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Game development companies often begin life as small groups of people, usually friends, who enjoy working together. Many times, especially in the beginning of a company’s existence, the exact job descriptions may not be clear. “Everybody does everything” is a common comment at small, startup game companies. But as the team grows larger, budgets grow bigger, and projects grow more and more complex, even the best of friends have to determine who is responsible for what—and when.
Most established game developers clearly delineate job descriptions for every member of their team. This doesn’t mean that individuals don’t work together closely—they just sometimes ignore the exact lines of their formal job descriptions. It does mean that each individual has a specific focus, however, and a set of skills that makes him the best person to be ultimately responsible for certain aspects of the project.
Let’s look at each of these types of individuals closely, beginning with the game designer, since our primary goal is to understand how the game designer fits into the structure of the team, and interacts with all of these other individuals.
As we’ve already discussed, the game designer is responsible for the play experience. From conception through to completion, it’s the designer’s job to ensure that the gameplay works at all levels. Because gameplay is so intricately linked with how that play is programmed, visualized, and supported by music, voice-over, etc., the game designer must collaborate closely with just about every other team member.
Since you’ve had experience designing your own games by now, you know the designer’s primary responsibilities. To review, they are:
Playtests and revises prototypes
Writes concept and design documents and updates throughout production
Communicates vision for the game to the team
Creates levels for the game (or works with level designers; see page 333)
Acts as advocate for the player
Not all companies have dedicated game designers. This role is sometimes undertaken by programmers, artists, executives, or producers. Depending on the scope of the project and the skill of the individual taking on multiple roles, this practice can sometimes have a detrimental effect on the design process.
For example, a game designer who is also the programmer of a game may not be objective about the success of a crucial feature of gameplay, simply because the feature took them several weeks, or even months, to code. If the roles are divided, the game designer can approach playtests and feedback with a more objective mindset.
This conflict of interest is true of game designers who also play the part of producers, artists, or executives. It is seen most clearly when the role of game designer is combined with that of the producer. Because the producer is ultimately responsible for the schedule and budget of the project, there is a natural conflict with their role as designer. How can a single person advocate expenditures of time and money to ensure the best gameplay possible, while on the other hand forcing himself and the team to stick to a strict bottom line?
As a solution to this problem, at some companies, like Electronic Arts Canada, the producer does act as the game designer, but many of the producer’s traditional responsibilities are handled by another individual, called the development director.
In the end, exact titles aren’t as important as job descriptions. What matters most is that on every game there is someone who is able to focus specifically on the workings of the game play, without the distraction of too many other responsibilities. We call this person the game designer.
To take on this responsibility, especially on games as complex as those being made today, is a full-time job, and the industry has begun to move towards a system where dedicated game designers can concentrate on the gameplay and the player experience without being burdened by budgeting, scheduling, resource allocation, and other production duties.
Father to Rachel and Christopher
Project list (five to eight top projects)
Too many to list, but…
John Madden Football (the original)
NHL Hockey (the original)
Chuck Yeager’s Flight Trainer
Jurassic Park II: The Lost World
American McGee’s Alice
Racing Destruction Set
Ferrari Formula One
Tiger Woods Golf
How did you get into the game industry?
I had a friend, David Gardner, who used to work at the computer store I haunted. He told me about going to EA and the fact that Tim Mott worked there. I knew about Tim from his Xerox Parc/Bravo days and knew it beat business applications in Fortran, which is what I was learning in school. I started out copying discs, making cables, and making Apple IIs and IBM PCs work. Then EA figured out I could do some other things.
What are your five favorite games and why?
Chess: Just the most perfect game ever invented, true mental warfare.
Hold ’em poker: The best game of chance ever invented.
• Quake III: For what it became after the public got a hold of it.
Quake: For the work that American and John did to redefine what a shooter could be.
M.U.L.E.: The best multiplayer game for computers. As close as computers have to a classic like Monopoly.
Indianapolis 500: The first real driving simulation that was also fun.
What games have inspired you the most as a designer and why?
F15 Strike Fighter: Sid Meier shaped more of my views as a designer than anyone else.
TV Sports Football: Got half of the idea right. Madden, the game series, put the rest of the game with the presentation.
Nintendo Golf: This might actually be Miyamoto’s greatest game. Look at how much fun it still is today on 8-bit hardware. Then, you try and make a game that is still fun after almost 20 years.
Pole Position: The first great racing game.
What are you most proud of in your career?
That sports and simulations are no longer the backwaters of interactive entertainment. When I started producing and designing, D&D games where about half the market.
What words of advice would you give to an aspiring designer today?
Get as broad a background in the liberal arts as you can. The technology will change enormously in your lifetime, but people won’t.
The simplest definition of a producer for the developer’s team is that she is the project leader. The producer is the person who is responsible for the delivery of the game to the publisher as promised. In order to make this delivery, the producer must create a plan for that delivery, including a schedule, budget, and resource allocation.
In most productions, there’s a producer on the publisher’s team as well as one on the developer team. These two, in a good working structure, serve collectively as the “single point of contact” for important decisions regarding the production that have to pass between the publisher and developer. By making this single point of contact the main conduit of information between the two teams, the producers can work together to make sure both teams are acting on the same assumptions and that important decisions are communicated to the right people on each team as they are made.
In brief, the responsibilities of the producer for the developer are:
Team leader for developer’s team
Main communication link between developer and publisher
Responsible for schedule and budget for the production from the developer side
Responsible for tracking and allocating resources, as well as forecasting
Manage developer team to make sure deliverables are completed on time
Motivate team and solve production related problems
Meeting the delivery schedule usually involves making some tough decisions during the course of the production; some of the producer’s many responsibilities may include hiring or firing employees, as well as saying no to excessive resource or spending requests. But ultimately, being a producer can be an extremely rewarding role. Producers interact with the contacts on the publisher’s team more than the other team members. They may also be asked to represent the team in public, at conferences or in the press. The office of the producer often serves as a “United Nations” for the production team—the place where everyone comes to air their grievances and concerns and, hopefully, to resolve them.
There may also be an executive producer on each team whose job it is to oversee multiple productions or sometimes an entire development group. Additionally, there may be assistant producers and associate producers on each team whose job it is to support the producers. Most producers start out as assistant producers and associate producers, then work their way up the ladder to producer, senior producer, and eventually executive producer.
As a game designer, you must work hand-inhand with the producer. This means sitting down together at the start of any production and going over the design document in detail. It’s your job to make certain that the producer crafts a realistic schedule and budget and the producer can’t do this without a clear understanding of the game you plan to make. If you don’t clearly explain the entire scope and vision of the project, the producer will wind up using canned numbers or rough estimates, and both the schedule and budget for your game will be inaccurate, potentially insufficient, and the cause of a lot of unnecessary anxiety.
This means that to be a really efficient game designer, you need to understand the ins and outs of scheduling and budgeting almost as well as the producer. You don’t have to create these documents, or be responsible for tracking them, but you should review them carefully and understand each line item. Make sure they match your vision of the project and articulate any issues you see as early as possible in the process.
The producer and the game designer must work in concert; otherwise the production team will receive mixed messages. Nothing is more destructive to a team than an atmosphere in which these two critical individuals are working against each other. An understanding of the importance of each role, and a respect for the pressures and constraints placed on each individual can make for a productive and successful team environment, and provide the foundation for the production of the best game possible.
We use the term “programmers” as a catchall to refer to everyone involved in technically implementing the game. This includes high- and low- level coders, network and systems engineers, database programmers, computer hardware support, etc. Programmers are also referred to as engineers and software developers at some companies. Advanced positions in this track are senior programmer, lead programmer, and technical director, all the way up to CTO. Some companies break down the titles according to specific areas of specialization, such as tools programmer, engine programmer, graphics programmer, database programmer, etc.
The most common way to become a game programmer is to study computer science or engineering at a four-year university. However, there are also some game programmers who come from other fields of expertise and have learned programming skills on their own. These individuals, depending on their level of skill as programmers, can make valuable additions to a team because of their knowledge in their other areas of interest.
In general the programming team’s responsibilities include:
Drafting technical specifications
Technical implementation of the game including:
Game modules and engines
Coordinating with QA engineers to fix or resolve bugs
As a game designer, if you don’t have a technical background, you may find it difficult to communicate your ideas to the programming team. While you don’t need to become a programmer, if you’re going to design digital games, you do have to learn the basic concepts of programming in order to have a common language with which to speak to the engineers. There is no right way to do this. If you learn best by reading, then buy a book on programming for beginners. If you need a structured environment in which to learn, then take a class. If you have a good relationship with a programmer, then ask him questions about his work. Everyone likes to talk about things they are good at. If you express genuine interest, most programmers will talk your ear off about how games are programmed.
Once you have a strong understanding of how games are implemented technically, you can use this knowledge to write better design specifications, and to describe your game concepts more clearly to the technical team. This, in turn, will make programmers more open and accessible to talk to about tweaks and changes to the gameplay as they are required.
Throughout the production cycle, you’ll find that almost every change you need to make to the gameplay requires alterations in the code. If you’ve designed your game modularly, as we discussed in Chapter 9 on page 253, this won’t mean drastic repercussions to the entire system, but it will still mean additional work for the programming team. To achieve the kind of relationship with the programming team that will allow you to suggest these changes without uproar, you’ll need to use all your communication skills and your knowledge of programming.
Whether your team is large or small, there is likely a hierarchy you’ll need to respect to get things done. No matter how much you’d like to circumvent the technical director, for example, and go straight to the database engineer to ask for a quick change, try to avoid such an action. This undercuts the technical director’s authority, and there’s no better way to create an adversary out of this person.
You need to partner with the technical director, lead programmer, or whoever is in charge of your programming team. It is this person’s job to communicate your ideas to the other team members, and you want to establish a relationship where they will respect your ideas in the same way that you respect their expertise and contribution.
In general, you should try to avoid making huge changes to the gameplay once the production begins in earnest—and if you’ve done prototyping and playtesting work up front, you won’t need to. Most people, programmers included, don’t like to see weeks of work changed on a whim or because you didn’t do your homework. Try to avoid situations where it seems like you’re making the programmers’ work harder. If they view every change you make to the game as “extra” work, then you’ve got a problem.
One way to do this is to make sure that time for “playtesting tweaks” are built into the initial schedule. In addition to this, you should try to invest the programmers in the playtesting process so that they understand why each change is necessary. Bring them into the playtesting sessions. Or if that isn’t feasible, share with them the results of sessions via video or detailed reports and play- tester quotes. Let them draw their own conclusions. If they realize that players are not responding as anticipated to a game feature they’ve been working on for weeks, they’ll be the first ones to try and salvage it, rather than see it cut later on.
The goal is to have your programming team become active participants in the iterative improvement of the game. Soon, they’ll be asking you when the next playtest session is—looking for validation of the work they’ve been doing. And you’ll have a solid partnership with one of the most important groups who will work on your game.
As with the term “programmers,” we use the term “visual artist” as a catchall to refer to those team members who are tasked with designing all of the visual aspects of the game. This includes the character designers, illustrators, animators, interface designers, and 3D artists. Advanced positions in this track include art director, senior art director, and lead animator. In some companies there are even positions like creative director and chief creative officer, whose responsibilities include making sure there’s a consistent look and feel across a company’s entire product line.
Visual artists come from many different backgrounds. The best artists may or may not have a degree in the field. Some artists have always worked on computers, others may have come to computers after gaining a background in traditional tools. Before hiring your artists, you need to think about what skills your team will need. Will the game require predominantly 3D art? Will you need someone who can animate? Does your interface need to appeal to a specific market segment?
As you look at various portfolios, you’ll find that some artists are brilliant at creating intricate cityscapes and imagining 3D worlds, but when it comes to animating a character, they simply can’t do it. For this reason, teams tend to be structured around the key tasks required in the production, and artists will be hired for specialized tasks like 3D modeling, animation, texture mapping, interface design, etc.
Overall, the responsibilities of the visual artists are to design and produce all visuals for the game including:
Worlds and world objects
Game designers and artists can also have trouble communicating even if there is no technical barrier of understanding, as with the programming team. It is the job of the artists to make the game as visually appealing as possible. Sometimes, the needs of the game design can get in the way of a beautiful screen. You may find yourself in a situation where the wireframes you created, showing each important feature and detail of the design, have been only loosely followed. Artists may take it upon themselves to “condense” features in order to make the layout look better.
In a situation like this, your first reaction might be to insist that your designs be followed to the letter. This is one way to get things done. Another way might be to evaluate the work of the artists more objectively—after all, if they thought your design was convoluted, perhaps players will as well. You may be able to compromise and find that your designs become better and more intuitive as they are re-thought by someone with a skilled artistic eye. Of course, you need to make sure that features are not hidden or lost for the sake of beautiful artwork. Remember, it’s your job to think about how a player will respond to these screens. They won’t care about the beauty if they can’t find the feature they need to continue on in the game.
Another issue that may come up between artists and game designers is in the overall style of the game. As you work with different artists, you’ll find that each one has their own unique style and techniques. While most artists are trained to work outside their personal style, they will always respond more enthusiastically to a project that mirrors their own interests more closely. To use an analogy, if you were starting a rock-and-roll band, you might think twice about hiring a percussionist from a philharmonic orchestra to play drums for you. In the same way, try to assemble an art team that is passionate about the look and feel you are striving for.
It may not be possible to choose the specific artists who will work on your project. If you are at a larger company, you may be simply assigned a team of artists. In this case, you’ll have to make a decision: either change your vision to utilize the skills of the people you have, or find a way to communicate your ideas clearly enough so that the team can implement them.
Artists are visual people and a great way to communicate with them is through visual reference material. Most art departments have a great deal of reference material—other games, magazines, art books, etc. For example, game artist Steve Theodore uses video to capture reference, as well as textbooks on human and animal motion to create visuals. If need be, bring in your own reference material to get the conversation going. When Tracy and Chris, two of the authors of this book, were working on a game for Microsoft that had a retro space age style, the art team collected samples of brightly designed 1950s fabrics from flea markets, and scanned their patterns and colors in order to create the visual palette for the game.
As with the programming team, you’ll get the best results if you partner with the lead artist or art director in the process of design. Explain your vision, but listen to their responses. Chances are, your artists have seen and studied far more visual references than you have and they may have some fantastic ideas that take your initial concepts much further than you could have yourself. Look at these references together, and be specific about what you like and don’t like about them.
Once you’ve decided on an approach, the artists will begin creating concept art and you will need to start giving criticism. Keep in mind that the purpose of criticism is to move the project forward. Even if a sketch or design is not exactly what you want, there may still be some elements in it that are useful. Search for those elements before you start speaking. Try to see what the artist was going for. And when you do start speaking, it’s always nice to begin on a positive note: “This is beautiful. Really nice. I like this area right here. In fact, if we could expand on what you’re doing there…”
Giving and taking feedback is probably one of the hardest things to do in life. As you saw when players were critiquing your gameplay, it is often a complete surprise to find that people don’t respond to a part of the design that is very close to your heart. Your most important ally in the process of giving feedback to the artists is the art director. You must work together with this individual to set the tone of the project. Listen carefully to your art director and try to come up with solutions that appeal to both of you. Remember, there’s more than one answer to each design problem, and by creating an open dialogue, you may find another approach that neither of you has considered.
Ultimately, unless you have the skills to create the art yourself, you need to allow the artists some freedom to move beyond your initial concepts and bring their own ideas and passion to the project. If you’ve created a good working relationship with the art director, chances are you will feel a strong sense of authorship in the final artwork, even if it’s not what you initially imagined, just as the rest of the team will feel that they have contributed to the overall game design.
QA (quality assurance) engineers are also referred to as testers or bug testers. Many game professionals start their careers as QA engineers, and then move to other tracks such as producer, programmer, or designer. Advanced positions on this track are QA lead and QA manager. As is noted on the team structure diagram, there are QA engineers on both the publisher side and the developer side. Publishers typically QA projects themselves before they accept delivery of the code.
The responsibilities of the QA team are:
Create a test plan for the project based on the design and technical specifications
Execute the test plan
Record all unexpected or undesirable behavior
Categorize, prioritize, and report all issues found during testing
Re-test and resolve issues once they have been fixed
As the designer, you should take it upon yourself to make sure the QA staff has everything they need to create a comprehensive test plan. Don’t assume that they have a complete understanding of the game just because you’ve distributed a design document. Offer any assistance they may need to create the best test plan possible. But don’t be surprised if they want to experience the game first without your input—as with playtesters, it’s often best if QA testers have some objectivity about the game when they begin the testing process.
QA testers can be the designer’s best friends. Other than your playtesters, they are the last line of defense you have before your game ships out to the masses. Don’t be upset if some of your design features come back listed as “bugs.” This isn’t a criticism of your design—this is QA’s way of helping you make sure your design is working properly. Their job is to make sure your game is functioning both technically and aesthetically. If you get a bug back that says the font you’ve chosen for the character screen is illegible under certain circumstances, don’t bristle defensively. Be grateful that you have the chance to fix it before the game goes to the players.
It may help for you to sit down with the QA team and observe their process. You can learn a lot by consulting with your QA engineers and going through the game element by element. Because they are seasoned testers, they may be able to provide you with insights no one else can.
Another consideration is to let your QA manager review your wireframes early in the process. They may find problems with your design before you even start to implement it. Starting the QA process early and making the QA team part of the design process will mean they are more invested in your game. This means that in crunch time, they will make your game a priority and put in the extra hours it takes to find every last glitch.
As we’ve seen, games have grown to include many specialized types of media—too many to address each possible role on all game productions. Your game may require the skills of writers, sound designers, musicians, or even motion capture operators, karate instructors, and dialogue coaches. We include these in a group as “specialized media” because they are too many to list. These types of individuals are usually hired for a short period of time on a contract basis, rather than coming on as full-time employees.
One of the most important things that you can do as a designer is to define what you need from these professionals as clearly as possible before they start working. When people are hired as contractors, they are often charged by the hour. If you bring in contractors and waste time trying to figure out what to do with them, you can wind up wasting a lot of money that would be better spent elsewhere in the production.
Some of the most typical contractors that you will work with include writers and sound designers. In the case of a writer, the responsibilities can range from creating bits of dialogue where needed to scripting the entire story. How much writing you will need depends on what skills you have as a designer. If your strength is writing, you may not need a writer at all. If you are not a strong writer, you may bring a writer in very early and work with them throughout production.
In the case of a sound designer, the task might be limited to creating special effects and music for the game once it is almost completed. Or, if you are striving for a more integrated sound design, it may encompass laying out a plan for the entire audio design for the project up front and working with you to make sure the audio supports the gameplay effectively. Sound and music affect players at a very emotional level; if you involve a sound designer more deeply in the project, you may be surprised at the improvement it can make to the player experience.
As productions continue to grow more complex, they’ll invariably require more media professionals in a diverse range of fields. There’s a lot of talk about bringing in Hollywood talent to make games more like movies. This means that everyone from gaffers to makeup artists may soon be involved in creating games.
As the designer, you’ll have to interact with many of these media professionals and give them direction and support. As you deal with people who may not work exclusively on games, it’s important to communicate with them in terms they are familiar with. Many of these media professionals will not be hardcore gamers, and they may get lost if you use shorthand or game jargon. To bring out the best of their talents, you’ll have to learn as much as you can about their specialty, and act as their guide when it comes to game production.
Executive Producer, Mythic Entertainment
Project list (five to eight top projects)
Dark Age of Camelot (and expansions)
Silent Death Online
Starship Troopers: Battlespace
Spellbinder: The Nexus Conflict
Dark Age of Camelot
How did you get into the game industry?
I was a big fan of dial-up BBS multiplayer role-playing games in the 1980s, and a few friends and I decided to make our own game. We worked nights and weekends over the course of about four years on the project. The game, Tempest, came out in 1992 and was a fantasy role-playing game that allowed up to sixteen players to play simultaneously on dial-up modems in the Washington, D.C. area. This was strictly a hobby, though—it was for fun, and we all had day jobs. Eventually our lawyer hooked us up with another company, we merged, got some contracts, and I started full time in the industry in January 1996.
What are your five favorite games and why?
In no special order:
Fallout: It had the best story and immersion of any game I’ve played.
Half-Life: The best shooter of all time, with a great story.
Wizardry: My favorite fantasy single-player RPG, the one that got me hooked.
EverQuest: Proved that online role-playing games were just as good (if not more so) than single- player games.
Dark Age of Camelot: Of course! Seriously, it was the first online RPG that successfully let players fight one another in an organized fashion.
What games have inspired you the most as a designer and why?
I think it’s safe to say that every game I play, to a certain extent, gives me design ideas. Half-Life and Fall- out, though, really inspired me, because they showed that a game can be deceptively simple to play, yet enormously fun and compelling.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Being the producer/designer of one of the most successful online games to date.
What words of advice would you give to an aspiring designer today?
Don’t be afraid to do whatever it takes to get into the industry. If you have to start as an artist, QA tester, programmer, whatever—just do it. Once you’re in the door, it’s a lot easier to get your voice heard. And be patient. People won’t respect your ideas until they know that you are competent and level. This takes time.
Because the games industry is still relatively young, there’s a lot to be learned from other media. For instance, you may find that many of the processes employed in filmmaking can help you in your game production. In the same way, when you’re choosing media professionals to collaborate with, you should pick ones that are open minded and who want to learn about the games business. These individuals can grow with you and become lifelong resources.
Games that are organized into levels will need someone to actually design and implement each level. If your project is very small, you may design all the levels yourself. On a larger project, however, the game designer often leads a team of level designers who implement their concepts for the various game levels and sometimes come up with ideas for levels themselves.
Level designers use a toolkit or “level editor” to develop new missions, scenarios, or quests for the player. They lay out the components that appear on the level or map and work closely with the game designer to make these fit into the overall theme of the game.
Responsibilities of level designers include:
Implementing level designs
Coming up with level concepts
Testing levels and working with designer to improve overall gameplay
Level design is an art, and it’s a great way to enter the industry. Good level designers often go on to become game designers—an example is American McGee, who won notoriety for several of the levels he designed while working at id Software. Other level designers may move on to become producers.
As a game designer, you’ll want to develop a close working relationship with your level designers. Levels are the structure within which the players will experience the gameplay you’ve designed. They may include story or character elements that are crucial to the development of the game. Because levels are so critical, sometimes game designers can become somewhat controlling of how they are implemented.
As with artists however, you can usually achieve better results by fostering creativity in your level designers rather than making them tow a strict line. If you’ve created an amazing system of gameplay, it will inspire your designers to come up with combinations and situations that you may not have even thought of in your initial pass at the game levels. Try not to micromanage your level design team, and you will find that they will work harder and come up with better results than if they had implemented your designs to the letter.
The fact is that you’re the designer of the game, and their hard work and innovations will only make you look better. So tuck any insecurity away and treat your level designers as partners with which to experiment and take the game to places that even you did not think possible.
Exercise 12.1: Recruit a Team
Now that you know a little bit about the roles of team members in a game production, think about enlisting some friends or recruiting some talent to work on the original game idea you have prototyped in Part II. Decide which of these positions you can’t fill yourself and go out and try and fill them. Post notices on local bulletin boards or web sites—you are sure to get a response, because many people out there are eager to work on game projects.
Steve Theodore, “Artist’s View: And a Partridge in a Poly Tree,” Game Developer, November 2003.
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