Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 January, 2007

What is a game designer?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 8:23 PM

On the current project I’m contracted to (sorry, no info, I’m under NDA), I’ve been given the opportunity to train a new designer in the ways of MMO design. It’s a big responsibility given that I will now have control of this person’s future. But, I’ve been thinking more about the nature of design and recording my philosophies, ideas, and methods down to be useful.

The nice thing about this arrangement is that I’m contracted, so I own the material I’ll be teaching this new designer. So, you might notice a new category “Design Lessons”. Yep, I’ll be writing more about MMO design and my take on things as I develop the lessons for this new designer.

So, let’s start with the first entry: What is a game designer?

A Communicator

The primary job of a designer is communication. This means you need to get used to doing a lot of writing, meeting, and explaining. Your ideas are actually secondary to the main focus of explaining those ideas. A designer with mediocre ideas and great communication skills is better than a designer with super ideas and no communication skills in a project of more than one person. Given this focus on communication, it should come as little surprise that people who design tend to write a lot and have blogs.

Why is communication so important? If the designer cannot communicate those ideas, then the ideas are stuck in his or her head. Other people working on the project need a guide for how to implement the project, which is the purpose of the game design document. Without this central focus, the project is hard to hold together. And, the implementors will have their own issues to worry about: the designer should be able to communicate details that the implementors do not think about. If the designer provides inadequate documentation and then gets angry when the final result is not what he intended, it’s not good for anyone involved.

Not Really the Idea Person

So, what about ideas? Most aspiring game designers are disappointed to learn that they don’t get to be the “idea person” on a project. In fact, most of the sweeping ideas are already established by the time you will be brought onto the project. A game project is usually developed by someone (maybe a senior designer), approved by executives (sometimes approving his or her own flawed idea), fleshed out in high level meetings, then passed down from the lead designer to you, the new designer. Note that you will still have a chance to be creative, but you won’t necessarily be suggesting sweeping changes and directly choosing which games will be made and which will not. Most of the time you will be working on a smaller portion of the whole project. This is still an interesting job, however, and you should take the opportunity to learn as much as you can without interrupting others too much.

Also note that most new designers are going to be working on the “second tier” type games. These games include ports, sequels, and other games that aren’t going to be as interesting to work on as the hot new high-profile brand. But, you have to start somewhere. As you gain experience and work into higher positions, you will generally be able to work on higher profile games and get more creative freedom, but will not necessarily call the creative shots. Even though I am “lead designer” on the current project, many of the details about the core gameplay were already decided on the project for various reasons (even though it’s not really a “second tier” type game). So, what do I do if I am not the “idea guy”?

An Organizer

My main responsibilies as a lead designer, after the ones related to communication, are related to organization. I organize the different thoughts that everyone has come up with prior to starting on the project. I have to consider how these different systems work together and organize them into a series of documents. I have to evaluate all the ideas and offer feedback based on my experience, particularly the parts dealing with online-specific aspects. I also have to organize documents for the Creative Director, Executive Producer, and other Designers to review and work on. After all this organization, I still have to work on the details of some of the documents themselves. Eventually these design documents will be handed to the implementors to make early versions and prototypes of the game.

This is an important aspect of my job because it is my responsibility to provide feedback on the systems provided, especially how the different systems work together. There may be the design for a general advancement system in place in addition to a general quest system, but it is up to me to point out that some concept prevents them from working together, or that the advancement system expects players to gain X experience per hour, but that the quest system states it will provide Y per hour. Good organization skills are what make this possible.

A Researcher

When it comes to the creative part of my job, I have to evaluate and flesh out ideas already presented. If the game contains RPG-style combat, for example, I need to evaluate the core ideas for viability. If the core ideas are not possible, I have to bring up these issues to the executives above me and perhaps even suggest a way to alter the idea to make it possible. Once the idea has been evaluated, I need to fill in details. How do you do this? Research!

One of the most useful skills a designer can have is knowing how to find information. In this day and age, that means knowing how to use Google and Wikipedia, but don’t be afraid to go to the old-fashioned physical library in your town as well. It also means having an extensive knowledge of other games in the field and that means playing lots of games! In the case of the RPG-style combat example above, you should play major games in the genre, as well as a few offbeat ones. Having a grasp on related genres can help as well because it can give you inspiration. Just be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to copy existing systems wholesale unless you are making a sequel to a well-liked game. :) However, you will soon learn that creating a new system out of nothing is not an easy task, and will increase the amount of work you have to do because you have to include things like detailed tutorials in the game.

If you don’t enjoy reading pages and pages information, synthesizing data to present to other people, and playing games, do not become a designer.

A Jack-of-all-trades

Okay, so now we know in general what a designer should do, what does a designer do on a day to day basis? Well, this is harder to define because it depends on many factors, including the project, the designer, and the organization. Unfortunately, the industry really doesn’t have standardized titles. Sometimes you get unusual titles as well. Damion Schubert is currently a “Lead Combat Designer” over at Bioware Austin; this is a very non-standard title. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if Damion does a lot of other work besides just designing the combat system given his diverse experience.

In general, a designer is a jack-of-all-trades. In addition to communicating design and developing ideas, a designer usually has some other skill to contribute when the need for updating documentation is reduced near the project. One of the most common skills for a designer is level layout. A designer with an art background might be assigned to develop the user interface, or work closely with the Art Lead to develop color schemes. Designers with a mind for programming might dig into the scripting system and help implementation in that way. However, a truly great designer should have at least a working knowledge of every aspect of game development. Even if the designer can’t draw detailed pictures or make a 3D model, knowing how these tasks are done can help them communicate their ideas. Many designers also come form the QA department; this can be very beneficial if the individual had exposure to multiple elements of the game. And, knowing how to write test plans can help make sure that a design can be adequately tested.

In addition, knowing the different areas of game development helps keep the project possible. I’ve heard numerous stories about designers with no programming ability making designs that cannot possibly be implemented within a reasonable amount of time. Aspiring designers should get involved in multiple aspects of game development in order to make sure their designs are actually possible.

I recommend going through some of the resources listed on my Breaking into games page. There are some great pieces by other people that have been in the industry longer than I have.

What makes an online game designer?

Since I’m an online game developer, I figure it would be good to talk a bit more about what it takes to do MMO design.

The reality is that design for online RPGs is quite a bit different than in traditional single-player games. For one thing, single-player RPGs are pretty uncommon these days, so not many people on the single-player side of things have experience with this type of gameplay. The closest things you’ll find are hybrids like the Neverwinter Nights games.

The most important difference is, of course, the “massively multiplayer” aspect. Building a game for a few hundred or a few thousand simultaneous players is different than building a LAN game for a dozen or so players. You also have the service aspect to consider: customer service is a vital part of these games, and you have know now how your design will affect the job of the customer service representatives, community managers, etc. The multiplayer nature of the game also means that the tolerance for bugs and exploits is much lower. An infinite gold exploit in a single-player game is bad, but in an online RPG it’s a horrific tragedy because it can harm the experience of every other player in the game.

Another aspect that is becoming more important is logging and data mining. Being able to extract useful information from player behaviors and activities is important and becoming a vital competitive advantage. An online game designer needs to know more about statistics and data mining than the single player equivalent.

Finally, I highly recommend reading over Brandon Reinhart’s excellent The Elements of a System Design Doc, which covers what is required in a design document for an online game system. The one part I’ll disagree with is “Don’t dig around beneath the hood.” If you have technical ability, you should feel free to suggest a technical implementation. It think it’s equivalent to suggesting a UI layout in the design. Just keep in mind that in these cases you are offering suggestions, not establishing law. The artists or programmers may decide on a different implementation strategy that fits better with the development realities they’ve encountered. However, offering suggestions about how systems could work together on a tech level can be helpful in communicating your idea. At least, that’s my experience.

So, there’s an introduction on being a designer. Questions and comments are always welcomed. :)


  1. Most excellent summary. I have a quite a few questions on this.

    How much of a “cultural researcher” do you think a good games designer should be? I’d think that the designer, who ultimately has some say over the content (or *the* say?), should be very aware of other games, other media, history, and other types of art and design. How much gameplaying do you think a good designer should be doing (ie. working to keep abreast of the latest titles in a genre)?

    I also think that there is a disconnect in the official definition of the role of a designer. It seems to change from company to company and game to game. Do you support a rigid classification (or sub-classification) of the position? What are your thoughts on technical games design versus subjective design?

    Comment by covert.c. — 19 January, 2007 @ 10:43 PM

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    [...] Psychochild on the other hand hasn’t posted any videos to Youtube making all of us look bad, but he still tells me how to do my job too! The primary job of a designer is communication. This means you need to get used to doing a lot of writing, meeting, and explaining. Your ideas are actually secondary to the main focus of explaining those ideas. A designer with mediocre ideas and great communication skills is better than a designer with super ideas and no communication skills in a project of more than one person. Given this focus on communication, it should come as little surprise that people who design tend to write a lot and have blogs. [...]

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  3. covert.c wrote:
    How much of a “cultural researcher” do you think a good games designer should be?

    I feel that a good designer should spend as much time as possible understanding games. Note that this doesn’t include only modern games, or even just video games. The best designers I know have been long-time players and enjoy other types of games, notably board games or even paper RPGs. The specific answer depends on the person and the genre. As I have written before, it’s really hard for an online RPG developer to keep abreast of all the different types of games, especially games from other territories like Korea. But, taking some time to play major games is still important, even if there’s likely no way one person could keep abreast of all the developments in the industry.

    One of the reasons why I support game emulation, despite my support of (most) intellectual property laws is because it allows people to play games they couldn’t otherwise. However, when I get the opportunity to buy collections of “classic” games, I usually do so. I think one of the greatest shames of our industry is that some of the early online games are lost to the ages. The original AOL Neverwinter Nights will likely never be enjoyed unless someone quickly writes an emulation from memory. Even then, it might not be exactly the same. Or, perhaps the source code is floating around somewhere and will be released in the future. But, it’s a shame because I never got to play a game that many people spoke so fondly about.

    I also think that there is a disconnect in the official definition of the role of a designer.

    Yes, in a way. I think more specific titles, as Damion’s that I point out above, are potentially helpful. But, this could be a mark against you in the future. Would having the title of “Lead Combat Designer” lock you into only designing combat systems in the future?

    As far as the industry goes, I think there’s more confusion over other titles. Most people know what a Programmer, Artist, or Designer does. But, what’s the difference between a Senior Designer and a Lead Designer? It really depends on the company (and it is the same thing with any senior and lead positions). If you want real confusion, try keeping track of what a Producer and Director do at various companies. Or, try to figure out what an “Assistant Producer” does that’s related to a “Producer” job at most companies; the Producer may keep track of the budget and schedule, but assigns the AssProds to handle day-to-day harassment, er, I mean, encouragement of the developers.

    This article was mostly intended to be a primer for people wanting to get into design. As I said, I’m going to have to train someone soon, and I want to set up some basics. My contract just allows me to share the information with the public. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 January, 2007 @ 3:04 AM

  4. Cool. There’s not a lot of resources online that I’ve found specific to doing MMO design, from an introductory perspective. So it’s interesting to read this stuff and compare it to traditional game design.

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 20 January, 2007 @ 4:32 PM

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  8. I appreciate you posting this, it helped with my rather unique question- “What can I NOT do when considered a ‘designer’?”. I enjoy being a jack of all trades, helping out where needed or asked and was worried my functions on a project would be strictly related to my ‘title’. Thank you!

    Comment by Michael — 25 September, 2007 @ 10:07 PM

  9. I’ve seen, in at least one job posting for a game designer, that the company is looking for someone with the ability to implement gameplay changes via a scripting system. Could you perhaps elaborate on that aspect of the job, or is that something you do?

    In the particular job posting I’m referencing, they say they give “gold stars” to those who have familiarity with Lua – but is there a sort of “industry standard” scripting system that would be good to learn for someone looking to break into the industry? Does Actionscript count?

    Comment by Andrew — 15 June, 2009 @ 3:13 PM

  10. Andrew,

    Unfortunately, there is no “industry standard” so to speak. That’s one reason why a “game designer” position means a lot of different things and cover a lot of areas.

    Scripting is a funny thing, too, because it treads close to the programming department. Some programmers believe designers should not do scripting. Given that I do both programming and design, I’ve respectfully disagreed. But, a designer should understand the different parts of design and focus on the parts they are good at. For example, I don’t have a lot of experience with level layout, so I’m not going to be able to whip out levels as well as someone else who has had a lot of experience and training. I understand elements of level design on a formal level, though. However, my scripting will probably be a notch above the work of designers who do not have a degree in Computer Science.

    Looking at your portfolio, Andrew, it seems you’ve focused more on the visual elements. Your strength is probably more along the lines of level layout. If you are interested in scripting, I would recommend learning at least one scripting language to see if you do have an aptitude. Lua or Python are two of the more common options, so taking time to learn those is probably a good thing. Actionscript isn’t used much for game coding, beyond Flash games of course, but if you are comfortable with Actionscript, then you should definitely see how you fare in another scripting language. The important part is to learn good coding discipline since your work on a commercial project is going to be used by others.

    All designers have to be able to write; as I said, the primary job of a designer is communication. After that, your strengths will determine what you do to help the project along. Knowing more skills is good, and when you’re looking for your first job you will not be able to be too choosy. But, eventually you will probably settle into a skillset that you know and enjoy most. For me, that’s writing and scripting, but it could be different for you.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 June, 2009 @ 4:30 PM

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