Do Game Companies Need Game Designers?

11Jan09

This question may seem a bit confusing. Isn’t a game designer essential in the process of making games? After all, the game designer is the one who comes up with an idea, or works on an already existing vague idea for a game. The visuals, the game mechanics, the scoring, the text, the sound – the game designer is the one who roughly, and sometimes not so roughly, sets the general feel and look of a game, that should be fun for the player and hopefully bring money to the game company.

So why are there still companies who decide to make games without the aid of a game designer? Not hiring or having a game designer does save a company some money but in the long run, how are they going to make games with the small but essential cog in the big wheel missing? Games, that are fun to play, appreciated by the consumer and target audience and therefore bring in some money.

It is making me sad to see that the game designer is still regarded as someone neglectable. Decisions can be made on a democratic basis. Should it be green? 5 vote yes, three vote no, one vote for mauve… Is this really the right way to make good games? Not having someone around whose sole purpose is to come up with a game mechanism that actually works, is consistent throughout the game, is well-balanced, intuitive to use, easy to grasp and unobtrusively working in the background. Someone who comes up with a rough sketch on character design, with the story for a game (if required), with the overall look and feel – after all, these are the things the consumer sees first. The genius gameplay can only be experienced but the story and visuals grasp the consumer’s first attention.

The game designer is also the one who defines the target audience and keeps in mind what the target audience desires the most. Which look will appeal? Which skill level does the target audience approximately have? A game can be as ingenious as possible – if it does not appeal to the target audience, sales will not be as high as expected. On the long run, not having a game designer – does it really save that much money?

I am asking myself these questions because I have experienced myself that companies are re-structured and completely omit the creative level. There is no head, no lead, no real department where design decisions are made. This kind of structure is fine for any other company that does not rely on selling a product whose sole purpose is to bring fun to households and gamers. For a gaming company, though, it is rather unprofitable neglecting the creative department in favor of saving a few bucks.

A better insight on why a game designer is essential for a games company can be found on Intelligent Artifice’s blog. The article was written in 2007 but has not lost any of its up-to-dateness.

I am actually curious how many game companies without a person in the role as the designer of a game and being responsible for the body and mind of it have published a product that has become a big hit. Not even a big hit, just something that is fun to play, that has a high replayability factor, targets the right audience and has not actually cost more in production than it recouped.

What do you think?

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4 Responses to “Do Game Companies Need Game Designers?”

  1. 1 Tesh

    Good article. I’ve worked at a dev house for a monolithic publisher, and at a smaller company. In both, I’ve seen that the “game designer” role is vital to making a good game. There are times when that role is filled by a multitalented lead programmer or artist, so it need not always be a defined “job” in and of itself… but the role is vital.

    Oh, and as I noted when working with the bigger company, too many layers of middle management do not substitute well for a real “game designer”. I could rant on that for a while, but let’s just say that the Dilbert comics have a fair bead on some of the… inefficiencies of management.

  2. Completely agree that the “job” is not the issue but having someone at a game company who takes over the role of a designer, who is the one being responsible for decisions made about the game. And yet, there are still companies out there that decide to leave design to everyone involved and make it more of a “group decision”.

    Too many layers of middle management…

    *twitch*
    Dilbert is real, I tell you!

  3. 3 jhorneman

    Strictly speaking, a game company does not need game designers. However, it needs to make sure its games are designed well, and to ensure that enough time and focus are dedicated to that, it is simply the most efficient way to have someone on the team who does only that. Similar to what you say about ‘role’ versus ‘job’.

    IMO most companies that decide to make design decisions on a democratic basis are really deciding to have one or more non-designers make design decisions. In almost all cases it shows a deep lack of understanding of how games are made.

    Then again, there are different kinds of design roles and the input from other team members is vital. The exact boundaries between game design and the other disciplines are vague and depend on the people involved. But that doesn’t mean that there are no boundaries, and that input equals responsibility. Except for the smallest companies, not having a game designer is a very bad sign.

  4. Had an interesting conversation with a colleague today about this issue. We both agreed that only very small companies (or teams) can get away with not having one (or more) persons dedicated to design decisions only. Bigger companies, that earn their money with producing games only should, in fact, not completely omit the role of the one who is making design decisions. Not, if they want to produce quality titles.
    I see this notion, though, that everyone can be a game designer.


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