Sharing the Design

By Brandon Van Slyke [04.03.08]

 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.

 Splitting up the Work
When developing a new feature in tandem with another designer, it's best to decide up front how you both want to tackle the task. This usually comes down to personal preferences, and each designer likes to go about his or her craft differently.

In some situations, it's best to simply sit next to one another and work together to formulate the design. This approach has the added benefit of maintaining strong visibility for everyone involved. In the end, you'll both know what changes were made, how it affects the overall picture, and be able to easily discuss any differences in opinion immediately as they come up, avoiding a lot of needless backtracking and unnecessary confusion.

But working together in this fashion is not always sugary landscapes and candy-coated sunsets. This approach doesn't work for everyone and can sometimes result in impeding the efficiency of one or both of the designers. This is especially true when one has had more exposure and history with the feature or mechanic than the other. In this kind of situation, it's often best to break up the work and deal with it individually, although before doing so, it's important to establish a checkpoint. The checkpoint signals a time when you'll both stop working and meet up to discuss the progress being made and identify any outlying issues or dependencies that may have cropped up.

Deciding how to break up the work is often the most difficult problem you'll face. What usually occurs is that one designer decides to take ownership of a piece of the design and takes it upon himself to be accountable for that portion. For example, let's say you're assigned to the team that's responsible for designing the characters in the game. One person can go off and start determining the general stats for the characters, while the other can begin documenting the characters' abilities. All the while, another person can begin scheduling meetings with the concept artists to get a head start on conceptualizing the characters' look and feel. This method tends to make the best use of everyone's time by eliminating any needless busy work.

Another issue that may crop up regarding sharing and ownership is that you may be working with designers who are in a different time zone or even speak a different language. For instance, some mobile game developers comprise studios all over the world, which collaborate with each other on everything from a game's design to its subsequent porting and localization. This doesn't mean you need to run out and learn French, German, Farsi, and Tagalog. However, it helps if you can recognize when to be patient with other team members. It also helps to adopt a common core vocabulary of design terms, which will more often than not result in less confusion and unintentionally humorous emails for everyone involved. Also, being flexible and maintaining strong communication via instant messenger or scheduled conference calls will allow new designers to thrive in these situations.

Benefits of Ownership
What is ownership and how does it contribute to a game designer's job?

Ownership is taking on responsibility for a specific piece of the design and "owning" the work that goes into it. You are in charge of defining that component's characteristics and accountable for getting it to work within the framework of the game. Ownership is a very important concept to grasp when it comes to large-scale projects.

Giving people ownership allows each person on the team to feel as though they are significantly contributing to the overall product. When you have ownership of something, you get a sense of satisfaction from knowing that you helped sculpt the player's experience in a tangible way. It also builds confidence by providing solid direction to you as a designer. Just like playing a game, being able to identify a concrete goal can help motivate you to do your best work without feeling like you are getting lost in the mix of what is often an extremely fast paced creative working environment.

On that same note, ownership also helps by letting designers focus in on their specific tasks without having to worry about every unique element of the design. One of the most enjoyable parts of the development process is finally taking the blinders off and looking at the game once everyone's hard work has finally been integrated. You might not have been aware that the UI was going to work the way it does or that the in-game economy had been altered to allow character leveling on a per mission basis. But being surprised on occasion by the talent of your team members, and in turn having the chance to amaze them, is one of the coolest things about working in a team.

Collaborative game design is still being defined and will always be open to many different interpretations. Production methodologies such as agile development are being adopted to help teams identify best practices for scoping out work and assigning tasks. The majority of new designers will be exposed to these on the job. Nevertheless it's important for all new designers to realize that being part of a team requires a lot of give and take in terms of communication, sharing ideas, and assigning specific responsibilities.

It's cheesy to say, but it's also very true: There's no ‘I' in "team." It should come as no big surprise that collaboration with others, more often than not produces extraordinary results.

Brandon Van Slyke is a professional video game designer currently at Vicarious Visions (an Activision studio) in New York.

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