thought-out mechanics, easy exploits and brittle scenarios that offer few in the way of really emergent results. 

Elegance is hard to define, but it starts from thinking in terms of stuff like player actions that are widely applicable, reduction of needed numbers to bare minimums, reduction of individual game objects and instead asking does each have distinct and meaningful function, and so on. 


6. An Ear for People

Hand in hand with elegance is empathy. You really do need to be able to understand how players see and play with games, otherwise what you'll end up making is games that you and your team think are awesome, but the folks out there just won't get. A lot of indie games and gone-to-seed studios basically lose touch with this facet of design and instead become introverted, making the project that they want for themselves and forgetting that other people are supposed to see this thing they've made too. 

Focus groups help with this a bit, but really I think it's the experience that comes from talking and listening. You need to develop a nose for what players in the real world just won't get, what they'll think is cool, what was cool but is now old news, and what might be an evergreen idea. 

This ear for people should be the single biggest determinant in your deciding that ideas aren't working by the way. Not your own inkling, not the team's and not the marketing guy's. All those people will have opinions, but it's always best to get your head "out the building" and take the temperature of what the real world thinks. Even if you can't reveal what it is you are directly working on, there are ways (for example, looking at similar ideas in other games, see did they work there ) that should give you a clue.


7. Self Esteem

Lastly, you need self esteem. A lot of people will rag on you and tell you that they don't know what a game designer actually does. Don't let that get to you: Those people are just envious of your contribution.


Those, to me, are the foundations of a productive game designer. Nobody will have all those traits equally, and that's fine. Game making is a more human than factory activity anyway and sometimes it's an artist who is the leader or a tester who has the ear for people or the programmer who has the ability to design a game mechanic. All those things are fine.

Ultimately what you need as a game designer is the right group of people to work within. And they need that from you too.

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