Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

12 September, 2016

Should game developers be gamers?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:48 PM

It’s a common refrain. People grow older and they get busier. Between jobs, friends, kids, and other responsibilities, games sometimes get left by the wayside. People just don’t have the time to dedicate in order to sit down and immerse themselves in a game like they did before.

But, what happens when that busy person is a game developer? If you work in the game industry, does it make sense that you should be a gamer, too?

Let’s take a look at game development in each of the disciplines.

As a programmer or artist

Seems a bit strange to lump these together, but I think they’re related. Playing games is important as a programmer or artist because it lets you get a feel for the state of the art. Knowing how quick a UI needs to react, or the styles of art in current games is important. Having your finger on the pulse of the industry is important because that will let you anticipate the direction the market is moving

Of course, you can get a lot of this information from watching videos of gameplay and not necessarily playing the games yourself. In this way, “Let’s Play” videos have been a great boon to the busy game developer in addition to acting as publicity for their games. You can spot trends in programming techniques and art almost as easily from a video as from playing the game directly. Of course, playing a game lets you have finer control in order to test or really get a close look at some feature.

And, this is probably more important for leads than for your typical programmer or artist. It’s usually the leads who set the direction in terms of programming tasks or art style. So, the leads (in addition to probably being older and having more responsibilities and having to lead the team) are the ones who probably need this knowledge more. But, if you’re aspiring to a lead position, having this knowledge might be a good thing.

As a designer

As a designer, the need is a bit more pressing. Understanding other games in the genre are important for two reasons. First, there might be some clever solution to a design problem you’ll encounter. Why re-invent the wheel when someone else has a good solution? Second, because you’ll want to know how different you have to make your game to stand out from the others.

I think this is a standard qualifier for many creative fields, though. One common piece of advice for aspiring writes is to read, A LOT. Reading other books helps you figure out what is popular, what is commercially successful, and develops your craft as a writer. I think you can see a lot of the same benefits about playing games as a designer.

While “Let’s Play” videos can help here, you generally want to actually play a game to get a better feel for it. Being in the moment and making the decisions (and being able to analyze the decision-making process) helps to understand the game. Plus, you might want to play more obscure games (or make less popular decisions) when playing the game than someone doing a Let’s Play video. After all, that streamer is mostly looking to entertain people, not explore the nuances in a game.

So, as a designer, you probably do want to be an active gamer, even if you also have demands on your time as an adult.

As a business person

So, here’s where we get pretty solidly into the realm of opinion. I read a recent article on networking that brought up this topic. One of the types of people to avoid is the “super gamer”. And to be fair, avoiding the “developer wannabe” who thinks their biggest qualifier is they “play a lot of games” is usually less helpful than they think they in development work. The author relies on that bit I discussed at the beginning of this post, where someone who is busy won’t have time to be a super gamer. The author is a super-busy business person!

On one hand, business people don’t necessarily need to be deeply involved with the businesses they work with. Does the person running a paper factory have to have a strong passion for paper products? Does the person marketing dish soap have to live the dish soap life to be effective at marketing? Does the leader motivating people to design and sell widgets have to fill their life with widgets? In most situations, no. the basic principles of managing, marketing, and leading can be applied across many disciplines. Games aren’t necessarily some special flower.

On the other hand, despite being a major industry, games aren’t known for being a great way to accumulate wealth. As the joke goes, “the best way to end up with a small pile of money in the game industry is to start with a large pile of money.” If you’re a savvy businessperson, why would you work in games if you didn’t care about them? There are plenty of other industries where you could make better money with a lot less risk. As a creative person with a strong foundation in business, I’ve heard some real stories about people who aren’t into gaming but who run game businesses, and it usually ends poorly. The game industry is a strange place, and sometimes understanding that strangeness is important to success.

And the conclusion is…

If I had to summarize, I’d probably say “you don’t have to be a gamer, but it certainly helps”. Knowing the state of the art and the market as almost any discipline in the game industry is helpful, and being a gamer is one of the sure ways to get that information-first hand.

What do you think? If you’re a game developer, has being a gamer helped you? Or has not being a gamer hurt you? As a consumer, do you trust a gamer game developer more? Or does it not matter?


  1. Nicholas Meyer wasn’t a big sci-fi fan and had never watched Star Trek (TOS). Yet he wrote and directed two of finest spin-off movies. Therefore I think a lapsed or even a non-gamer is quite capable of developing a successful and engaging game.

    Comment by Roger Edwards — 13 September, 2016 @ 12:02 AM

  2. Hmm. There won’t be many professional writers who don’t read the works of other writers in their free time. It’s hard to imagine an engineer who doesn’t problem-solve out of work as much as he does when he’s being paid to do it. Actors go to the theater, musicians spend their evenings at concerts, travel agents go on holiday. I work in a bookshop – literally every person who who works there reads for pleasure, entertainment or to educate themselves. Most of them read to a degree that could be described as obsessive. Some of them spend the majority of the money they earn selling books to others on buying books for themselves.

    Assuming you think of game design as a vocation rather than just a job, as I would classify all of the above, why would a Game Designer be any different?

    On the other hand, I worked for a few years in various offices and people there did not go home and fill out insurance forms in the evening or populate spreadsheets for fun. So, I guess if you are the kind of Game Designer who sees it as just another office job, which arguably it is, then you might not want to spend any of your spare time doing it. You might well feel that if you were going to be playing games only as a form of career development someone ought to be paying you [to do it or at least it should be done only as a means of enhancing your future job prospects.

    I’d guess you get both kinds of Game Developer but I’d also guess you get a lot more of the vocational-verging-on-the-obsessive than you do the It’s-just-a-job types.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 13 September, 2016 @ 1:05 AM

  3. I just tried looking up the old game company whose motto was something like “for gamers, by gamers” and couldn’t find the company, but I remember how appealing it made the company seem…avid gamers making the sort of games they wanted to play themselves. Those guys understood, you’d think, what made games so much fun. ( The company actually did make great games).

    I also remember reading the forums of a certain Mmo and a terribly scathing charge leveled against a few of the developers was “they don’t even play the game”. How could these guys understand what the changes they made did to the life of the world and its game play if the never stepped into the world?

    I suppose games can be made according to certain rules and formulas, but the magic doesn’t happen there, does it?

    Comment by Atheren — 13 September, 2016 @ 6:12 AM

  4. I think the key quality is empathy with the people who will be playing your game. If you can’t figure out what they will like and not like, you will not be able to launch successful products. There’s more than one way to get that knowledge, but playing a lot of games and hanging out with gamers is one very good way.

    In a game company I used to work for, we had a management consultant brought in, who had lots of experience with retail management. Since our game was an LBE, it had a definite retail flavor to it, so that wasn’t stupid. But he made a couple of very dumb moves because he didn’t understand how existing customers would react to a change in the way the game worked. Which is to say, they hate having stuff taken away from them, even if that stuff doesn’t seem very popular.

    Or to put it another way, the people who want change are loud and visible, but the people who like things the way they are are quiet. He didn’t get that.

    Comment by Toldain — 14 September, 2016 @ 10:42 AM

  5. Yes, absolutely! Game Developers can be gamers. Unfortunately, they’re very busy developing, designing and whatnot that they don’t really have much time to play games. Playing different games will also give them some ideas to add to the game they are making.

    Comment by Mr. Designer — 28 October, 2016 @ 8:09 AM

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