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Opinion: Why Your Game Studio Should Practice 'Shared Design'

In this Gamasutra opinion piece, Crystal Dynamics' Arnab Basu outlines how the Tomb Raider developers operate a shared game design department, explaining how he believes it can lead to greater efficiency and innovation at many game studios.

Arnab Basu

February 5, 2008

5 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, Crystal Dynamics' Arnab Basu outlines how the Tomb Raider developers operate a shared game design department, explaining how he believes it can lead to greater efficiency and innovation at many game studios.] With the game industry at a stage of significant maturation – stabilizing the process of game design implementation at a studio through detailed customization based on operating principles is of paramount importance. The concept of a shared game design department for a mid sized studio revolves around the central identity of providing cross-functional design services and incubation: operating like an ‘internal startup’ with reduced risks and steady returns. The department consists of a number of junior and senior designers who along with a producer and design director of the studio form the group. It was founded with the mission directive to provide a diversified set of important services: new concept development, focus feedback and fire fighting open design issues for the studio’s game production teams to name a few. The department serves the dual purpose of providing a training ground for junior design talent as they transition to working on game teams as well as a ramp up/off point for designers in between projects. The success of the department’s functioning lies in its ability to meet the multifarious design needs of the studio. At any given point, there are a number of active internal or external projects that designers from the group work with. These are collectively referred to as projects in development. Design resources refer to the mobilization of both information and talent. In addition, there are a number of design services like training, focus feedback and stunt design offered. The following figure illustrates the detailed categorization of the nature and scope of the department’s footprint.

The design department touches every game that comes out of Crystal Dynamics, most recently those for the Tomb Raider franchise. The shared design department interfaces in different capacities with game teams that are dedicated to shipping games. As it relates to new concept development, the department provides an umbrella for opportunities to scope innovative game design concepts; explore novel production methodologies and allows junior designers/interns to plug into such exciting ventures to gain hands-on experience. Design Resources The department serves as a valuable central hub for all game designers in the studio. The shared design department is a place where designers can access resources as well as get guidance in charting their short to long term career growth. Many rely on the circulation of general design publications and templates (game design specifications, pitches, concept docs, etc) that set standards as well as serve reference for documented processes. The department also provides a neutral ground to engage in designer updates and discussions through weekly meetings where senior designers across game teams get a chance to interact. This is valuable for collective discussion and objective analysis of design related challenges or issues. Design Services One of the core tenets of the shared design department in all its endeavors has been incubation – whether it falls in the realm of harnessing the potential of pure design talent or idea generation. The former is addressed by the design intern training program that runs year around where junior talent is recruited from a variety of sources – academic institutions, internal quality assurance departments and the employee referral program. Training Program Trainees are put through a fairly intensive curriculum that can be broadly categorized into 3 stages: awareness, action and application. They get a chance to understand Crystal Dynamics' own franchise-focused design methodologies. They learn how to author content using the proprietary game engine and scripting system. And most importantly, they develop a deeper and more practical understanding of the design process. The biggest advantage with this approach is the ability to maintain relatively reduced time pressure for the requirement of design talent ramp-up on teams developing games on tight production schedules. Stunt Design This is when a junior designer is assigned to a game team to assist with a specific design challenge for a certain amount of time. As an example, just recently there was a junior designer who came onto a team to help out with scripting and level design work. Within a period of two months, this designer was responsible for the entire scripting of a section of the executive demo the team was working on. While a significant amount of work takes place internally - designer training and concept development, there is an equally large amount of time spent interfacing externally with game teams and other shared departments like the creative services and shared technology groups. Pre-production assistance, brainstorming and need based ‘stunt design’ partnerships serve as good examples of such initiatives. Focus Feedback Towards the tail end of production on big-budget titles, the department engages its junior and senior design talent in assisting with the play-testing and focus feedback process. This not only gives the game teams a fresh perspective on the state of the product but also provides an extra set of hands to help in its final polishing. To be competitive in today’s gaming landscape, it is imperative for a company to set aside resources for research and development. This is not just for the exploration of new technology pipelines and latest art tools but also for identifying industry movement such as: latest design trends in games, platforms usage and distribution, scope of developing games with unique interaction mechanisms, etc. Efforts towards such initiatives get chased down by the shared design department. In next steps, the department hopes to continue with its turnaround of fresh talent as well as add skill sets and/or people to flesh out the group to build arsenal for its continual goal of enhancing studio-wide game design implementation. So why should your studio be in a Shared Design state of mind? Out of the different art forms that go into making a game – game design to this day still remains the most dynamic and free form of disciplines. Applying such a targeted and structured group of game designers to tackle varied challenges is imperative to a studio’s successful functioning. [Arnab Basu is an Associate Producer at Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Interactive. In the past, he has managed the studio's Shared Design department, and is currently working on an unannounced title. He completed a Master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University, prior to which he received a BS in computer science and engineering from Bangalore, India.]

About the Author(s)

Arnab Basu


Arnab Basu has just finished his Master's at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center. During his course he also interned with the Emmy's Foundation and MTV Networks. He currently works as Assistant Producer at Crystal Dynamics - an Eidos Interactive subsidary that makes the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider games.

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