If you had told me five years ago that I would one day be interested in designing video games for a living, I would probably have freaked out that some crazy person claiming to be from MIT was trying to tell me information about my future, then laughed hysterically with skepticism. Back then, my interest in video games was almost exclusively as a player, and not an especially good one, at that. I barely even owned any video games growing up, and my awareness of the development process was limited to channel-surfing into X-Play occasionally and wondering to myself who those faceless people were that produced these parent-terrifying time sinks.
Now, a few classes and UROPs later, I find myself increasingly curious about designing games as a field, dipping my toes into one of the more recent entries in this season of “Michael’s Next Top Career Choice.” Are you happy now, Mysterious Time-Traveling Crazy Person? You were right.
The weird thing, though, is that most people I tell about my burgeoning interest in game design is that they seem to confuse it with game development. When I try to explain what game design is, it usually ends with calling it “the creative, artistic part of making games — but not art-art, gameplay-art.” “What, you mean like coding?” It has become abundantly clear that I need a more elaborate metaphor to convey my point.
It’s hard to accurately describe how interconnected a game development team has to be in order to function properly. I don’t mean interconnected like the Power Rangers’ giant Zord mechas, where each Ranger has a distinct robot but they all smash bad guys in basically the same way. I would even hesitate to compare a game dev team to the crew in a caper movie, à la Ocean’s Eleven. Even though every team member has their specialty, they operate simultaneously but mostly independently of one another. Coordination is important but rarely essential until you get to the last half-hour of the movie or so.
I think more than anything else, the development of a video game is most like building a house. Okay, it’s not as cool a metaphor as being a Power Ranger or a master thief who looks like Frank Sinatra (or George Clooney), but then, few jobs are as glamorous as they sound on paper.
Most game development teams consist of producers, designers, quality assurance, artists, audio designers, and programmers. Producers are pretty much exactly what they sound like — they administrate the workings of the development team, tracks progress, and makes sure everyone else has what they need to work effectively.
Designers are like the architects of the game. They draw up the blueprints, make sure that the house’s layout makes sense so that the resident doesn’t get trapped or lost (unless they’re supposed to), and dictate to some extent the way the house works. Programmers (in the case of digital games), on the other hand, are the contractors building the house, because even if the architect happens to know what a hammer is and which end to hold, it usually takes a specialist with much more expertise (and elegance) to ensure the doors face the right way and that the oven goes in the kitchen, not the guest room. It’s also the contractors’ responsibility to keep the architect’s demands in check, because no matter how cool it would be, an upside-down Jacuzzi the size of an Olympic swimming pool just isn’t practical.
Artists and audio paint and decorate the house. While that may not sound like much, you have to consider that even if a house keeps weather out just as well without paint, flooring, and furniture, it really isn’t livable without that extra polish. In games, it’s even more crucial, as good art and audio direction open up all sorts of design space and control the flow of a lot of information.
Quality assurance developers are something of a challenge to pin down, metaphorically. They walk through prototypes of the house to make sure the walls aren’t doing anything funky and observe focus testers as they do the same. Although quality assurance may be easy for some to dismiss as glorified testing, a good quality assurance developer is a producer and designer’s best friend, delivering feedback from focus tests and making sure the game runs with the right specs and working features.
The end result, if all goes well, is a house that looks good, feels good, and makes the homeowner happy (or creeped out, or pumped up) when they walk through it. Sure, the electrical system might have a few quirks when it ships and it may not have the 50-person capacity movie theater the architect tried to sneak in, but at least it won’t fall down or trap the person living in it halfway through the floor.