When I got into the industry way back in the 1980s, there was one type of game designer in our industry. We called him "programmer." He (or she in the case of the rare few like Dona Bailey) was often a one-man show responsible for design, programming, sound, and art all in one. I worked with one of these individuals right on up until 1988, in fact. Eventually, games grew larger, and with the increased size came a specialization of tasks. Teams formed, and we had artists, programmers, designers and even a sound person. Eventually producers came along to network and schedule the increasingly growing teams.
In the last ten years, but more so in the last five, we've seen greater specialization within the fields themselves so that now, and at least in my field, the term "game designer" sounds general. It's a perfectly okay term to use on indie game projects, but when you're talking about a big Xbox 360 production, saying, "I'm the game designer", is likely to result in a follow up, "Yeah, but what exactly did you design?"
We've got roles now. I've listed them below as I've experienced them. Bear in mind that there's no such thing as OSHA requirements for design gigs, so what I experienced in these various roles will likely gust in one direction or another depending on the company. As usual, there are few absolutes in the game industry.
Lead designers are responsible for managing a team of designers and making sure that the game's overall vision is achieved. As a lead, you will put out fires, do what needs to be done, maintain a good attitude and teach those working with you the ropes. By yourself or with the help of others, you will establish the game's core and define its feature set (or it may be defined for you by publisher mandate). You may decide how the project is documented, determine the basic systems and create the overall story arc, or you might assign these to another designer on the team. You review what they did and make sure it integrates into the bigger picture. At some point or another, you may take on one (or two or three) of the roles listed below. You also need to develop an eye that can analyze and critique work, your own along with everyone else's.
You will work a great deal with the art and programming leads to make sure the feature that you're hoping for is feasible technically and artistically. You'll hear "no" a lot. As a note, teams go much smoother when the leads are a tight group. If there is lead warfare, it's painful for all involved. Fortunately for me, I've only experienced this once a long, long time ago. The producer squashed the art lead before it reached a dramatic point, and all was well.
New leads or those hoping to be lead someday may confuse the term "lead" with "dictator" or "visionary." It is neither. A good lead knows when to get out of the way and encourages others to help shape the game. Good games are rarely the "vision" of a single individual, but rather a collective whole. I once heard a quote which I will paraphrase (badly) here: the job of a lead is to encourage people smarter than they are to do their jobs well.
Level designers are probably the best known of all game designers, and it's their job to create the level-by-level play in a game. If you've ever jumped when a monster nailed you coming around a corner, discovered a particularly advantageous place to shoot from, or felt tension coming out of an in-game elevator, know that somewhere, there's a level designer who planned that experience for you. Level designers generally place the creatures, items, props (boxes or crates or whatever) within the level, or they may have junior level designers who do it. Level designers are usually artists and programmers-of-a-sort as well, and may create many of the assets needed to finish the level and do all the necessary scripting to make things go exactly as they desire them to.
Within the level design field, there are different specialties as well. FPS level design is different than RPG or MMO level design, for instance, and each type requires an in-depth knowledge of the standard play mechanics and level flow within those games. I've worked on RPG level design my whole career.
Content designers are involved with the world's narrative in some way or another. They may write the story, the NPC or PC dialog, the missions and the in-game material to support the story (such as books in a library or writing on a cave's wall or other historical things).
With the rise of persistent worlds, content designers are more in demand than ever. RPGs have always needed truckloads of content, and now that these worlds have been made seemingly endless, the need for more content is ongoing. Content designers might also be called upon to create massive stocks of items, creatures or spec other assets of that type.
Content designers shouldn't be confused with game writers, although they often are. They are not one and the same, although one person may do both things. It's quite possible that a content designer could design the overall mission flow of the game while a game writer crafts the scenes, text and dialog that pushes that mission along.
As I eluded to in the last paragraph, game writers are different from content designers. Content designers may or may not write the text and dialogue for the actual missions they create. Game writers write (and hopefully write well). It is not a field that just any old writer can step into either. I like how it's put in the book Chris Bateman edited, Narrative Skills for Video Games . To paraphrase: Writers in other mediums don't have to come up with 30 different ways to get an NPC to say to a player, "Dude, I told you all I had to tell you. Move on." Game writers and content designers are usually one and the same. They don't have to be, though, hence this extra section here.
System designers focus on one particular system within the game, sometimes in conjunction with others. For a fighting game, for instance, a system designer might focus on any one of these systems: avatar creation, fighting, crowd dynamics, training or leveling. Their attention might be focused on something smaller than a system - such as all the weapons within the game, the range of spells or the types of characters that the player can create. It all depends on the size of the game and the team. Sometimes, just a few designers will do it all. I've worked on a team where I was the only designer. I've also been one of six system designers on a large Xbox 360 project.
Technical designers are part programmer and part designer and are responsible for actually implementing a lot of the gameplay. They are often the middleman, so to speak, between the programming and design departments. Over the years, languages have evolved to allow designers the ability to tweak a lot of the gameplay without inadvertantly tweaking the programming department in the process ("Hey. Can you change this thing for the tenth time today?"). Lua and Python are the most popular scripting languages used right now, and many companies have their own propriety language, too.
Technical designers can cross over into the realm of system design, too. I've worked with a technical designer who was excellent at stats and programming macros in Excel. He could give me a pretty precise idea of how well balanced a game was based on existing play before the new data had been put into use. According to a friend of mine who specializes in technical design, knowledge of probability and stats helps here, too.
UI Designer or Usability Expert
The job of the UI designer is to create the interface for the game to make sure the player and the game communicate well with one another. It could go without saying (but it won't): a good UI designer makes sure that it's easy for the player to use the game and understand its commands. He or she also ensures that the player gets consistent feedback throughout the game. This role has become quite interesting in recent years. Games like Fight Night 3 incorporate crowd movement, ringside announcements, and avatar movement into the interface to make sure the players receive exactly what they need to when they need to know it. There's not even a HUD in the game if you don't want there to be.
As games seek to expand beyond their traditional markets, usability experts are increasingly entering the field and improving designs we all take for granted. I still recall the conversation that a fellow game designer had with me about her parents' first foray into a virtual world. She'd set up accounts for them in her favorite MMO, only to discover they couldn't play the game. Why? They couldn't figure out how to walk in a virtual world. There are literally millions of people out there just like them.
Senior designers will be expected to comfortably perform any of the tasks above if called upon to do so, and they'll have a proven track record with all of them except, perhaps, level design. I've known quite a few designers in senior positions who worked with level designers, but didn't do the level design themselves. A senior designer has shipped a few titles and probably has experience as lead on at least one of them.
A junior designer generally works under a lead or a senior designer, learning about game design through practical experience. Until you work in the industry -- and it doesn't matter where you study or what you worked on -- you don't know what it's like to be in the industry. It's important to do your time at the junior level, too. When I got into the industry, there was no school that offered game design, or anything like it for that matter. I learned by watching what others did, and pitching in when they let me. I apprenticed. When it came time for me to be the designer on the Wizardry series, I felt excited, honored ... and intimidated. I can't imagine having to jump into a role like that without some kind of warm up.
People also step into junior design roles if it's their first time on a new system or a new genre, like making the jump from PC to console or RPG to FPS. It's just a matter of getting your feet wet.
It's the job title we have when we're not working in one of the positions above or we are working all the positions above. Game designers go between so many of these roles that perhaps it's not the term that's general, but the people who are able to fill the role. We're generalists: specialized in multiple things and able to do what we need to do when we need to do it (or maybe I'm just fancying that we are). On the other hand, depending on the size and type of the project, there may be only one designer involved. In this case, you're not really a lead (who are you leading?), but at the same time, you're doing it all.
Design Director or Creative Director
This is the boss level of game design, where you are setting the creative course for more than just a single project. You may be setting it for the company or a division of the company. It's an amazing role, and the individuals who fill it are often the best and brightest in the industry. They have a proven track record, multiple successful titles under their belts, and often 10 or more years' experience in the industry.
I was interviewing for a DD position at a couple of companies when I accepted the professor job at Savannah College of Art and Design. I guess that will bring me to the last entry on my list, one I hadn't though of before just now.
Game Designer as Teacher or Researcher
This is what I am now.
My classes are games, and the lectures are the narratives. The assignments are the missions (they're all games, too), and the grades and the games my students create are their rewards. I approach course design exactly like I approach game design. I'm not just waxing on here, either. I've actually turned all my classes into games of a sort, and I am actually ranked and evaluated upon their design at the end of every quarter. (Seriously. Students evaluate every course, and I read every evaluation.)
If games are about learning and are, in fact, great for learning, then teaching through games is also ideal. If you haven't read Raph Koster's book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, you really should. Follow that up with Prof. Jim Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.
That's not to say I don't lecture. I do. But after the lecture, there's application, and in that application there's always a game. Usually, we're creating it to show the principle or the mechanic or the method in action.
I put as much time into designing my design courses as I would a game of the same size, in fact. I have particular goals for the "players." I want to see them enjoy themselves, and when I find a particular player that doesn't seem into the game, as it were, it will puzzle me and cause me to think on it until I figure out either a way to get the player interested or accept that I can't reach everyone every time. I get absurdly interested in certain student projects, design my own projects right alongside them, and find teaching a whole lot like the process of mentoring a junior designer, except that you mentor them five or ten at a time as opposed to one or two. I think this comes from who I am and where I come from -- a game designer from the industry. So, it's all I really know, and it's what I do.
Brenda Brathwaite teaches the Applied Game Design course at Savannah College of Art and Design. She also consults in the video game industry. A version of this article originally appeared on her web site and is reprinted here with permission.