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Are Game Designers and Writers the Same Thing?

June 12, 2008

At the Game Education Summit, someone questioned whether game designers and writers were one largely one and the same. After all, game designers often write design docs, the story, as well as any in game exposition and dialogue.

The answer is no. Game designers may also be writers or programmers or artists, but they are not one and the same. Ultimately, games are a set of rules that lead to a set of behaviors.

Oddly enough, I think it’s video games that have led to this perception. Video game designers are often writers. I’m both, and I’ve written 10 metric tons of design docs, story and dialogue. However, moving over to the non-digital side, a look at games such as Risk or Chess or Poker reveals what the primary task of the game designer is: building a set of rules that lead to gameplay.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Nat permalink
    June 12, 2008 12:51 pm

    Writers is a rather vague term. What am I writing? Restroom grafitti? TPS reports? Even in the context of games you mention you could be writing documents, story, or dialogue. Three vastly different things. Tutorial text, instruction manuals, Item descriptions, TRC/TCR messages; the list goes on.

    I think most people refer to game writers as the ones who create stories which in itself is also a vague term. Are they constructing a world and all its physical rules (i.e. use of magic, ninja gravity, space tech)? Are they just creating characters? Are they developing plot points? All of the above? Story usually gives the gameplay context and when no context exists, designers are usually forced to hack on their own. “I’ve got this minigame where you collect these tokens and bring them to this base location.” “Why would [character X] do that?” “I know, the tokens are eggs and he wants to make an omelette for this NPC” Suddenly I think I’m a writer which I guess I am but probably not a terribly good one.

  2. June 12, 2008 4:28 pm

    This is akin to calling graphic designers and artists the same. Graphic designers while needing the experience, knowledge, talent and skill of an artist must in addition have the ability to make creative decisions based on set rules and guidlines for that project. Quantifiable design decisions require not only a vast knowledge of a particular area of interest, but also the ability to control creative output. Where as an artist (or writer) may not need to have that tight direction.

    For a game designer to be effective, yes, they must be a writer and have that skill and knowledge. Otherwise design ideas and mechanics can (will) be misinterpreted, confidence in the designers ability will wane and ultimately the designer will not be taken seriously.

    Something that irks me is the inability of an aspiring game designer to differentiate between there, their and they’re. I don’t think any member of a development team wants to have to guess, based on context, what a designer intended.

  3. June 12, 2008 4:55 pm

    I agree. Obviously, designing a game and writing go hand in hand. The one thing they both require is communication skills. A line in a design document that reads like “Skill 1, +1, +3, -1” could be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, so words have to be used to clarify what’s meant. If the designer is also writing the game’s story, the rules and structure of the game do come into play. So assuming the designer is also writing, it’s a gray area, but if there’s a separate writer/story designer, then it’s more different, but it’s still not mutually exclusive.

  4. June 12, 2008 6:08 pm

    @dan – actually they are mutually exclusive. A game designer does not need to write, especially in the case of system designers, non-digital designers, interface designers and so on. This is phenomenally true of designers that program. Game writing is its own thing. You may find a designer that is a good writer, but most digital designers hire a writer or multiple writers.

  5. June 12, 2008 10:28 pm

    I think it depends on the context.

    To me, the job titles “game writer” and “game designer” are very different.

    But if you have someone who is a game designer, I would not object to calling them an artist (since their work is inherently artistic) or an author (there’s a lot of writing, and the sense of creating a work, especially if that work has a strong narrative). And if I can call someone an author, calling them a writer isn’t much of a stretch. Here I’m not talking about a job role or title so much as a category of work.

  6. June 13, 2008 9:57 am

    I think Ian and Dan brought up some good points about writing being a category of work and the relation to communication.

    “A game designer does not need to write”

    I’m sure that in some cases verbal communication is sufficient for some projects, however, I think that even in the non-digital arena of game design most of the time rules and conditions need to be written down.

    As for programmers not needing to write:
    Coding in it’s own way is a form of writing. It may not be the traditional prose, poetry or documentation but it is a form of language all to it’s own. Working in a communicative form of written language inherently signifies that one must posess at least a basic to intermediate understanding of how to properly write in that language.

    I’m not arguing the fact that the primary role of a game designer is to build “a set of rules that lead to gameplay“. If this is the primary role though, the secondary role would be to communicate verbally or non-verbally those rules so others may play and understand fully the rules of the game.

  7. June 13, 2008 10:00 am

    @Ian – yes, the context is critical. It would have helped if I’d noted why this had come to the forefront for me in the first place. An industry friend noted that they were considering lumping designers and writers into the same category since they were possibly the same. I noted that they weren’t, though it was common to find a shared skill set. Ultimately, game design is a specific skill set as is writing.

  8. Chris permalink
    June 13, 2008 3:19 pm


    I was at church one day when I was in eighth grade – about nine years ago – and had just found out one of our close family friends is a Computer Scientist and once worked programming games for Atari. I told him I wanted to be a game designer, and he told me to go into Computer Science.

    Is a Computer Science or a programmer a game designer? No, not really. Many of the best game designers out there came from math and computer programming backgrounds. Yes, I went with a Computer Science degree after all, and to some extent I think game designers are programmers. Setting rules, boundaries, and goals are important for both programmers and game designers. Being able to run test examples and exercise logic are also important to members in both disciplines.

    But make no mistake, game design != computer science.

  9. June 14, 2008 3:28 pm

    @Chris: I had a similar experience growing up in the heyday of the Atari 2600. At that time, programmers WERE game designers (or vice versa), since most projects were done by a single person.

    I had graduated with a degree in CS before eventually realizing that the industry had changed. D’oh!

  10. June 14, 2008 3:43 pm

    One problem the game industry has is loading a lot of responsibility on one title. A “Producer”, for example, can have a lot of different (but usually related) meanings at different places.

    “Game Designer” is also one that has a lot of overlap. In the “bad old days” like Chris mentions, game design and programming were much more closely related. Dr. Richard Barlte, writer of the first text MUD, shows this in a blog post of his. ( To paraphrase, one developer said, “All games used to be designed by programmers.” Dr. Bartle points out, “No, designers were programmers back then to implement their designs.”

    In the case of writers, we’re starting to see this as a separate discipline from game design. This is a good and a bad thing: someone focused on writing often does a better job at making dialog seem natural and keeping the story coherent. On the other hand, they may not know how to use the strength of games, the interactivity, to tell the story. Hiring a Hollywood writer and expecting your game writing to be wonderful may not be the best plan.

    Then again, in the era of 60 minute cutscenes in games, perhaps it’ would work just fine after all. 🙂

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