The Game Designer’s Many Roles

March 19, 2015

Being a game designer is not only about coming up with cool ideas, far from it. The truth is, being a good game designer requires talents and skills that you may not have thought are necessary for the process. In fact, maybe more than any other role in game development, the game designer must wear many different hats if the result is to be a fun, enjoyable game.

Although these can differ from project to project, below are a few “roles” any game designer should feel comfortable taking on while making a game. Since you will be the one envisioning how the game will work and play, it’s your responsibility to ensure that the team creates that awesome idea in that is floating around your mind; something many gamers will hopefully love.

Game Designer = Player Advocate

One of the most important things a game designer must do throughout the development process is see the game through the eyes of a player.

A fatal mistake many designers make is getting caught up with other concerns of production. Does X look good enough? Will we have enough money to hire someone for Y? What if we can’t get our engine to get Z to work?

Your time is much better spent focusing on the player experience, so when someone finally gets their hands on your game, they won’t be able to put it down.

As an advocate for the player you must be the one to detach yourself from your (and others’) work so that you can continue asking yourself the most important question of all: will players find this fun?

Game Designer = In-house Playtester

A playtester is, of course, someone who plays a game with the intention of providing feedback on their experience, all while notifying the team of bugs, glitches, etc.

Playtesting is absolutely crucial because it lets you see how someone with a fresh perspective receives your game, providing valuable information for the team to consider. Even if your team happens to have dedicated playtesters, as a game designer you should be doing a lot of playtesting yourself.

Take advantage of this time by noting what you’re doing and feeling as you play the game yourself, even if the information you get out of this may not be as valuable as what you receive from a fresh tester. At the very least, you’ll have a better understanding of any issues that come up among outside testers that perhaps you ran into yourself but weren’t exactly sure what to think just yet.

Game Designer = Idea Communicator

Another essential skill no game designer can go without is the ability to communicate ideas clearly to other people. More than just telling others about a new idea, you must become effective at “selling” those ideas in order to convince others that it’s a good one. From fellow teammates, management, and even possibly investors, you’ll have plenty of people to convince that what you want to do is worth the time, effort, and risk.

The best way to be a good communicator is to improve your language skills. This way, you’ll have a better chance of gaining support from others by delivering a clear vision every time and presenting it well.

Of course, none of this is possible if you’re not a good listener as well. Be open to what other team members and playtesters have to say so you don’t miss a good idea just because you didn’t come up with it yourself.

Game Designer = Team Mediator

It’s not surprising to hear that most players are experiencing the most pleasurable and/or relaxing moment of their day while playing games. After all, as a game developer, it is your responsibility to make sure the public is spending hard-earned cash on something that will bring them high levels of joy and entertainment. But the truth is, game production is far from a smooth and relaxing process.

Instead, making a game can be one of the most stressful collaborative processes imaginable. Sometimes even more so than movies, television, and other forms of entertainment, game development requires a team of people that all come from diverse talents.

We’re talking programmers, concept artists, 3D animators, creative writers, executives, and more, all having their own individual personalities, goals, and ideas.

As a game designer you’ll be interacting with pretty much all of these people. You may become the bridge between people who aren’t always on the same page, such as programmers and artists. Serving as a mediator, it will be your responsibility to make sure that every group is working on the same game and towards the same end goal.

Game Designer = A Decision-Maker

If there’s one thing you should know about being a game designer, it’s that you’ll often find yourself under immense pressure.

Problems will arise throughout development that require you to make important changes to the game. Your goal as a decision-maker is to deal with these issues without causing new, perhaps even worse, issues.

Perhaps the biggest reason a game ends up feeling unbalanced, or lacking in certain areas, is because a poor decision was made when trying to solve a problem. As more issues pops up, more desperate changes are made until the game ends up a mess. Simply put, this is why games that appear to have all the potential in the world end up becoming something completely different than what was promised.

Knowing that games are complex and delicate systems, a game designer must do their best to separate the good ideas from the bad ones in order to avoid mudding up the production process. You must keep the team focused so they avoid the obstacles that come from bad.

Game Designer = Source of Inspiration

It’s usually toward the beginning of a project that a feeling of eagerness thrives across the entire team. After all, there’s nothing more exciting than starting something new, especially if everyone knows that there is a lot of potential.

However, as days turn to weeks and a host of challenges start to emerge, it’s easy to lose that initial enthusiasm that was once so prevalent among teammates. More often than not, a game that lacks creativity and uniqueness is usually the result of a burned-out team that lost their motivation long before the game was completed.

As one of the few people in the team that will work intimately with almost every department, it’s your job to keep them all inspired every step of the way. While keeping the programmers excited by sharing awesome art that’s being produced, you’ll also energize those same artists by talking about the cool mechanics that were just coded into the game.

The foundation for a fun game is a passionate team, and you can’t have a passionate team without a designer who sounds genuinely excited even when facing one of the many challenges that come with the production process.

Game Designer = Documenter

Just about every game released, on both physical and digital stores, had some form of design document. While most documents are started before a game even begins production and then get edited along the way, some projects don’t see a document created until well into development.

Although there’s no set way to write a game design document, you can rest assured that their existence has helped the creation of some of your favorite games go much smoother.

The game designer is usually the one adding most, if not all, the content into a game design doc with one purpose in mind: to clearly tell other people in the team everything they need to know to create your game. It is essentially a recipe which any group of game developers should be able follow in order to make a fully-functioning game.

When you find yourself in this process, keep in mind who your audience is. The game design document is not for potential players or gamers, but for your programmers, 3D animators, and the rest, so do your best to avoid “back-of-the-box” quotes when describing important gameplay elements and mechanics.

Game Designer = Fountain of Creativity

Without creativity, a designer cannot make a great game. Perhaps you’ll be able to pull off a decent, or even good, experience simply taking other ideas and perfecting them, but you can only get so far in this industry with little imagination and originality.

More than intelligence and passion, it is creativity that has driven legendary designers like Shigeru Miyamoto to continuously help create games that we now consider masterpieces. From Super Mario Bros. in 1985 and Ocarina of Time ten years later, to the new Star Fox for Wii U launching in 2015, Miyamoto has proven that creativity will always be a designer’s greatest tool.

As a game designer, you’ll be expected by the team to be the one who solves problems with good, imaginative ideas that no one else could think of.

If this sounds daunting, perhaps you should figure out where most of your creativity will come from. Miyamoto has often spoken of looking at his childhood and hobbies when coming up with game ideas, while Sims creator Will Wright taps into his fantasies and dreams.

No matter where you look to find your own creative inspiration, know that being a game designer is more than coming up with good ideas, it is about fitting that idea into the game in a fun and interesting way.