What does a games designer do?

What does a Games Designer do?

This article is aimed at those who think they might be interested in designing games as career, and is looking for more details on what a designer does, and what is involved.

For those reading this who are already designers, and wish to contribute any other bits of information for those who may be looking to get into this line of work, please get in touch!

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In my previous post, I shared with you my experience on how I got into the industry. It was a long and challenging journey, and a lot of lessons were learnt along the way.

Today, I want to talk to you about what, I think, a games designer is and what one typically does, as it’s often not very clear from the offset.

Before I went to University, I didn’t know what the games industry was like, what kind of jobs there were, or what I needed to do to start making games; When I decided that I wanted to make games, I made the assumption that to make these games, I needed to become a games programmer.

And while I wasn’t completely wrong, I didn’t really know that there was such a thing as a designer until I was in university. And something I didn’t realise either until I started working in the industry was that there were often more specialised designer roles too, depending on the studio and/or the project you work on. For example, there could be a project that required Level Designers, Systems Designers, Narrative and Story Designers, Combat and PvP Designers, and so on.

The roles that a studio needs will depend on the game that is being developed. For example, for a large role-playing or adventure game, you may need a Narrative designer, but a designer specialised in Narrative and story-telling isn’t going to be of much use for a football manager-style game.

Different types of roles

During my time as a designer, I went through a variety of different design roles;

As a junior designer I was predominantly doing Level Design, which I did for about 5 to 6 six years, After that I took an interest in Systems Design, and moved on to a different studio to fulfil that role. After a year or so, I became an Associate Producer and was put on a senior management course to help me fulfil the role.

One thing led to another, and I returned to a designer role instead continuing in production; this time as a PvP designer. This gradually evolved into a Systems Design role as the primary focus of the project we were working on changed, and then some years later I became a Lead Designer for Systems. The situation changed again about a year ago, and I am now a Senior Designer, but my main focus is still Systems Design.

Still a Systems Designer

Types of Games Designer

The following are just some of the different types of Games Designer that I am aware of. I won’t go into the full details of each role in this post, as I would like to cover and discuss some of these individually, just to give each of them as much detail as possible. These will be written in the near future, so please feel free to follow me on Twitter (@Designer_VickyB) or to sign up to this Blog for future updates.

But let me give you a brief overview of what some of the typical designer roles are in the industry for now.

Level Designer:

  • These designers put together levels using art assets, gameplay features, AI and NPC, sound, and any other relevant features to make a level cool and fun to play.
  • They typically work in a toolset or editor to build the level, and sets up gameplay set pieces with a visual or code-based scripting language.
  • Their primary focus is to create levels that are fun to play, that look good, and that are completely functional.

Systems Designer:

  • These designers put together designs and specifications for gameplay features that enhance the game. For example, a mechanic that requires the player to perform a specific action before they can proceed or unlock something.
  • Typically, these designers have a good technical understanding of how the game works down to the code level, so they can request features that are technically feasible.
  • They write full or brief design specifications for new features, or put together proposals for improving existing features, depending on what is required. They then work with the relevant programmers, artists, and other team members to get the feature in and working, or updated accordingly.
  • They may spend a lot of their time writing documents, but they would also be expected to use the editor or toolset that the studio uses to make sure that the feature is setup and configured correctly, and to do a fair amoint of testing and iteration too.

PvP and/or Combat Designer:

  • These designers make sure that any Player-vs-Player (PvP for short) or combat mechanics in the game are fun and are as fair as possible (i.e. balanced).
  • This is a very tricky design role, and one that often requires putting vasts amount of time into testing and iteration over and over again.
  • These designers typically use an editor or toolset, or maybe use code-based script, to make changes to values such as, for example, how much damage a level 1 sword should deal, in comparison to a level 2 sword, and so-on.
  • These designers check their values over and over again to make sure they are as balanced as possible, usually using a spreadsheet program like Excel, because of it’s ability to put together formulas and calculations quickly and efficiently.

Narrative/Story Designer

  • These designers focus on making sure that the story being told through the game is engaging and easy to follow from start to finish.
  • These designers also focus on the characters in the game, including the playable characters, non-playable characters (the NPCs), and any creatures or monster that are relevant to the story.
  • These designers work closely with Level Designers and Artists to ensure that the environment and setting matches what is lined up with the story, and that any set-pieces or events are triggered accordingly, depending on the story.
  • This designer also needs to be flexible and adaptable, as parts of their story may need to change if it cannot be technically portrayed through level design, or if there are other factors that need to influence how the story is told.
  • These designers also often work closely with audio teams if there is a need for spoken narrative throughout the game too.

UI Designer

  • These designers set up how the User Interface (UI) should look and work. For example, they decide the buttons that need to be presented to the player for them to choose the level or game mode that they want to play, or the weapons that they want to equip their character with, or the car they want to choose for their next big race.
  • This is also quite a difficult role, because if the players cannot use the interface easily to get into their game and play it, then the player would most-like shut the game down and never pick it up again.

Something to bear in mind, is that you may not specialise in just one design role. You may be required to take on multiple roles, depending on what the project needs – for example, you may be required to build levels, but you may also be asked to design systems that are required for parts of your level and other designer’s levels, too.

What else is there to being games designer?

When you're playing a game

Let me ask you some questions:

  • When you play a game that you’re really enjoying, do you start thinking about what it is about the game that you really enjoyed?
  • When you’re playing through a level, do you wonder what it is that makes you take a particular path, or do a particular action?
  • When you’re playing a racing game, do you notice the little things that make you feel more in the moment?
  • When you’re playing a fighting game, are you curious about how one of you could play a small but fast character and the other play a big but slow character, but can still fight a pretty fair fight (assuming that both players have equal fighting skills)?
  • When you’re playing a story or narrative-driven game, do you wonder how they managed to make the story so compelling, and at times so emotional, that you can’t stop playing the game, just so you can find out how the story ends?

If you find yourself asking these questions, and trying to dissect a game that you’re playing, or have finished playing, to find out why you did (or didn’t) enjoy it, then you’ve got that analytical instinct that most of us designers have.

I’m not saying that you should be doing this for every game that you played if you want to be a designer – I don’t even do that for every game I play! It is something, however, that we often find ourselves doing without realizing it; How many times have you discussed a game that you enjoyed so much to your friends? Or argued with others about why you thought a game was so great and they didn’t, or vice-versa?

Going from

Anyone who loves games does this, but what can be the difference between a gamer and a designer is the ability, and the willing, to look at what they would change about the game or feature they liked, or disliked, to make it better – not just say why they liked or disliked something.

Take for example a game you played where you struggled to fight a particular monster; it took you a lot of attempts, but then you finally defeated it.

Did you feel a sense of accomplishment for finally working out the technique to defeat it yourself, or did you feel frustrated because it was time-consuming chore?

Whether you liked or disliked it, if you had the power to change anything about that particular battle, what would you change make it better? Would you consider making the player more powerful or the monster weaker? Would you change the way the monster fought so that the technique to defeat the monster was either simpler or more complicated?

This ability to look at something, and then think of ways it could be changed or improved upon to give a different or better experience, is just one part of being a designer.

As designers we’re also tasked with coming up with new ideas, suggestions, and improvements, and this is just another part of what we do too. And depending on your role and the requirements of the project, you will most likely be involved in actually building and/or setting up your feature or part of the game with your own hands, with the editor or tools that you’re provided with.

One thing to remember is that we don’t always get it right, and at times what makes it right or not can be subjective and disputed, but that’s ok – it’s good to be wrong sometimes, so we can learn and improve on it, and it’s ok to discuss whether we feel something is right or wrong too. Everyone is different; we all look at things differently, we all experience things differently, and we all enjoy different things.

This is what makes our jobs as designer all-the-more difficult. We know we can’t please everyone, and we shouldn’t try to; the game that you will be working on would have a specific target audience in mind, and you will need to use experience and research to make assumptions into what that audience may or may not like.

You must also be willing to look into, and quite often, play or work on the types of games you don’t enjoy too. It’s all experience, and you may be surprised by what you find out or learn along the way.

As I am writing this, there is a game that I’ve been meaning to play as part of my research into something else for a very long time. It’s not my favourite genre of games, because I’m so goddamn awful at them, but I will play it soon, as I believe that the research and experience I will gain from encountering that game first-hand would be extremely useful.

And on that note, I’ll finish this post here, and actually try and get on with it.

I hope you enjoyed reading this. Feel free to comment if you have any questions or queries, or to send along any suggestions or thoughts that I should add or write about 🙂

Play that game that you won't enjoy!

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