23 April, 2016
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 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.