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What is a game designer?

Being A Game Designer

Harry Ravenswood (Lead Designer, Kuju Entertainment) gives expert video advice on: What's the best thing about the job?; Are there any perks to the job?; What makes a great game designer? and more...

What is a game designer?

There's actually a number of different game design roles, but as a lead game designer, my role is basically to put the vision together for the game, come up with the concept blueprint and then guide the process of making the game.

What does a game designer do all day?

What a game designer does is very mixed, actually. This is to do with the fact that there are a number of different roles for game designers. There are level designers, for example, who will spend a majority of the day building the levels. For me, as a lead game designer, I spend a lot of time writing lists of things for other people to do. I meet with discipline leads. I'm working with the producer. That's during a game project. If we're not working on a project, I'll be contributing to pictures and concept documents. Its a pretty varied day, for me at least, and usually for most game designers, actually.

What are the hours like?

Normally the hours in game design are 9 to 5. However, once we actually get close to a milestone or to a game being released, we'll start working longer hours. We call that a crunch. You'll do long nights and possible weekends as well. But we try to keep that to a minimum.

What's the pay like?

The pay in game design depends on the seniority of the staff. As there are lots of different designers, from junior right through to senior, there's a corresponding scale for the pay. Someone junior would probably start on a pay of £15-16,000 a year, and then as you get more senior you would be looking at the £30,000 per year mark. It also depends on the size of the game design company you're working for - bigger companies can afford to pay more - and it also depends on what sort of game you're working on. Big AAA games would potentially give you royalties and bonuses for completing them, and if they sell well you'll get some royalties there, too.

What's the best thing about the job?

The best thing about the game design job for me is the ability. There are a couple of things, too. You get to be creative everyday, and there are not that many jobs that allow you to do that, and you get to collaborate with, honestly, some of the most creative and smart people you could come into contact with. There is collaboration and creativity everyday in game design.

What's the worst thing about the job?

The worst thing about the job is that the creativity is a bit of a double edged sword. It's great to see your product on the shelves at the end of a couple of years of making a game. However, sometimes it can go horribly wrong and you'll actually see you're putting yourself out there a bit as a game team, and you're opening yourself up to criticism. You've got to trust that your creative decisions are the right ones, and that can be nerve-wracking sometimes. Still, it's totally worth it.

Are there any perks to the job?

Potentially, there are perks to a job as a game designer. There's some travel involved sometimes for senior staff, in terms of travelling overseas to pitch for new contracts or to go to seminars, conferences, etc. That's a nice thing to do. I've been to New York a few times. Other perks of being a game designer getting your hands on some of the newest games straightaway. Other than that, it's a fairly standard job.

Is the designer in ultimate control of a project?

The lead designer is the last arbiter of what happens in the game. At the studio, at least, we have a creative director, too, so it's a collaboration between the lead designer and him. That said, there is a sense of collaboration and team ownership, so everyone on the team has input in the final game, potentially, and some of the best ideas come not necessarily from a design team. Ultimately, the lead designer needs to make the final call about what goes into the game.

What makes a great game designer?

A great game designer is someone who's creative, pragmatic, good at problem solving, creatively problem solving and who is a good collaborator. A great game designer is someone who can work across the disciplines, who can work with the artists, who can work with the coders who are building the game for you and with you, and understand where they're coming from, and bring it all together at once. A great game designer is someone who can foster a good team environment, too. That's for a lead designer, at least. Level designers all have elements of that as well: good creativity, good problem solving, good ability to liaise with other people.

How has the job changed over the years?

The game designing job has changed in a number of different ways. It's become more formal. I think people understand it more; people are now aware of it. The fact that we're talking about game design today is a good example of that. I think it's moved away from something that enthusiasts do, to a more formal and well recognised role within a game studio. It used to be often thought that the person who had the wackiest ideas was the game designer. Now, I think a game designer someone who actually understands how to put the pieces in place to make the game work. You're seeing that change also in courses being designed to teach people how to become game designers.

What's a design document?

A design document is usually a pretty large blueprint. It explains the rules of the game, all the systems that are involved in making the game and all the things you'll need. We actually call a design document a design Bible. If anyone wants to say, "So, how is this supposed to work in the game?" they can go to the design Bible and look it up. The design document is usually written by the lead designer, sometimes with some help from the other designers as well.

How is a design document used by a game designer?

The game designer - the lead game designer, who puts the design document together originally - will spend some time on that and solicit feedback from other game designers and coders while the document is being put together. Once the design document is up and running, and it's a good snapshot of what we want, the rest of the team will scrutinise it and pull out the bits that they think are relevant for their area of work. As game development progresses, the design document is kept up to date, so it's a live working document in a lot of ways. As we discover that some of the initial ideas don't work, we'll adjust it. As you find that there are certain areas that require more detail, again you'll keep the design document up to date and look after it. It can get quite weighty and very big.

How is a design document used by the rest of the team?

The rest of the team will use the design document with an eye for picking up the detail that's relevant to them. The artists will go through and look at any features that require special effects or special environments they might need to build, or whatever basically is required of art. Similarly, code will scrutinise the features that make up the game and work out how it is they're actually going to make those features work. Often, they'll write a technical design document that will run in parallel with the game design document. If I were to say that I want something to work in a certain way, they'll then go away and actually spec out exactly how that's going to work with the code. Then the producer actually pulls out the game design document along with the QA lead, and we will work out a plan for testing and making sure that what we are doing is actually in line with what we are aiming to do. Everything flows out from the game design document.