Excerpt: How Games Are Made - A Common Misunderstanding

By Charlie Czerkawski [02.21.12]

 [In this excerpt from the e-book Breaking Into Video Game Design - A Beginner's Guide, author Charlie Czerkawski details some common -- but incorrect -- assumptions about game development.]

People who aspire to work in the games industry  - sometimes even people who are already working in the industry - fall into the trap of misunderstanding how games are made. I don't exclude myself here, because I've made the same mistakes myself.

Several years ago, while I was working at a QA Testing lab, during one of the many lunch-time discussions pertaining to game design, a colleague stated that he imagined it was the artists who ‘usually' came up with the ideas and gameplay for new games, as they were the ones ‘making it happen' visually. This is an understandable point of view, although it seems a little naive when it comes from someone already working in the industry. But he was certainly looking at game creation from the wrong angle, not really understanding how games are made, how they are structured, and the processes by which they are ‘invented.'

Let's take the game of chess as an example - the board game, rather than any computerised version. How do you imagine it came to be?

Chess is as old as the hills, but from a design perspective, it would never have been formulated as a game by a sculptor intricately carving out all the wonderfully artistic playing pieces and then hoping that gameplay would somehow take shape. I doubt if anyone would ever think that it could have happened like that. Yet imagining that the artist alone would design a video game is as strange as assuming that the talented sculptor of pieces would have designed the clever, complex and mathematically precise game that is chess.

If you, today, were to attempt to re-design it, you would probably begin with diagrams on paper, or possibly on screen, then maybe you would make paper ‘placeholder' pieces. Once the game was functioning as a game, even in a fairly rudimentary fashion, you could then start to devise the over-riding theme of conflict and war and create a persona for each of the individual pieces. It is at this point where art - with all its individual skills and talents - would come into play, working closely with those personas, and contributing to them - and a series of sculpted pieces would be created. As ever, teamwork would be the key.

This is, effectively, how video games are built up too, through a series of iterations.

The developers begin with a basic prototype, blocked out with cubes/grey boxes/throw-away assets. The gameplay is built to function with these assets, and once gameplay exists, the art is moved into the game, effectively as an aesthetic which ‘lies over' the gameplay.

It is true that this is a very much simplified overview of the game creation process, and things do become far more complicated. There are, of course, many sub-iterations within gameplay development.  For example, the first stage is usually to move a character in an empty environment, then place obstacles within this environment, then enemies, etc, building up the scene. Along the way, the final art is introduced - a tricky and demanding process.

The main point of this, however, is that the art does not usually dictate the gameplay. The designers ‘play around' with the gameplay. There may be brainstorming sessions which involve whole teams of people, and sometimes, like our hypothetical chess designer, the video game designer will have to try things out on paper first! Of course, they will do this in consultation with others and with a deep awareness of and respect for all the other skills involved, but the decisions to be made will be the responsibility of the designer.

The programmer will make the game work, solving a series of difficult and sometimes intractable problems along the way. The artist will add that vital, visual appeal which we all know and love within video games. The success or otherwise of the finished game will depend very much on the interactions between these people, each with his or her own area of expertise. The producer will have overall responsibility for bringing that game to the market. But if the designer has some misguided idea that his job is simply to ‘tell everyone else what to do' - the game is probably doomed from the start!

What Should You Do To Become A Designer

The previous sections have effectively set the scene, defining and describing the role of game designer. Unfortunately, the advice given by so many career guides does not extend much beyond these rather vague definitions. But you're looking for something a bit more concrete, aren't you or you wouldn't have downloaded this eBook! You want to know what you have to do to become a designer.

The bad news is that there is no sure fire direct route into game design, and even when you think you may have found it, the path ahead will be full of unexpected twists and turns. In fact I sometimes think it's more of a maze than a route. It therefore follows that clear-cut advice can be problematic. However, I will give you my opinions based on the current state of play and attempt to formulate some kind of pragmatic approach, divided into seven separate sections.

It's up to you how far you want or need to follow these instructions, and following them is no guarantee of a job in game design. But at least the discussions in each section will give you food for thought when you're trying to decide where to go next. And the good news is that if you pay attention to at least some of this advice, it might just give you a head start over the multitudes of young people who say they want to ‘make video games' with no clear idea of how they are going to set about it.

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