Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 April, 2016

What about the “idea guy”?

One popular topic when talking about game design is “the idea guy”. Some people think that’s what design is, while others say there’s no such thing. The complicated reality is, as it often is, somewhere between these two points.

Let me go into a bit of the mythology and reality of “the idea guy” in game design.

Note that I’m mostly talking about computer game design here. Other game design can work a bit different, especially in cases where the design team is a single person.

The popular conception

Ask the average person on the street what game design is, and you’ll probably hear some variation of “it’s the idea guy”. There’s a concept of a game designer as a person who comes along with lofty ideas that somehow magically get turned into a game. To be fair, this is hardly different than popular conceptions for most creative work, as the creative process seems mysterious to many people. The creative process for games is still particularly opaque to many people, even in this era of almost ubiquitous gaming on mobile devices.

Anyone who has worked in the game industry might get a chuckle out of this concept. Any designer who sits around simply throwing out ideas is either a designer who won’t last long, or a designer on a doomed project. Game design is a job, a creative job, but still a job. There’s a lot of work that goes into proper game design.

The reality

The role of a game designer is a bit more complicated, as I’ve written before. Game designers have a lot of roles to fill, especially on larger teams. While designers certainly truck in ideas, they need to document and communicate those ideas. Game designers do the work of creating a coherent framework for ideas and how they are expressed in a game.

Game design is still a rather loosely defined position in some teams. Originally, game designers were usually the programmers who made the hardware or software to make the game. The idea of a game designer came along later as games got more complex and required larger teams; these complex games and larger teams needed someone to keep “the vision” of a game, to do research for details of the game, and to create content. A game system designer has a different skillset from a level layout designer, although they both tend to get lumped into the same category.

So, current game design is a lot more than just ideas. Particularly in MMOs, you will have designers creating a lot of content for the game on an ongoing basis to keep the game interesting.

The supposed myth of the idea guy

I’ve seen developers write that there is no “idea guy”. They argue that coming up with ideas is a meaningless skill because everyone has ideas. And, game development is done by teams so an idea rarely belongs to any one person. There is some truth to this, but it’s not the entire truth.

At the end of the day, there is usually one person who gets to call the shots at a game company about what is made and what is not; sometimes that person comes up with the high level concepts as well. In these cases, that person is usually one of the senior managers or owners of the game studio. When the person who signs your paychecks says, “We’re working on this idea I had”, you take your orders from an “idea guy”.

There’s one other case where an “idea guy” exists: indie games. My friend Dave Toulouse developed a pretty good game, and at the end of the day it was his call on what to create. But, the core development team was one person, so he only had one person to boss around. :)

So, the “idea guy” does exist; but, only people in very specific situations get to claim that title. For the most part, game designers may contribute ideas, but they still have to do a lot of hard work to make a game a reality.


  1. I don’t agree that the notion of an “idea person” is a myth. I also don’t agree with the other way this belief is commonly formulated: “Ideas are a dime a dozen.” Both versions of this piss me off because there is the germ of a good point buried in an unnecessary denigration of human beings and fellow game developers.

    The good point is that ideas aren’t enough, you have to actually grind your way through turning ideas into a tangible product. OK, agreed. Who would disagree?

    Now what about the point, which I consider equally good, that just cranking out “product” with no interesting ideas behind it is either likely to fail because it’s boring or succeed as a soulless piece of over-marketed garbage? If that is also a good point, then why do otherwise intelligent people sniffily dismiss ideas — and the people who are good at having them — as without value?

    If hard work was all that mattered, every serious game developer would be rich. But they aren’t. Why not? Because ideas matter, because some ideas are better than others for a given goal, and because not everyone is equally good at having good ideas.

    Let’s say you (generic “you”) want to make a game. You have a rough concept, and you want some help fleshing that out into an initial design. You get resumes from two people.

    Pat has a great track record of actually getting games made, with experience in production and finance for several games in the same genre. Pat enjoys keeping track of details, and is particularly proud of having managed several effective pipeline processes.

    Chris has worked as a designer on a wide spectrum of games, both AAA and indie, of which maybe only a third were ever released. Chris occasionally loses track of the time due to chasing down some interesting new piece of knowledge from potentially any field: history, economics, geology, anthropology, medicine, politics, mathematics, psychology — you name it, and Chris enjoys and is good at learning about it and synthesizing that knowledge into playable systems.

    All other things being equal, I hire Chris, and so do you. I don’t believe that anyone who is taking this seriously would, could, honestly claim they’d hire Pat to help do game design.

    And that is because they know that Chris is an “idea person.” They know that Chris is likely to have more and better ideas than someone who is less interested personally and professionally in applying guided structural imagination. Chris gets the job because the work outputs of that kind of person are, in fact, worth considerably more than “a dime a dozen.”

    Importantly, please notice that highlighting the gifts and experiences that are particular to people like Chris is not in any way a denigration of the obviously useful interests and skills that people like Pat have. Again, all other things being equal, if I need to improve my game production I’ll unhesitatingly hire Pat instead of Chris because Pat has the innate preference for, and successful experience at, the branch of game design in which detail-tracking and process-management have value.

    So if not everyone is good at the same things, and not all design ideas are equal in value for a given concept, why in the world do some people feel they need to deny the Chrises of the game development world the same properly high regard for what they are especially good at?

    To be clear, I don’t think all of this applies to you, Brian. You did, after all, call it a “supposed” myth. ;) This is more of an outburst that’s been building up for a long time — your thoughts just gave me the push I needed to finally write it down. Thanks!

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 26 April, 2016 @ 8:29 AM

  2. Hey, Bart! No problem.

    The unwritten assumption here is that the “idea guy” only deals with ideas. This person isn’t someone who has built a careful career out of doing careful research and staying long hours. Instead, this is someone who thinks game design is, “It’s like World of Warcraft with the demons from DOOM. Have the programmers make that and send me my million dollar check.”

    The point is that the idea is the relatively easy part. Having a good idea is a bit harder. But, the real work in making the idea is when you develop it; seeing the vision through to the end, adjusting the design when something proves not to be feasible, and cutting parts off your cherished design when the realities of budget and schedule come crashing down. People who just come up with ideas? Not so useful, and not really something you’re going to do until you get very senior or sign the paychecks for the studio. Someone who can execute those ideas and deal with the realities of the vagaries of game development? They are a lot more useful to the success of the project.

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 April, 2016 @ 8:36 AM

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