My definition of a Game Designer

From time to time I get emails from students and other people interested in the game industry. Most of the time they are seeking advice, or information pertaining to programming, but sometimes the questions are about the industry in general. Recently I was asked to describe what a game designer was, and after a few minutes I realized my response was a wall of text, yet still felt incomplete. I’m sharing it here since I’d like to know if my game designer friends and colleagues have anything to correct or add:

So this is ‘my description’ of a game designer (but it is still a pretty vague job description)

Game designers have various responsibilities depending on the studio and the game. Generally you are responsible for coming up with the ‘rules’ of the game, for example the board game of checkers, you would write the rules for how to play the game: what you are required to do, what is allowed/not allowed, etc. For digital games, this expands into a bunch of different things, from the game rules, to ‘tuning’ values in the game so jumping, aiming, shooting, ‘feels’ a certain way. But this also includes coming up with ideas and values for things, such as types of ammo and amounts of ammo, amount of HP, whether or not you have some sort of ‘shield’ or ‘armour’ values, etc. Some games have ‘levels’ you achieve with ‘experience points’, all of these ideas, values and concepts are crafted by game designers. All of that I would consider ‘system design’.

There are also level designers, who work with tools to make levels/environments for a game – this is a specialization and includes a little bit of art and architecture sensibilities. Additionally there are ‘narrative designers’ whose focus is story, dialogue, characters, mood, etc – mostly written and spoken words in games, as well as the story arcs and branches.

For competitive games there are balance designers who make sure there isn’t a ‘dominant strategy’ in your game, so for games like StarCraft you’ll see it gets changed over time because eventually people figure out what the current ‘best way to do things’ is, and then if everyone plays exactly the same way, it gets boring fast.

With new ‘social’ and ‘free-to-play’ games, there are design roles like ‘economy’ and ‘virality’ design, since players purchase currencies in the game economy, can spend it on different things, maybe can even trade things with other players. This involves a bunch of math, statistics, and economic theory.

The last area I can think of right now is UI design, which is more visual/art-related, where you design where buttons, titles, text, etc appear, and in what order, how screens flow and their order, etc, to ensure a smooth and enjoyable user experience.

Any correction or additions?

Edit: Raul adds:

narrative/content designers also help shape the art/sounds/vfx according to the Creative Director’s vision

Edit 2: Alexandre Mandryka wrote a detailed article about this very topic: Lifting the Designer’s Curse (I highly recommend reading his stuff)

Edit 3: Kevin Oke adds:

All designers, whether they are game designers, graphic designers, industrial designers, ATM interface designers etc… – are trying to do the same thing, and that is encourage and direct specific, desired, behaviours. We can do that through mechanics, level design, story, UI design, lighting, etc. To that end, I love the description Dan Cook gave of games, as “engines of applied psychology.” So game designers are builders of these engines. That may sound high level and vague, but that really IS it.

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