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  • Sharing the Design

    [04.03.08]
    - Brandon Van Slyke
  •  Working as a professional video game designer in today's industry can be a colossal team effort. Developing video games, from large AAA console games to smaller downloadable casual games, requires an immense amount of cooperation between multiple designers to ensure every detail is accurately fleshed out and properly implemented. Collaboration is the name of the game when it comes to game development. We have a team-effort approach to everything, from the lowest level design tasks, such as defining a new feature or developing a new play mechanic, to plotting out and conceptualizing the games story and overarching vision.

    What does this mean for you new or aspiring game designers? It means that there is a stronger emphasis on specialization in regard to individual design roles (level designers, narrative designers, system designers), and that embodying certain positive traits like the ability to communicate effectively and understanding how to share designs with other members of the team is tantamount to continued success in the field.

    The best way for new designers to feel that they are actively contributing to the game's overall vision is by taking ownership of key components of the design. Taking ownership allows lesser-experienced designers to gain a sense of professional satisfaction in their work, which is very important to people entering creative industries like game development. However, before you can do so, you have to understand how and why the design workload is distributed across the design team.

    Creative Constraints
    It can come as a surprise to new designers who are accustomed to being the sole designer on a project that so much collaboration occurs in the professional industry. There's often the misconception that designers are allowed to retain creative control over whatever specific piece of the game they're designing. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.

    New designers should always expect to produce multiple versions of their designs. In general, design leads like to be presented with as many options as possible to help them assess the best course of action. It's important to not get too attached to your ideas or creations, and to remember that you are working as creativity for hire.

    That's not to say you won't have a chance to stretch your creative muscles. However, simply acknowledging that you'll be required to work under managed constraints and on mechanics or features you may not be overly fond of demonstrates an understanding of professional game development and is very appealing to hiring managers and creative leads.

    There's an upside to constrained creativity, too. It can actually make you a better designer. For example, by generating several design solutions for the lead designer, a young game designer will be forced to creatively explore unfamiliar concepts and new ideas while working through his or her solutions. This can be an extremely satisfying experience and is part of what makes the job so enjoyable.

    Under the watchful eye of the team lead, your contributions will successfully mesh with the rest of the team's, and all the different design elements will be integrated into the final game without it feeling like they were all created independently. As a designer, your ultimate goal is to provide the player with a fun, engaging, and cohesive experience, and this is one way development teams deliver that.

    Sharing the Design
    What does collaboration in a team environment really entail? Sharing.

    The act of sharing is typically instilled in us at a very early age. We've all been asked to share something at one time or another: a box of crayons, the last piece of cake, a link to an online viral video. No matter what is being shared, the act of sharing is a basic part of creating social relationships -- and it plays a huge role in being part of a team.

    Sharing allows one person to partake in an experience with a team and lets us complete projects that are far too large for any one individual to tackle within the constraints normally imposed. But what does it mean to share a game design? How do such creative endeavors fit into the sharing scheme? How can creativity be shared in a democratic environment?

    First, it's important to reiterate that you will be sharing the development of the game with not only the extremely talented programmers and artists on the team, but also your fellow designers. More often than not, this means you won't be assigned the glamorous job of coming up with the game's story, its levels, or gameplay systems all on your own. Usually, as a non-lead designer, you'll be accountable for a far smaller piece or even subset of one of those elements, such as a particular game mechanic or a specific feature.

    For example, as a level designer, you may find yourself tasked with plotting player progression, determining enemy spawn points, or even scripting event triggers in the game. If you're a systems designer, you might be assigned the job of defining and implementing a character's abilities or balancing the enemy AI. Remember that being as versatile and knowledgeable about each of the tasks within each role will make you a more valuable team member.

    It's also unlikely that you'll have the opportunity to touch every element of the design. Each of these individual tasks can be enough to keep even the most talented designers busy for the duration of the project. They also provide an interesting challenge: how to go about splitting up all that work.

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