Am I Doing Meaningful Game Design Work?

Original Author: Emmeline Pui Ling Dobson

Throughout my career I’ve experienced peaks and troughs. In the name of professionalism I always try to find something inspiring to grasp on to, a reason to do my task(s) that links the work to some internal motivation. I love to do work from my heart. When I’m not for several months I start to question “Why?” Especially because, back in 2003, I became a game designer for the love, not the money. Being a reflective sort, I’ve examined a lot of different work that I’ve done and considered what makes me happiest and, when not naturally enthusiastic about a responsibility, better mind hacks to help me apply myself. I’d encourage anybody in a situation where you effectively take a pay cut because you care passionately about your work to ensure you really are doing what you love and, if not, to examine what you could do to change your situation.

This is an illustration I first mentioned during a presentation to students on the Games Cultures course at London Southbank University in 2009. It helped me explain the difference between the aspirations we have and what we imagine working in game design will be like and, once we get in, the actual day-to-day roles that junior or intermediate designers typically get assigned. The axes represent aspects of being creative, whether for work or play, that keep cropping up in my thoughts time and time again on my journey:

Creativity_space

Space representing two aspects of the application of creativity

The x-axis represents a spectrum from creating from the inside-out on the left and creating for an external audience on the right. When people say, “you should make the games you want to make” they are expressing that being in the left-hand side of the space is important to them.

On the other hand, one Game Designer I respected once said to me, “The difference between an artist and a designer is that a designer works to a brief.” The far right-hand side of the spectrum shown here is design for other people, working to a brief, keeping the audience constantly in mind to lead the design process.

The y-axis in the space represents high-level design work at the top – aesthetic content, the game world, theme and tone, characters. What the game is about. At the bottom is design work implementing the nuts-and-bolts workings of the game. Tweaking frame data in a fighting game, placing enemies into a level or playtesting and iterating the physics properties of a vehicle could be examples of this type of work.

High-level design work looks at the big picture; low-level design work is focused on the details. There’s no implication that game concept design is “above” implementation. Both are indispensable, and either could be the starting-point for a game project.

From reading different disciplines writing or speaking about their work, you might get the following impression of design roles in the AAA boxed retail games section of the industry:

Creativity_space_industry

Domains that different design department job brackets tend to work in

How can you use this as a tool?

Take stock of your career goals by mapping out the area you want to be working in. Then map where you are in your current role and think if you’re learning the skills and have the opportunities that will get you to where you want to be.

Much of my own games design experience has been implementing or overseeing the implementation of minute-to-minute gameplay, work on story and characters and contributions to pitches1:

Creativity_space_b_AAA

Work as a seasoned game designer – mostly implementation, some concept stuff, not often very well-integrated

However I enjoyed the chances to influence the bigger picture more; I wanted to apply myself to a project with a greater sense of ownership, something with my own stamp on it. Connecting with an audience is part of my creative make-up, too:

Creativity_space_b_dream

Is this your dream job?

It seems that many creative souls enter the games industry with dreams of working in this area.2 Then they find that somebody else is actually making these decisions and in order to stave off frustration if their voice is stifled at the vision level of the project, they start to tell themselves that wanting to work with the game vision is a naïve desire to be grown out of. For me, I came to a point where I decided I needed to find my own angle on getting satisfaction out of my low-level, audience-focused work, and use other avenues for being artistic.

Kareem Ettouney of Media Molecule spoke at Playful 2009 about the importance of allowing your creative staff time and respect for their personal projects. I later saw that this applied to me, that investing the energy to be creative into something, especially when it wasn’t finding at outlet at work, was key to feeling a better balance in life. As a result of my taking inventory, I became more relaxed and focused on what I was doing in my job rather than anxious about what I wasn’t. I started self-directed projects at home, getting creative satisfaction from drawing and painting. I also made plans for areas of the chart I could see myself developing valuable expertise in. I’m now heading towards the bottom-right of the chart:

Creativity_space_b_user

Should most professional game designers be working in this area?

In recent roles I have been designing games for kids and designing learning for 16-19 year old college students. I think most people who enter the games industry, at least in the AAA boxed retail games sector, have ambitions to be doing high-level work with their own personal stamp on it; this is why 90% of articles filed under “game design” in Gamasutra or GameDev.net are about high-level design and vision, not about nuts-and-bolts game design or areas like pacing, player-character progression and designing core mechanics that occupy the middle territory. Designing for an audience and a focus on detail also lend themselves to more reliable quality measurements, helping me reflect on my own work and receive more useful feedback. There are also a lot of learning resources available in this area; cross-over with other design fields is stronger.

I would unlikely turn down an opportunity to work on new swords-and-sorcery AAA games, especially if aimed at younger teenage girls and boys, like the Zelda series. I grew up on airships3, pegasus knights and vespene gas, and that’s an undeniable part of my DNA. But in the current global situation where work in the UK is trending towards motion control games and the march away from new IP continues, I believe it is adaptive to be exploring other ways of fulfilling those creative drives that brought me into games in the first place, while developing my existing design experience with skills that are sought-after both in the AAA sector and emerging markets for game design expertise.

What else could you use this chart for?

You could adapt this tool with any axes that are meaningful for you. Perhaps it’s more important to you to think about whether your company’s vision is for producing great products or for becoming an incredible workplace? (This is usually with the hope that the other will emerge as an effect of progress towards your primary target!) I find it interesting that I could map the Creative / Design / Development departments behind Magic: the Gathering as described extensively on their rich public website. Creative would be in the high-level territory, perhaps with a bit more creating from their own hearts and minds; Design covering a large area in the middle, but leaning more towards the audience; Development further towards the bottom-right of the chart. When building your design team, how about ensuring coverage of most of the space, with clearly-defined, smaller spaces occupied by each job role? Does this just work for design, or for technical art specialisms, programming and production, too?

Footnotes

1 I’ve also been heavily concerned with the meta-game design of how best to do team communication, particularly written specs ready for implementation in code and design change records.

2 When the game design syllabus I taught last Autumn says in its summary, “Game design is about daydreams”, they are promoting high-concept as the whole of game design and potentially misleading students.

3 Unfortunately I did not literally grow up on an airship.