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Types of Game Designers

November 20, 2007

When I got into the industry way back in the 1980’s, there was one type of game designer in our industry – we called him “programmer”. He (or she in the case of the rare few like Dona Bailey) was often a one-man show responsible for design, programming, sound and art all in one. I worked with one of these individuals right on up until 1988, in fact. Eventually, games grew larger, and with the increased size came a specialization of tasks. Teams formed, and we had artists, programmers, designers and even a sound person. Eventually producers came along to network and schedule the increasingly growing teams.

In the last ten years, but more so in the last five, we’ve seen greater specialization within the fields themselves so that now, and at least in my field, the term “game designer” sounds general. It’s a perfectly okay term to use on indie game projects, but when you’re talking about a big Xbox 360 production, saying “I’m the game designer” is likely to result in a follow up: “Yeah, but what exactly did you design?”

We’ve got roles now. I’ve listed them below as I’ve experienced them. Bear in mind that there’s no such thing as OSHA requirements for design gigs, so what I experienced in these various roles will likely gust in one direction or another depending on the company. As usual, there few absolutes in the game industry.

Lead Designers

Lead designers are responsible for managing a team of designers and making sure that the game’s overall vision is achieved. As a lead, you will put out fires, do what needs to be done, maintain a good attitude and teach those working with you the ropes. By yourself or with the help of others, you will establish the game’s core and define its feature set (or it may be defined for you by publisher mandate). You may decide how the project is documented, determine the basic systems and create the overall story arc, or you might assign these to another designer on the team. You review what they did and make sure it integrates into the bigger picture. At some point or another, you may take on one (or two or three) of the roles listed below. You also need to develop an eye that can analyze and critique work, your own along with everyone else’s.

You will work a great deal with the art and programming leads to make sure the feature that you’re hoping for is feasible technically and artistically. You’ll hear “no” a lot. As a note, teams go much smoother when the leads are a tight group. If there is lead warfare, it’s painful for all involved. Fortunately for me, I’ve only experienced this once a long, long time ago. The producer squashed the art lead before it reached a dramatic point, and all was well.

New leads or those hoping to be lead someday may confuse the term “lead” with “dictator” or “visionary.” It is neither. A good lead knows when to get out of the way and encourages others to help shape the game. Good games are rarely the “vision” of a single individual, but rather a collective whole. I once heard a quote which I will paraphrase (badly) here: the job of a lead is to encourage people smarter than they are do their job well.

Level Designers

Level designers are probably the best known of all game designers, and it’s their job to create the level-by-level play in a game. If you’ve ever jumped when a monster nailed you coming around a corner, discovered a particularly advantageous place to shoot from or felt tension coming out of an in-game elevator, know that somewhere, there’s a level designer who planned that experience for you. Level designers generally place the creatures, items, props (boxes or crates or whatever) within the level, or they may have junior level designers that do it. Level designers are usually artists and programmers-of-a-sort as well, and may create many of the assets needed to finish the level and do all the necessary scripting to make things go exactly as they desire them to.

Within the level design field, there are different specialties as well. FPS level design is different than RPG or MMO level design, for instance, and each type requires an in-depth knowledge of the standard play mechanics and level flow within those games. I’ve worked on RPG level design my whole career.

Content Designers

Content designers are involved with the world’s narrative in some way or another. They may write the story, the NPC or PC dialog, the missions and the in-game material to support the story (such as books in a library or writing on a cave’s wall or other historical things).

With the rise of persistent worlds, content designers are more in demand than ever. RPGs have always needed truckloads of content, and now that these worlds have been made seemingly endless, the need for more content is ongoing. Content designers might also be called upon to create massive stocks of items, creatures or spec other assets of that type.

Content designers shouldn’t be confused with game writers, although they often are. They are not one and the same, although one person may do both things. It’s quite possible that a content designer could design the overall mission flow of the game while a game writer crafts the scenes, text and dialog that pushes that mission along.

Game Writers

As I eluded to in the last paragraph, game writers are different from content designers. Content designers may or may not write the text and dialogue for the actual missions they create. Game writers write (and hopefully write well). It is not a field that just any ol’ writer can step into either. I like how it’s put in the book Chris Bateman edited, Narrative Skills for Video Games. To paraphrase – writers in other mediums don’t have to come up with 30 different ways to get an NPC to say to a player, “Dude, I told you all I had to tell you. Move on.” Game writers and content designers are usually one and the same. They don’t have to be, though, hence this extra section here.

System Designers

System designers focus on one particular system within the game, sometimes in conjunction with others. For a fighting game, for instance, a system designer might focus on any one of these systems: avatar creation, fighting, crowd dynamics, training or leveling. Their attention might be focused on something smaller than a system – such as all the weapons within the game, the range of spells or the types of characters that the player can create. It all depends on the size of the game and the team. Sometimes, just a few designers will do it all. I’ve worked on a team where I was the only designer. I’ve also been one of six system designers on a large Xbox 360 project.

Technical Designers

Technical designers are part programmer and part designer and are responsible for actually implementing a lot of the gameplay. They are often the middleman, so to speak, between the programming and design departments. Over the years, languages have evolved to allow designers the ability to tweak a lot of the gameplay without inadvertantly tweaking the programming department in the process (“Hey. Can you change this thing for the 10th time today?”). Lua and Python are the most popular scripting languages used right now, and many companies have their own propriety language, too.

Technical designers can cross over into the realm of system design, too. I’ve worked with a technical designer who was excellent at stats and programming macros in Excel. He could give me a pretty precise idea of how well balanced a game was based on existing play before the new data had been put into use. According to a friend of mine who specializes in technical design, knowledge of probability and stats helps here, too.

UI Designers / Usability Experts

The job of the UI designer is to create the interface for the game to make sure the player and the game communicate well with one another. It could go without saying (but it won’t): a good UI designer makes sure that it’s easy for the player to use the game and understand its commands. He or she also ensures that the player gets consistent feedback throughout the game. This role is becoming quite interesting in recent years. Games like Fight Night 3 incorporate crowd movement, ringside announcements and avatar movement into the interface to make sure that players receive exactly what they need to when they need to. There’s not even a HUD in the game if you don’t want there to be.

As games seek to expand beyond there traditional markets, usability experts are increasingly entering the field and improving upon designs we all take for granted. I still recall the conversation that a fellow game designer had with me about her parents’ first foray into a virtual world. She’d set up accounts for them in her favorite MMO, only to discover they couldn’t play the game. Why? They couldn’t figure out how to walk in a virtual world. There are literally millions of people out there just like them.

Senior Designers

Senior designers will be expected to comfortably perform any of the tasks above if called upon to do so, and they’ll have a proven track record with all of them except, perhaps, level design. I’ve known quite a few designers in senior positions who worked with level designers, but didn’t do the level design themselves. A senior designer has shipped a few titles and probably has experience as lead on at least one of them.

Junior Designers

A junior designer generally works under a lead or a senior designer to replace book learning with practical experience. Until you work in the industry – and it doesn’t matter where you study or what you worked on – you don’t get what it’s like to be in the industry. It’s important to do your time at the junior level, too. When I got into the industry, there was no school that offered game design, or anything like it for that matter. I learned by watching what others did, and pitching in when they let me. I apprenticed. When it came time for me to be designer on the Wizardry series, I felt both excited, honored… and intimidated. I can’t imagine having jumped into that role without some kind of warm up.

People also step into junior design roles if it’s their first time on a new system or a new genre – like making the jump from PC to console or RPG to FPS. It’s just a matter of getting your feet wet.

Game Designers

It’s the job title we have when we’re not working in one of the positions above or we are working in all of the positions above. Game designers go between so many of these roles that perhaps it’s not the term that’s general, but the people who are able to fill the role. We’re generalists – specialized in multiple things, able to do what we need to do when we need to do it (or maybe I’m just fancying that we are). On the other hand, depending on the size and type of project, there may be only one designer involved. In this case, you’re not really a lead (who are you leading?), but at the same time, you’re doing it all.

Design Director / Creative Director
This is the boss level of game design – where you are setting the creative course for more than just a single project. You may be setting it for the company or a division of the company. It’s an amazing role, and the individuals who fill it are often the best and brightest in the industry. They have a proven track record, multiple successful titles under their belts and often 10+ years in the industry.

I was interviewing for a DD position at a couple of companies when I accepted the professor job with the Savannah College of Art and Design. I guess that will bring me to the last entry on my list, one I hadn’t though of before just now.

Game Designer as Teacher / Researcher

This is what I am now.

My classes are games, and the lectures are the narratives. The assignments are the missions (and they’re all games, too) and the grades and the games my students create are their rewards. I approach course design exactly like I approach game design. I’m not just waxing on here, either. I’ve actually turned all my classes into games of a sort – and I am actually ranked and evaluated upon their design at the end of every quarter (seriously – students evaluate every course, and I read every evaluation).

If games are about learning and are, in fact, great for learning, then teaching through games is also ideal. If you’ve not read Raph Koster’s book Theory of Fun for Game Design, you really should. Follow that up with Prof. Jim Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

That’s not to say I don’t lecture. I do. But after the lecture, there is application, and in that application, there is always a game and usually, we are creating it to show the principle or the mechanic or the method in action. I put as much time into designing my design courses as I would a game of the same size, in fact. I have particular goals for the “player”, I want to see them enjoy themselves, and when I find a particular player that doesn’t seem into the game, as it were, it will puzzle me and cause me to think on it until I figure out either a way to get the player interested or accept that I can’t reach everyone, every time. I get absurdly interested in certain student projects, design my own projects right alongside them, and find teaching a whole lot like the process of mentoring a junior designer, except that you mentor them 5 or 10 at a time as opposed to 1 or 2. I think this comes from who I am and where I come from – a game designer from the industry. So, it’s all I really know, and it’s what I do. Now, I am just waxing on.

That’s it.

—-

If I’ve missed something, I’m sure other designers will chime in to add their 2 cents.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2007 6:07 am

    “… there was one type of game designer in our industry – we called him “programmer””

    This kind of sounds like the life of an independent game developer now-a-days.

    Great write-up, very informative!

  2. November 20, 2007 8:51 am

    It’s totally true about an educator just being a specialized form of game designer. If you ever happen to be in a place with a captive audience of K-12 teachers, try giving them a crash course in game design (as applied to education) and see how new this viewpoint is… and how well-received.

    Great summary. Naturally, you left out my specialty, technical design :). If level designer is part artist, then technical designer is part programmer. We do things like implementing gameplay in scripting languages (Lua and Python being the most popular right now). Knowledge of programming is essential; a four-year degree in CS is a good idea, but not required.

    I’ve also heard this term used to describe some aspects of systems design, particularly the math-heavy parts (a solid understanding of statistics and probability helps here). I’d also call other programming-like tasks (such as making macros in Excel to balance a system) technical design work.

  3. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 20, 2007 11:25 am

    Right. That’ll teach me to post stuff after midnight. I cobbled your stuff into the main article.

    I actually left technical designers out on purpose, reasoning they were a brand of system designer. I guess most of the technical designers I’ve worked with fell into this category. I also think it would be challenging to be a systems designer with the ability to make Excel do things its designers probably didn’t envision it doing. That said, I hadn’t considered that I also know many systems designers who don’t do the stuff that the technical designer does, like scripting.

    So, good call. Thanks.

  4. Olick permalink
    November 21, 2007 3:39 am

    How much would you say there is crossover these days of these things? Like are these pretty clear divisions, where a person with a certain specialty will work as a Systems Designer or a Level Designer? Or is it common for a person to have the skill or knowledge to do more than one job, but is simply only doing one at any given time?

    Also, I wonder about Junior Designers. Do you hear from a lot of people who believe they are Senior Designer material, when they are entirely inexperienced?

    Mostly questions this comment…

  5. November 21, 2007 11:04 am

    Thank you for the informative post, it led me to further collect my thoughts on my game design education and prompted me to e-mail you for your insight. =]

  6. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 21, 2007 2:05 pm

    Hello Olick,

    There’s a lot of crossover in the list. Leads and seniors, by the very nature of that job, need to be able to do whatever needs to be done on a project with the possible exception of the technical designer role. That role requires programming/scripting knowledge.

    In my experience, people do one job at a time, but have the skill to do almost all of them.

    The level designer is an exception to this. Level design is a pretty specialized gig. Most level designers I’ve known tend to stick to level design.

  7. November 21, 2007 2:51 pm

    I’d agree with Brenda, and further say that if you’re looking to “break in” with no industry design experience, you’d better have the skills to do as many of these things as possible so that you maximize your chances.

    I’d also say that Story Writer is its own thing. In many ways it’s not even game design, but teams that have dedicated story writers usually throw them into the Design department for some reason (and to be fair, writers do often work closely with other designers to make sure that the story, mechanics and content all support one another).

    As for Olick’s other question: “Do you hear from a lot of people who believe they are Senior Designer material, when they are entirely inexperienced?”

    Hah. EVERYONE thinks they’re Senior Design material 🙂

  8. November 21, 2007 7:10 pm

    So, basically what you are saying, is that your classes are a form of ARG. They adopt the TINAG mentality. They require collaboration across the entire population of the game with certain figure having insights for others and concepts piggy backing off of each other, such as in the case of a student reciting an anecdote that relates to the subject being taught. You give out puzzles, in the form of educational ideals, that have to be “figured out” by the “players”. The only different between a standard ARG and your class room one is the reward system, since players are rewarded individually instead of on the whole.

    Thank you for the insight into the different areas of game design as it currently exists in the industry. I think it’d be interesting to see a further division of game design as the industry continues to grow. Can anyone think of some design roles that may exist in the near future? I would think there’d start to be a “social designer” position, one that can be seen in MMO communities right now. Or would the social system designer just be a type of system designer?

  9. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 21, 2007 8:02 pm

    Your comment on “social designer” vs. a “social system designer” – right now, there is the position of “community manager” on virtually every MMO I can think of. I’m not sure what portion of their job is design vs. handling of various community issues. I’ve never done the job, and don’t know someone who has. So, I’ll hope someone pipes in here on that.

    It got me thinking about before-the-fact and after-the-fact designers, tho. I’m completely pulling the terms out of thin air, but they are things that designers do, and it requires a different skill set. Before-the-fact designers make games. The after-the-fact designers have to come in and make something fun and/or shippable out of what’s been created. Many publishers have a team of ninja designers who are responsible for working with developers and seeing to it that something fun gets out or something playable gets out. We could call them Ninja Designers, but that would make them too cool, and then everyone would want the job.

  10. November 22, 2007 3:53 am

    Especially if they were trained in the dark arts of design. Community manager was the term I was looking for instead of social designer, so thank you for that.

    As far as the BTF and ATF designers (we have to make acronyms out of this now), I would think there is a larger number of ATF designers now in comparison with in the past, what with the rising investment costs of games. But, I also believe that this is a good thing, as sometimes designers can get so into their project that they need outside perspective in order to realize what is going right with the game and what is going wrong. Of course, as a designer moves from a more junior to senior position, this probably gets reduced. This is all just insight from my own experiences of working with other junior designers in academia of course.

  11. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 22, 2007 4:07 am

    What you’re referring to there is what I call “lead’s blindness”, the inability to see the bad (or even the good) in your game. That would make a good post. Thanks. 🙂

  12. ShadowDG permalink
    November 22, 2007 6:33 pm

    Since full time writers (or “narrative designers” if that name sticks) are becoming more common in some development houses, shouldn’t they be added to your list? You mention game writers briefly in Content Designers, and you make the distinction that they are different. With some companies having full time writing staff that help out from the very beginning and stay through the whole production process, they really should be considered another type of game designer.

  13. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 22, 2007 11:10 pm

    Hello ShadowDG,

    I added a section above for game writers. Thanks for the suggestion.

  14. Enlia permalink
    January 18, 2008 9:56 am

    This article is excellent, thank you for writing it. I would love to attend a course with you some day; I view life as you view teaching. Having an entire family full of non-gamers, I continue to consider what I could do to get them involved… though sometimes it’s impossible, and I realize also we can’t convert them all. For example my mom and uncle totally can’t understand the fast movements in geometry wars, but I tried! Anyway kudos to you and all you do, I aspire to be as incredible one day.

  15. January 18, 2008 6:52 pm

    @Enlia – wow, thanks for the kind words!

  16. July 26, 2008 7:05 pm

    I love this article, it is very informative and has really given me some stuff to think about 🙂

    I live in Denmark, and here I am beginning to see a tendency that doesn’t fit that well with the standard game designer definitions

    In a lot of companies, both specific game oriented ones, and larger corporations where casual games are becoming more important. It looks like the role of game designer simply is non existent. When the game that needs to be designed is so simple, and the group you create the game with is 5-8 people – well then having a person being designer just doesn’t seem worth it. He should at least be able to contribute otherwise as well. That is what seems to be the general attitude.

    So what I am seeing here is actually some sort of regression back to the “good old garage days” when everything was run by one person, or perhaps a small team. I know that where i work, the game design sort of pops up in our minds, gets discussed, and then we do a demo together – each person working with what they can, but no one working specifically with design theory or the like. At least not yet – but then again, our games are very simple games 🙂

    If you want to read more about it you can do so at my blog http://www.designosis.net

    But overall – a very good article 🙂

  17. July 26, 2008 8:44 pm

    @Rasmus – With smaller projects, sure, that can happen. Even in big teams, everyone usually contributes something. A game that’s only enjoyed by the lead designer will end up dying on the vine (or the designer will).

  18. July 27, 2008 8:50 am

    @Rasmus: replace “types of designers” with “types of design tasks on a game project” and it still works for small projects where people wear many hats.

    Even on small teams I’ve seen dedicated designers before, so I think it depends on the project and whether there’s enough design to take a full-time person. Definitely required on content-heavy games like RPGs or CCGs.

  19. Ravenborne permalink
    October 7, 2008 6:47 am

    This is an excellent resource. I do have a question, however. You say there was one type of designer in the “industry” called programmer, so I assume you mean the video game industry. Knowing the importance that you put on game design as it’s own discipline separate from that of programming, I am curious as to why you designated the only type of designer as a programmer. I myself was designing games as a a hobby in the 80’s and got involved professionally in the 90’s, and I never even considered the video game industry the real game industry; to me, the good games out there were tabletop, miniature games, board games and the emerging card games. I purposely chose back then to avoid video game design for its narrow medium and it’s strict limitations, and it’s only been in the past decade that I have had any interest in getting into video game design. I hate to admit that this is largely due to the fact that one needs a name attached to a video game these days to be taken seriously. I would love to hear your thoughts on this perspective.

  20. March 10, 2009 4:01 pm

    I come across a lot of people called “Mission Designers”. How would you define a Mission Designer? Do you think it is a blend of a content and level designer?

    Thanks!
    Tbone

    • March 11, 2009 12:05 am

      A mission designer’s primary job is to design the missions for the game – the objective of gameplay for a particular instance/mission/quest. It will likely involve level design and narrative design, yes.

  21. EEK permalink
    April 5, 2009 8:59 pm

    Does any type of designer includes an art part in his/her job?

    Thanks!! 😀

    • April 10, 2009 8:33 pm

      Yes, sort of. Level designers are typically a mix of artist and designer, and very skilled at both. The designer side is typically limited to the play flow through the level, level layout and the like. It might not include narrative or systems, for instance.

Trackbacks

  1. Define: Game Designer « IGDA Recife
  2. Designosis.Net » Blog Archive » The definition of a Game Designer
  3. Search String: “Objective Lines on Resumes” « Applied Game Design
  4. 2. Game Designer, wer bist du? « Ludus Mechanicus
  5. Einführung « Ludus Mechanicus

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