Wednesday, November 2, 2005

The myth of programmer-designer greatness

Here’s a phrase from an earlier post that harkens back to the ancient days when game developers beat their dinner dead with bone weapons. “The best game designers are also programmers.” (Apologies to Dylan Fitterer for taking this out of context.)

In the distant past, only a programmer could make a game. You could fumble through the tasks typically done by an artist, a game designer or a sound guy. All game designs from this era were created by programmers often for programmers. Most involve shooting or killing things and the industry bears the cultural bias of our founders to this very day.

In under funded teams where there are one or two people involved, you still need the programmer-designer. For the clone-tastic fringe of indie game development, someone who is a renaissance talent with skills in programming, design, and illustration is essential. Most modern teams however, have grown beyond this limited and restrictive state of creativity expression and they are better for it.

Modern game design is a specialized discipline that rarely correlates with a particular technical profession. Imagine the absurdity of the following statements.

  • The best authors are also be typesetters
  • The best directors are also camera men
  • The best product designers are also engineers
We have outgrown the need for all game designers to be programmers.

The liberal arts game designer
The best game designers certainly possess a passing understanding of the materials of their medium. This includes a knowledge of art, programming and sound. But it by no means suggests that in order to be a great designer you must also be a great programmer.

Instead, game design has emerged as its own distinct discipline. A modern game designer should be someone who understands risk / reward systems, prototyping dynamics, human psychology and basic market dynamics. They should understand the process and practice of game design. They need familiarity, but not stunning expertise in other areas of the game creation process. They need to be able to communicate with people who possess specialized technical skills. The result is that designer works as part of cross functional team.

Here’s a quote from Shigeru Miyamoto about how he designed Super Mario Bros:

It started with a simple idea. I thought: "I wonder what it would be like to have a character that bounces around. And the background should be a clear, blue sky." I took that idea to a programmer, and we started working on it.

Mario ended up being too big, so we shrank him. Then we thought, "What if he can grow and shrink? How would he do that? It would have to be a magic mushroom! Where would a mushroom grow? In a forest." We thought of giving Mario a girlfriend, and then we started talking about Alice in Wonderland.

Here is one of the greatest designers of our industry, working hand in hand with a programmer to bring his vision into reality. He focuses on the core game mechanics, the setting and how the prototype evolves. The programmer focuses on creating the prototype, rapidly implementing new features and communicating technical constraints with the designer.

This setup augments the natural talents of both team members. The result is a product with great game design and great programming. You avoid creating a game that is restricted to the often limited talent palette of a single individual.

The innovation explosion that comes from tapping non-technical creators
In most forms of new media, we go through a period of time where an intimate understanding of technology is critical to the successful completion of the creative process. Early book authoring required the mastery of print making. Early movie auteurs built custom cameras from scratch. Photographers developed their own film for decades.

With time, tools and team structures emerge that do away with the need for such jacks of all trades. Printers would turn an author’s raw manuscript into a finished book. Movie makers created the position of Director, Script Writer, and Camera man so that people with inherent skills could focus on what they did best. Most photographers eventually discovered that a digital camera and a print lab let them focus more fully on the creative aspects of their art.

Specialization results in increased efficiencies and also impressively improved creativity. The unique voices of people that possess creative skills, but not technical skills are unleashed. In books alone, we would have lost 99% of all modern literature if typesetting was a hard prerequisite for writing a novel.

Games are going through the same maturation process as other industries. Ultimately, by tapping into non-technical game designers, we can increase the talent pool of visionaries by a hundred fold.

The dark side of a programmer worshipping game design culture
Old habits still linger and not everyone has adapted to the new world of true cross functional game development. If your bias is that your game designers to be programmers and you work in a team larger than one person, you are doing your game a grave disservice.

You eliminate out of hand talented individuals who are quite likely better suited for the position. If you look around, you may find artists with the correct skill set skill set. You may find programmers or writers. If you look even more broadly, you may find psychologists or housewives.

Any cultural bias towards promoting programmers to game design positions is the equivalent of promoting only white men to positions of decision making authority. At the very least, this practice is morally repugnant.

The limits of programmer design
At the worst, game designs created by programmers tend to focus on a very limited spectrum of human experience. They involve spatial skills, not social skills. They involve risk mechanics focused on extreme die and repeat-style punishment, not exploration or discovery. This is a generalization to be certain, but one that is not far off from reality.

By selecting game designers that are programmers, we let our incestuous history determine the creativity of our future. We build iteratively on the limited seeds of past efforts and create games for programmers and people who think like programmers. The result is more Doom 4 and less Nintendogs.

If you really want to contribute to the growth of our art form, build a team that doesn’t have a programmer as the main designer. Think of it as affirmative action for the game industry. Be sure that they know the craft and techniques of game design. Be sure that they can talk the language of the people on their team. But never make elite technical skills a prerequisite for a game design position.

I dream of seeing an explosion of vibrant game designs that expand our industry. This will only come about by putting people who are not traditional, technology-worshipping game developers in positions of great creative power.

Take care

Shigeru Miyamoto Interview: