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  • On Game Design: The Designer

    [05.29.07]
    - Jason Weesner
  •  Welcome back! In the first article, we dealt largely with the history of video games. In this installment we'll explore game design inspiration, hit the high level points of what a video game designer is, and start down the road of practical design. First off, let's come up with a working definition of a video game designer. There are two parts to the definition. The first part is "video game" and that term has already been defined to a great degree with the previous article's history lesson. What's left to do with the definition is to actually apply it to the second part of the definition--designer.

    There are many types of designers: set designers, fashion designers, graphic designers, etc., etc. All of these professions are linked by a common concept of creative "design" which is the ability not only to conceive of an idea, but also to conceive of its implementation, execution, and application in a collaborative manner. We'll come back to each of these elements in greater detail, but, for now, we'll just concentrate on a larger, more fundamental concept which is "communication". In short, a designer's job is to effectively communicate the elements of an idea. In relation to video game designer, here's a quick example of the various communication processes:

    Let's say the designer came up with a jump mechanic for the game's main character. The first step of communication is to get it through the creative approval process by answering some basic questions like: Why does the game need it? How does it add to the gameplay? What makes the mechanic interesting?

    Once the idea for the game mechanic is approved on a creative basis, the designer next has to communicate the idea to the code and art departments. A programmer will need to know how the jump works (interaction/controls, physics, distances, modifiers, etc.) and what tools the designer might need for tuning and implementation. Art will need to roughly know what the visual expectations are for the jump (variations on the jump, specific animations, interactions resulting from the jump, etc.).

    The culmination of the communication process is communicating the original idea to the end user. Is the jump mechanic intuitive? Does it require a tutorial? Is the jump mechanic responsive? If, at the end of the day, the player can't use the jump effectively, then all the previous processes have failed at some level.

    I know that last part sounds a little doom and gloom, but once you have some understanding of the elements of video game design, you'll be able to clearly see how most failures in bad games are due in large part to poor design. There's a lot more to the process of communication, but you should be able to see from these examples that implementation, execution, and application are all dependent on good communication.

    In the days of old (let's put that some time in the late 1970's), there was no such thing as a video game designer by our definition. Older computers and home consoles lacked the hardware to display fancy graphics or the storage capacity to handle complex game types so usually, a single programmer would handle all aspects of a game's development. One of these early programmer / designers, Howard Scott Warshaw, is best known for his work on Atari 2600 classics like Yar's Revenge and E.T. In the context of our exploration of the origins of game design, he's also a fantastic example of the early "proto-designer" whose role encompassed all facets of game's development.

    Howard took some time to answer some questions about his experiences in the industry.

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