“How do I become a game designer?” The simple answer is: “You don’t, because they don’t exist any more.”
Over the past few years, and without widespread recognition, an insidious but significant shift in the tectonic plates of Western game development has occurred: the death of the game designer.
Question is, should we be concerned?
For the sake of full disclosure, let bias be flung out into the open for all to see: designing video games is a personal passion. Even as a wee young ‘un, the innumerable hours spent creating games would envelop this writer’s then youthful psyche and Time itself, that ever-moving monster, would cease its execrable forward march and be rendered insignificant. As noted Hungarian Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi might suggest, a state of flow was entered.
However, despite a rabid interest from a young age, tangible information about how to ‘get into’ the industry – specifically in the role of a designer – was hard to come by. From the outside, commercial game development appeared as though a furtively-locked box; one that could only be cracked open with highly elusive, exotic tools (later in life, these tools would be identified as ‘connections’).
So, a number of years ago, upon attending a talk held by a principle member of a much-lauded AAA game developer, and desperate to inquire the manner in which one would seek employment as a game designer, the Q&A portion of the proceedings was fervently awaited. After much frustrated fidgeting of derrière upon plastic seat (due to anticipation, as opposed to absolute boredom or itchy piles), the time finally came for the audience to ask their questions.
Eagerly, arms were thrust high in the air with every finger elongated in fervour, and, by chance or by over-stretched appendage, yours truly was chosen. Nervously, propped upon shaky fundaments, heart a-pounding and head dizzy with the possibilities that lay ahead (finally, someone would crack that locked box ajar!), the BIG question was asked: “How does someone get a job as a game designer?”
Now, please do not think this writer completely naïve; even then, the assumption that one could simply walk into a company and land a lead design role was clearly an ill-conceived one. Instead, it was anticipated that some insightful wisdom, advising entry-level grunt work and progressing from there, would be ladled out for hungry consumption and future benefit.
What was completely and shockingly unexpected, however, was for the esteemed gentleman to snort derisively, raise an arched, supercilious brow and proceed to inform the crowd that, unequivocally, there was no longer the need for such archaic things as game designers. After all, he explained in the general vicinity of my stupefied face, everyone has ideas, games are collaborative projects, so why bother? No need for a “king in his castle” (his words, not mine) to be issuing commands of the workers below, when the workers can do it themselves.
Apparently, and without fanfare, the monarchy had been overthrown.
Now, having never considered a game designer to be akin to some despot dictator or mad inbred member of royalty, this incredibly dismissive take on the role left me utterly ruined. In a single, gut-punch blow, a multitude of dreams came crashing down: the box had been opened and there was nowt but cruelty within. To spare you the plodding specifics of the existential crisis that proceeded this unwanted revelation, simply imagine a filmic mid-shot with a hunched figure, stylistically-framed in bruised shadows, curled in some filthy corner and piteously weeping.
Fast forward and this approach to game design has seemingly and increasingly gained traction, at least within Western development. In many ways, and as a supposedly mature and self-reflective adult with game development duties under-belt, it is easy to agree with the sentiments behind the idea: yes, no one person should be singularly responsible for the design of a game and, yes, the process of game development should be a collaborative one that takes into account (and benefits from) the skills, creativity and knowledge of all those working upon it.
Yet, despite this, lies the personal and vehement belief that games designers are still a vital component of game creation, a reaction chiefly elicited by ill-informed fallacy that anyone and everyone can design games. To highlight the hubris of this latter notion, let us draw a parallel with the medium of literature and the skill of authorship for a moment; whilst the old idiom suggests everyone has a book in them, what is oft left unspoken in retort (but remains ever-true) is how 95% of these supposed literary feats will be complete and utter bollocks.
And this retort is true for game design, too. Sure, you can have an idea, but is it a good idea? How does it feel to play? How does it flow? How does it make the player feel? Does it fit together with all the other pieces of the game jigsaw? These – and many other questions – must be considered when developing the systems and mechanics that inform the play, and not everyone has the capacity or the want to do so, or if they do, they simply don’t care enough. Could the absence of a unique voice, or guiding vision, be why so many of today’s games are the lumpen, homogeneous mess of pointless, superfluous collect-o-thons we repeatedly endure?
This isn’t a intended as a slight on those skilled artists and programmers who conjure magic from nothing, but everyone has their own strengths and passions and this is why a designer is so needed – someone to consider and envision the player’s experience and how enjoyable things are to do. After all, why the hell is Miyamoto so revered, and so inspirational, if those tasked specifically with game design are so redundant?
So, let us throw this out there to masticate over: if we are not careful, dedicated game designers could be written out of the equation entirely and games will be forever designed by committee. If this seems inconsequential to you, please remember that the tiresome (but always omnipresent) cheese-fest comedy, Friends, was not the vision of an individual, or auteur, but a committee-created product; one where poor on-set audience reaction to jokes would result in a dozen writers desperately clambering, grunting and squeaking over immediate script re-writes. Is it only me that feels a shudder of despair at this very idea? Is this what we want our games to become?
Or am I just the outmoded king in his luxury castle desperately trying to justify his pointless, bossy existence?
N.B For an interesting insight into the role and potential influence of a Japanese Game Director, hunt down Platinum Games’ documentaries for an fascinating comparative between the working styles of Mikami and Kamiya.
Want to try your hand at being a game designer? There are worse places to start than Super Mario Maker.