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  • Tips for the Working Designer

    [07.26.07]
    - Sylvain Dubrofsky
  •  Most of us know of design luminaries in the industry, but in a team of 10 designers there are eight or nine non-lead designers whose quality of work is increasingly important. As non-lead designers, we are often given new challenges from project to project, working on games or parts of games we have never worked on before. I love the challenge of constantly delving into the unknown, but having a proper design approach will help give you a huge advantage over designers who go into situations "using their gut".

    Articles on design tend to either have a very narrow focus (such as first-person shooter level design) or a very broad one (very general rules and observations) and they're often written by well-known or respected design leads. While these can be a great read, most of us are not in the position where this shared knowledge is useful on a day-to-day basis. The narrow scope is very useful if you happen to be making a first person shooter, but how about if we are making a level in a racing or a third-person stealth game? An article focusing on more general game design may help the lead designer guide the team, but 90 percent of us don't have the level of authority or control for these kinds of articles to be particularly useful!

    Often, designers are in situations that are not ideal. We end up working on low profile titles with small budgets and little time. The gameplay may not be a known quantity or can be constantly in-flux. Additionally, we might be working on aspects of the game that are new to us without good guidelines or leadership. It is our responsibility in these situations to persevere and make sure our systems or levels are as good as we can make them, regardless of the situation at hand.

    The best way to approach these situations is not to simply cross our fingers and hope for the best, but to do everything we can to research the subject, devise a method that reduces wasted time and effort, and work with a cycle of constant iteration and feedback.

    Why should you read an article written by someone who has worked on games you've probably never played? As a working designer who often doesn't have the authority to shape the project I'm working on, my job is primarily responsive to the choices made by others. Most designers out there are in the same situation. Devising a method that is flexible enough to allow designers to create quality work with greater communication is essential for our job.

    Three Kinds of Design

    There are three basic kinds of design: system, level, and character.

    System design involves creation and tuning of particular features of the game such as fighting systems, artificial intelligence (AI), particular game modes, etc. This requires coordinating with programmers, producers, and various other disciplines. Sometimes the designer will be responsible for scripting the system on top of providing the initial design.

    Level design involves the specification, construction, and tuning of levels or other physical areas of the game.

    Character design is the specification, creation, and tuning of animated creatures.

    For this article I will focus on system and level design.

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