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:


  1. Oooooh Dan Dan Dan!

    What a can of worms (pun intended) you've opened!

    While I don't disagree that we shouldn't accept designers from many different disciplines, I do definitely have a feeling that you are doing a disservice to the programmers amongst us who do actually contribute to game designs.

    I am not advocating that you simply alloy a programmer to become a designer if they have no creative talent, but this whole idea of having "visionaries" who have almost no technical background knowledge is a very scary thing indeed.

    I've been on the recieving end of these types of designs from so-called "designers" who really have very little understanding of what it is about design they dont know. At least I'm honest and accept that my designer side has a lot to learn, but these guys often have no clue at all.

    I certainly havent seen a profusion of programmer-designers within the industry at large.

    The way I see it, any given game is a mixture of design, technical tasks, artistic tasks and I much prefer to approach games with people in small creative teams, outside of the usual set roles. So a programmer can have a good design idea, an artist can have a good design idea. A designer can think of a unique way to make a feature work etc.

    Admittedly the large companies have moved towards ultra-specialism, but I've spoken with a number of companies who have seen the value in having a capable programmer in a position to help design the key mechanics in a game, alongside artists, designers or whoever else.

    Thats what I really enjoy doing myself, working on specific mechanical problems and iterating them until I find a solution.

    I just hope you dont start talking about the great "Designer as Director" concept where the designer sees himself as the all-powerful god of the project and all else has little creative input.

    Teams make games after all, so I see the team dynamic as being a key factor in the successful execution of a game.

    So this reads like a sort of anti-programmer rant, which is a shame, because actually I've rarely seen a project where it was marred by a programmer thinking they were a designer. I guess your experience contradicts mine there :)

    My biggest wish would be that I was capable of doing even rudimentary art myself, sadly thats a no-go :)


  2. I'm a big fan of the cross functional team where everyone contributes. Everyone has interesting design ideas, though I do believe that the buck needs to stop someplace. There's a herding, guiding and culling aspect to game design that turns a thousand little ideas into coherent project.

    You comment about 'visionaries' who don't know squat about game design is a very valid one and is the topic for related essay. The role of game design is remarkably ill defined within the industry at large. The result is that it is often difficult to know when someone is competent or not. Until we get some broad concensus on the skills of a game designer, this will be problematic.

    I do apologize for seeming anti-programmer. It isn't an attack on individual programmers, but it is an attempt to point out some of the cultural biases that come from the game industry's short history. There is a strong emphasis on technology, both in terms of evaluating the final product and in terms of the skill set that is valued. When you can't accurately just 'game design expertise' what do you fall back on? I've seen people fall back on technical expertise. I've also seen people fall back on "Man, this guy talks about game design a lot". That doesn't work so well either. :-)

    We are in the middle of substancial industry change so it is hard to make any generalizations stick. The specializations are starting to emerging and solidify. Many highly successful groups are very content driven. Others are still technology focused. A few are driven by market-based product design techniques.

    A flaw in this essay, now that I re-read it, is that it doesn't offer enough alternatives so it comes across as a rant.

    To sum it up a bit better, the broadening of game design talent is an admirable goal and the relying predominantly on technically competant people who have historical done game design is not the answer.

    take care

  3. Phil,
    you've brought up something I'd like to touch on. When you talk about "visionaries" with no technical ability, you talk about it as a scary thing. I don't think it is even a problem. Quite frankly, whether a game designer understands a single line of code is unimportant in my mind. What is vital, however, is that they understand what can and cannot be done. A director doesn't need to know how to manipulate the film to create a washed out effect, he simply needs to know that it can be done.

    I would argue simply that programming and game design are two seperate skill sets. They often cross over in many individuals, but just as (obviously) not every programmer is a talented designer, neither is every designer a talented programmer. Imagine if creating games were limited by another skill, say being able to draw. Suddenly the majority of games to be made would be creative type exploration games.

    Keep in mind that no one is saying programmers create bad games, only that they may tend to make more reflex and reaction type games. This isn't a bad thing! Doom is an excellent game, but it does not appeal to all audiences.

    Just to mix things up, here are some other thoughts. Writers don't need to be typesetters, but they do need to be able to write. Time was, this was a specialized skill. Scribes were necessary to create literature if you were not literate. Also, most traditional photographers still do develop their own photos. Digital photography is different, but serious artists using film almost exclusively are hyper aware of the process involved in developing their work. Largely because the effects obtained through this process are what makes work outstanding as opposed to amateur.
    just thoughts.

  4. While, I understand your intentions, it is kind of starting to look like artist versus programmers :). Programmers do make good designers, and the best ones design games that transcend "programmer design" as you describe it. Games that appeal to a very wide variety of people. Sure, Miyamoto is a great example of an artist designer. Will Wright, Sid Meier, Alexei Pajitnov, many independent casual games developers, are programmer-designers that make games that appeal to a wide variety of people. While it's come up many times that programmers often end up as game designers because they have the skills to make a working game, one thing that hasn't come up is the other reason why programmers make good designers. The ability to think logically and design complex systems from smaller parts is very important when it comes to creating game rules. Does that make all programmers good game designers? Not at all. Does that mean people that aren't programmers don't have the same skills? No, of course not. But there is a connection.

    And yes, I know that modern video games are more than just pure rules and gameplay. There are plenty of "game" ideas that would be a lot of fun that are really interactive stories, creative toys, social experiences, etc. Perhaps non-programmers are better at designing such experiences, perhaps not? I think there is room for a variety of game and designer types.

    I believe there are other cultural forces in the game industry (mainly that's its still very much a young white male geek dominated industry) that are much stronger than a programmer or technology bias when it comes to making games that appeal to a wider variety of people.

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  6. *grin* I'm actually more a fan of psychologists and anthropologists as game designers than artists. People who screw with paint all day long are far too flighty. :-)

    Ability to think logically
    The ability to think logically is certainly a benefit in game design. It is however, as you mention, a skill that is readily picked up. Most scientific training can provide a background in the creation and understanding of complex modular systems. On the programming specific side of things, I highly encourage any would be designer to take a class in object oriented programming concepts.

    I like what Elias is saying. Programming and game design are two seperate skill sets. There is some light overlap, but in general game design stands alone.

    Cultural Issues
    This is certainly a broader cultural issue. The concept of Programmer Design is really just a piece of the puzzle.

    Here's the quote from Ernest Adams that got me thinking down this path:

    "...There is a natural inclination to see ourselves as artists, and this further reinforces that ideas that we should really be making games for ourselves. We're not doing it for money, so we must be doing it for love.

    This situation would not matter much if the demographics of the game industry matched that of the population at large; but they don't. Amoung game developers, young men predominate by a wide margin. There are comparatively few women, and almost no one over fifty. Most developers are white, middle-class, and based in western and northern countries (with the notable exception of Japan). South Americans, Africans, South and Southeast Asians, and peoples of the Middle East and Mediterranean Rim are so underrepresented amoung game developers as to be distinctly unusual when one does appear at a game conference or trade show.

    The result has, predictably, been thirty years of games built by young white western men for other young white western men. These games reflect the culture, worldview, and indeed prejudices of their makers, and often don't appeal to people outside that particular demographic. The market has become superstaurated with these games, while other demographics go unserved."

    take care

  7. I think we need more psychologists and cognitive scientists doing game design. More educators (the enlightened ones at least), too. And more writers (again, the enlightened ones at least).

    That being said,

    1. I think that any coder who has invested enough time into thinking HARD about design would realize that there's a need to go beyond our natural inclinations and design outside the standard "coders love this stuff" genres. (I'm working on a shmup now - yeah, shoot me if you like, but remember first that the number of good shmups made by people outside Japan can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I also have some fairly nonstandard game concepts in mind, but those would require expert help in other domains to fly, so they're on the shelf for now.)

    2. Any individual who is too engrossed in his/her own (non-game-design) discipline will produce very predictable designs. That includes psychologists, cognitive scientists, educators and (especially!) writers. It's not limited to coders (or artists) alone.

    3. One thing I have to question is the lack of a "design track" at many major game companies. At a certain company I know of, the designers are pulled primarily from the production/project management track. IMO (personal bias), putting a manager in charge of designing a game is pretty damn boneheaded. (Although I've heard of a number of aspiring designers putting up with management jobs in order to "break in".)

  8. I think deep down you're of the belief that programmers make bad designers. That proficiency with c++ hinders your ability to create designs normal people will respond to.

    Two major ways to approach game design are to focus on theme or on mechanics. People who don't program tend to focus on theme. "The game is about a young woman who raises giant butterflies and delivers flowers while riding on them". Programmer-types tend to focus on mechanics. "The game is primarily a management sim and it also includes a simple flight mode".

    It's possible to make a great game from either starting point. If you start with theme, then mechanics have to be bent to fit around it. If you start with mechanics, then theme has to be adapted to fit. The best games are strong in both, but there is always a core where you start.

    Stories (theme) are powerful to people. Building your game from this core is a sure way to be able to communicate the product to customers (and team) easily. You can give them a clear picture of what to expect emotionally. The problem is that the appeal can be short-lived. The creator had a strong vision. That vision would probably have been better communicated with a book, a movie or a comic.

    Innovative mechanics are what make a game lasting. That's gameplay. A person who's great at innovating gameplay got those skills somehow. Maybe they got stuck into a designer position early due to their charm and had programmers at their command. Probably not.

    This discussion has to be somewhat black and white in order to say anything. Really though, everyone knows that a person who spends all their time with code is bound to be a poor designer. You have to have a broad background to succeed. Where we differ is that I think programming should be part of that background.

    By the way, I challenge you to find a director who does good work and can't use a camera. You won't find one and it's not because the film industry is immature. You have to cut your teeth somewhere and the fundamentals of the medium are a good place to do it.

  9. Imagine the absurdity of the following statements.

    And the statements then following are far from absurd. In contrary to what you call absurd many of the works I like are done by people who already worked in multiple fields already and as such have a better overview about what really matters instead isolating themselves in their specialized field. I consider it as a huge mistake to propose the latter kind as a solution to a problem which doesn't really exist when communication in the development team exist (and this is what your Miyamoto quote is really about. Just imagine if he was told to just to do what he does best, designing, and then the programmers would have adapted it to the screen without further feedback). As such "innovation" (you really overuse that meaningless word as of late) is not the result of specialization, but that of new combinations of good approaches which happen to work well together in the end.

  10. I think thats it really isnt it.

    Isnt it better to have a designer who can at least create a simple test of thier design ideas?

    Of course its ok if you can match a designer (miyamoto) with a programmer and make them effectively work like one unit. Dont think for a second that mr programmer just sits there and does exactly as miyamoto bids without ANY feedback or challenge into the processes.

    But isnt it preferable that designers be able to prototype thier concepts in SOME medium. Thats why I prefer either artistic or programmer capable designers. Because otherwise how do you have any concept of the value of a design idea? If you cant tell wether it technically has merit, or wether it has thematic merit, then what do you end up with?

    Its not to say that you cant have others fill the gaps in technology or artistic skill, just that without either, you have a very big gulf between design concept and design practicality. Of course, that might be what you want. But it kind of sounds like the infinite monkeys concept. If you put an infinite number of random "creative" types in a room, you would eventually come out with a feasible game idea. But is it going to be created better or faster than a room full of artists and programmers?

    All of us can go and try and make a film, but are we as likely to mak a good film as people who have made it thier trade, who have some background knowledge in that field?

  11. Danc, this article is your first entry to this blog which I agree with 100%. Good programming skills are not necessarily enough to make a good game designer. But this raises the question: "What does make a good game designer?".

    I think we need to split up our definition of "game designer", for the simple reason that videogames are not one art form but many. For instance, Will Wright is a genius when it comes to simulations, but I doubt he could make a good platformer if his life depended on it. The field of videogames is so broad that game design is not one discipline but infinitely many. As such, we must distinguish between the specialized game designers, who focus on one field, and the "holistic" game designers who deal with videogames as a whole.

    First let's break down a few areas of game design, and the unique skill sets they demand. Simulation design demands the ability to create complex but intuitive rule sets- this is second nature for a good programmer. Sports design demands good management abilities, to maximize profit from the investment. Exploration design is for world designers- the world itself is the main attraction, so the designer must build the interface and experience around that world. Good shmup design demands some knowledge of music theory. Adventure design demands writing skills and some knowledge of filmmaking. Puzzle game design requires a more academic style of thought which a mathematician might have. The design of platformers and all related forms of entertainment (Ball Revamped, for instance) demands good aesthetic taste (to determine whether the controls feel right), which is why most good platformer creators are artists themselves. (I believe that the best platformers in the future will be created by ballet choreographers.)

    When it comes to either (A) more complex art forms which combine several simple art forms into their structures, or (B) new types of art; it is not enough to be a specialized game designer. This is when that rarest of game designers, such as Miyamoto, is necessary: the "holistic" game designer who approaches the project with the expertise of past generations in many fields. The holistic game designer must be a Renaissance man- he must be familiar with programming concepts, and the principles of the classical arts, and even social concepts, and furthermore he must understand how they all connect within the larger context of art/entertainment as a whole. Observe the "metalude", the art form of "The Legend of Zelda" and "Beyond Good & Evil". It contains many different types of gameplay, each demanding a different type of design, but they must integrate flawlessly, meaning that the central game designer must fully understand and be able to personally control every type of gameplay he wants to put in. To connect all the diverse elements together, he must understand classical concepts. Miyamoto is familiar with music, being part of a band, and there are clear musical cadences in his Zelda games to give him control of pacing and overall structure. Similarly, Michel Ancel uses a story he wrote himself to tie together the ten-or-so types of gameplay he introduces (all of which he integrates flawlessly). Both great game designers then focus on the subtleties of the experience the player will get as he plays- this is a brand new type of expertise, which demands some understanding of psychology but should come fairly naturally to one who has broadened his outlook to include the classical arts.

    The "holistic" game designer is also needed to introduce new art forms, for obvious reasons: If one is not familiar with the overall history of art, one cannot create a new art form which will be capable of standing up next to the established art forms, without being redundant but learning from other Forms' strengths.

  12. I dont agree with all you said there Mory, but one of the things I've seen that you hit the nail on the head with is the ability for a good designer to appreciate the field of art and design in other areas of expertise.

    There are many fields, such as architecture, engineering, classical art, photography, film etc that we can definitely learn from.

    To be a balanced designer kind of requires that you learn to balance many different compulsions.

    I just dont think ruling out one "class" of designer, in the programmer class, is a good direction to be thinking.

    The whole notion that programmer-related-design-killed-non-programmer-style-games is kind of flawed in my opinion. The fact is for the most part we driven by market factors rather than programmer desires.

    Sure, in the early days it might have been programmer based design, but modern games are far far beyond one person doing all the programming, art and design tasks.

    So you cant really blame programmers for the current state of affairs.

  13. Yes, designing and programming are two very different skill sets with some (but not much) overlap. Seeing both skills in the same individual is rare, but not unheard of. But I certainly wouldn't want to discriminate AGAINST someone who is fortunate enough to have both skill sets. Who wants to tell Sid Meier that he's a great designer, but he knows too much programming for his own good, so he really has no place on a dev team? Not me :)

    Being able to rapidly prototype your own design ideas is useful. The best design doc for showing a programmer what you mean is a working prototype. Can't do that if you can't program.

    This doesn't mean programming should be a prerequisite for design. The blog entry gives many valid reasons for this. But I would say that in a larger team, having at least one designer who has some technical skill will make the team more diverse. Having a programmer advocate in the design team is amazingly useful.

  14. I went to art school, and in general my background is very arts n' humanities. For several years in the industry I've done level design. At one point, however, I realized that there were things that were beyond my grasp... design ideas that I would have to expand my skillset in order to make happen. So I taught myself programming. I've learned a number of high(er)-level languages like Java, ActionScript, Python and LUA. I didn't bother with much C++ because writing code for stuff like garbage collection doesn't really help me understand any aspect of game design better. It's an engineering detail. Control systems, art styles, and thematic ideas are not. It's those kinds of things I take very seriously. I care about the soul of the game.

    The dark side of the technically apt designer is someone who sees design as a collection of whiz-bang features, a lump of numbers with no soul. This mentality is evident in anything from certain recent FPSes to all the depressing little Asteroids clones that bring absolutely nothing new to the table creatively.

    The dark side of the NON-technically apt designer is a prolific crap factory with neither foot on the ground, a bunch of half-baked ideas and zero idea as to how to implement any of them. It falls to their programmers and (hopefully) subordinate designers to figure out how to make it all work. The quality of the game you get from that is the skill of the implementors, but even that can be sabotaged if the bozo at the top is a tyrant who insists on unworkable or ill-defined ideas. Any existing game examples of this I could name might spark a lot of political discussion, so I'll hold off.

    The challenge of the programmer-designer is to transcend mere technical knowledge and understand it as a means to a creative end. The challenge of the non-programmer-designer is to understand how systems work well enough that you can create designs that will bring your brilliant idea to life via code. Because, ultimately, the final design is in the source code.

    It may seem counter-intuitive, but the way to take back control of the creative process from the programmers is to learn about what they do, how to speak their language so we can tell them exactly what we want. As designers we can't afford to be ignorant of any discipline.

    One more point: I agree that cognitive science is a very interesting and applicable field to game design and I'd really like to see people with a background in that getting into the industry.

  15. My feeling on this is that a good game designer should be a balanced individual in the sense of a many different skills. She need not be a Programmer but must be aware of programming, not an Artist but possess an aesthetic sense, not a Psychologist but understand humans and so on.

    The problems arise when someone who is heavily focussed on Programming to the point that they don't have relevant secondary skills. That Programmer doesn't have the broad skill base required. I would expect the same would happen if a Psychologist who had spent his career in academic research on a single topic was asked to make a game design.

    I'm also slightly curious about how the programmer and young white male geek points have been mixed up in this. To my mind these are separate issues. Since my young white male geek non-programmer friends seem to enjoy the same First-Person-Shooter and Space-Shooter, I don't think it is the programmer-bias in the game designer they are responding to.

    Colm Mac

  16. We should never forget that most successful game concepts were created by hardcore programmers.

    Just look back at Lemmings, Worms, Cannon Fodder, Gods, Shadow of the Beast, IK+, Kung Fu Master, Double Dragon, Hired Guns etc. The list is endless!

    Do we really have that much innovation today when pure game designers are bigger than ever?

    And what's innovation? To make the game mimic the structure of a movie as closely as possible? Do all games even need a thich lusterous story?

    If you ask me, no. It's enough with great game mechanics, which programmers have proved that they are able to produce since the invention of computer games.

  17. Is this a "real" issue? Most of the designers with whom I am most familiar are not programmer-designers (e.g. Cliff B., Miyamato, Tim Schaefer, Katamari guy). Where are you getting this perception that programmer-designers are so favored in current, industry efforts?
    It would be much more convincing if you were to cite modern examples from non-indy teams.

    [The Ernest Adams quote is the closest you seem to come, but that's not about programmers, it's about race and gender -- replacing young white programmers with young white psychologists will still leave you with young white men, so even if Ernest is on to a real problem, your problem is orthogonal. And (based on other essays he's written) Ernest Adams seems pretty stupid, so I wouldn't take his word for here, even if it did apply to the issue you raised.]

  18. You can be a good designer without being a programmer.

    You can be a better designer if you can program.

    You can be a better designer is you can also draw, make music, manage, write, wire an electrical outlet, teach a college class, and give deep back massages.

    Some of these are more directly relevant than others, obviously. But programming is among the most relevant if you are working in the video game industry.

    The best directors DO know how to use a camera. The best product designers DO know the constraints of engineering.

    And the best video game designers know intimately what code can and cannot accomplish. They frequently can prototype their own work cheaply so in order to get to iteration faster. They may or may not use code THEMSELVES to do it (see my recent post on my blog about my prototype kit).

    But there's zero doubt in my mind that knowing how to program is an incredible asset.

  19. Damn, everybody's already beaten me to everything I wanted to say. So, to reiterate the points I think are most important:

    The more diverse your knowledge, the better you will be at ANY creative job. Part of the reason you are such a great sprite artist, Dan, is that you understand 8-bit color and sprite sizes. That there's programmer territory. Rembrandt would probably not make as good a sprite artist. (I'd originally named Salvador Dali, but the fact that he worked in MANY different media including animation means that he'd probably be adaptable enough to grok the medium of CG.)

    I also don't agree with the linkage of "trial and error" gameplay to programmer-designers. The earliest single-player game I can think of would be a maze, which is all about trial and error, but was created long before programmers. Same goes for hopscotch. The first choose-your-own-adventure book was written by a writer, who was not a programmer. The video game of "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" was a typical "trial and error" adventure game, even though Harlan Ellison oversaw its creation. Orson Scott Card's "Advent Rising" bombed, and most of the reviews call it "unoriginal" and "derivative".

    Conversely, name the top 5 "non trial and error" games that come to mind, and I'd bet that most of them were designed by programmers.

    While I DO agree with your closing line that the game industry has outgrown the need for EVERY designer to also be a programmer, I think that the majority of designers do need to still have at least some programming background, and the successful games by designers with none will be very few and far between.

    Oh, incidentally, I've been inspired by great video game blogs like yours to start my own. :)X

  20. Hey, you made it on Gamasutra's Blogged out if you didn't know already.

  21. A few questions popped into my head while I reading this:

    1)What is a designer? Furthermore, what separates a non-technical designer from your average game tester or gamer? If a non-technical designer is simply put into a design position, what were her qualifications for getting to the point? Is this easily quantifiable?

    2) What/how does a non-technical designer do to prevent herself from being a "all-powerful overseer of ideas and vision?" In other words, how does she separate herself from being "just some person that builds the game using an editor."

  22. This isn't directed towards Danc, but rather to those who say one should or must have some programming background: I can't do math adequately; does that bar me from being a designer since it is near impossible for me to be a programmer (I tried -__-). Despite that, I feel I still have an understanding of what programming is, just as I understand physics concepts, but am barred from becoming something in the realm of physics because of math. I would think my other qualifications more than make up for my lack of programming skills.

    -LS Jeffrey

  23. Some great comments.

    Here's another couple of bits that comes from Chris Bateman's 21st Century Game Design on the "hardcore conqueror" market segment.

    "The H1 cluster represents a player who is often interested in completely understanding and completing the game. The idea of not completing a game that they have committed to is somewhat alien to them. [...] To some extent, the H1 player wants the game to kill their avatar -- because only by reaching their limits in some way can they then come back and overcome that challenge."

    "The Myer-Briggs types that dominate this cluster (INTJ, ISTJ) are two of four types that research has shown to be common to programmers, and indeed, Type 1 gameplay that dominates current game design assumptions in most developers and publishers."

    The arguement is very simple:
    - Most successful past game designs were developed by programmer-designers due to necessity. You literally could not easily be a game designer if you couldn't program. Nothing would get done in the early days of small teams.

    - Game design, however, is a discipline that understands programming concept, but is generally independent of it.

    - By having programmers be such a major influence on modern game designs, we are limiting the types of games that we create. Programmers tend to fall into the INTJ and ISTJ personality clusters of Meyer-Briggs and generally (though not always) prefer common game design elements that involve 'hard fun' and repetitive grinding-style game play (FPS, old school 2D platformers, RPGs, certain aspects of MMOGs, etc)

    - There are lots of other types of 'fun' that exist outside what an INTJ or ISTJ person might enjoy. By expanding the designer population to include these people we will expand both the types of game design and the audience of potential game players.

    Some other clarifications. When I mention programmers, they are merely the most obvious example of a group that Chris Bateman refers to as prefering a 'Hard Core Conqueror' style of game play. Due to the peculiar formation history of our industry, many of the game designers who are attracted to the job share many of the same personality traits and design limitations. Just because you aren't a programmer doesn't mean that you aren't part of the problem. :-)

    And alternatively, there are certainly programmers who have personal preferences that are outside of the classic hardcore gamer. They are simply a bit more rare. It perhaps proves the point that some of the most popular programmer-designers (Peter Molyneux, Will Wright and Sid Meier come to mind) created designs that demonstrate a strong move away from the typical 'programmer design' that is sported by many game designs. By appealing to non-traditional gamers, these folks have dramatically increased the size of the market. Which is really the point of this whole discussion. :-)

    take care

    PS: If this doesn't make sense, I may have to blame it on my 101 degree fever. Getting sick right before a new job has to be the result of some sort of bad karma. :-)

  24. I hope I'm not repeating myself (or anyone else), but here goes:

    I'd like to take things one step further and say that being able to create good game design has nothing to do with understanding programming. Being able to implement that design in a computor recquires knowledge of what can or can't be done. If you take a step back and will realize that excellent game design has existed before, during, and seperate from any sort of video games. Magic The Gathering, Chess, Monopoly, any and every traditional card game under the sun, and the list goes on. All of these came from somewhere, and that somewhere had nothing to do with knowledge of programming.

    Programmers can make great games, and no one is arguing that they can't. But let's not confuse the matter. Most popular genres in the market today have come from programmers. This does not mean that only those with the above mentioned skillz know how to make something fun. Does a screenwriter benefit from knowledge of how a camera works? 100% yes. Does a camera man know how to write a script? On average, probably not.

    Game design revolves around formal systems and an understanding of how those systems work, but a computor is just a means to that end. In mario, the game is making a little man on a screen jump on mushrooms etc. The game is not the code behind the scene that allows the pixels to dance.

    Huh. It's funny what gets people fired up, isn't it? I love this stuff.

  25. I'm glad you directed the conversation towards Myers-Briggs instead of programming. Programming is a skill, not a personality type. Looking for new Types to take over designing game systems is probably not going to happen though. Interest in mastery of complex systems is, after all, part of personality.

    To anyone frustrated by programming I recommend trying a spatial programming tool such as Quest3D.

  26. *grin* I'd respectively suggest Anark Studio instead of Quest 3D, but that may be a personal bias.

    Some data on programmer personality types
    Here's another tidbit of information that I'm drawing upon in my 'stereotype' of programmer personality and preferences and their influence on game design.

    Steve McConnell's Thoughts on Programmer Personality"

    Some interesting statistics:
    - "ISTJs comprise 25-40% of software developers." This is roughly a 2-3x over representation of this personality type compared to the general population.
    - 50-66% of the software development population is introverted compared to about 25% of the general population
    - "80-90% of software developers are Ts, compared to about 50% of the general population. Compared to the average, Ts are more logical, analytical, scientific, dispassionate, cold, impersonal, concerned with matters of truth, and unconcerned with people's feelings."

    This personality profile is in the minority of the population. If our game designs target this group alone we are ignoring many of the other classes of player out there. We can no longer make games for ourselves. We must make games for our customers.

    There's at least another 50% if not another 80% of the population that is untapped by our current game designs. Focusing on game designs for programmers and people like programmers can be a poor marketing strategy if you want to compete in a broad market with little competition.

    take care

  27. Currently, I'm a junior in my fall semester at college and I'm incredibly disenfranchised from my major (Computer Science). Although the degree is a Bachelor of Arts, it just seems to get in the way of what I really love and thats history, language(I'm also a linguistics major), and reading/writing.

    I'm scared, though, to make such a drastic change this late in my college career, and my parents want me to "get a real job". All I know, is that my strong suit throughout high school was english and social sciences, not math and science. I used to read all the time. I was happy then. Today, I just feel empty.

  28. If you take a step back and will realize that excellent game design has existed before, during, and seperate from any sort of video games. Magic The Gathering, Chess, Monopoly, any and every traditional card game under the sun, and the list goes on.
    Many people would argue that Monopoly is a bad game, and is sucessful due to marketing, coming out at the right time, and cultural reasons. While I can't attribute one designer to Chess or traditional card games, I can tell you that Magic the Gathering was designed by Richard Garfield, who has a degree in computer mathematics and worked at Bell Labs for a short period of time (I assume as a programmer.) He also has PHD in combinatorial mathematics. His personality type is probably the same as any programmer's. So while his current job is "game designer" and not, "programmer" he is definitely a very mathematical and logical guy. Richard
    Garfield Wikipedia

  29. Can you be a great composer without being a musician?

    My personal bias on this front is that I prefer the programer/designer, artist/designer, or musician/designer over a pure designer. The reason is that most of the 'pure' designers I've worked with, with no background in other mediums except perhaps writing, are woefully unaware and unconcerned with the bulk of the day to day task of making a game. Perhaps I'm showing my bias from working with MMP designers, who would rather type up 30 pages of NPC dialog than actually work on making the experience of the game reflect and immerse the player in the story.

    In my mind, there is very little difference between the story of doom and the story of Half Life. At the core, they are the same. What makes it different is how the medium expresses that story to you. In doom, it's a paragraph of text; while in Half Life, it's embeded into every piece of the experience. The difference is not one of programing skill, but rather artists/designers/etc working with the technology to create the effect.

    So while I would agree that you don't have to be a programer to be a great designer, I would say that you need some form of expressive skill which can be applied to your design directly; such as art, programing, music, etc. The practical application of said skill will help ground you into the realities of your design.

  30. I think one of the things that screams out to me about your last comment Dan, was that its pretty bloody obvious that the majority of game developers (not just programmers, but ALL of us) will have a different personality type to someone else.

    There has to be *something* that makes people WANT to make games rather than play them right?

    For the most part, the people who arent already playing and buying games might actually not give a shit about them, so its unfair to say that this bias you aspire to is somehow dissuading the rest of the population.

    I'm not arguing that current games are approachable enough for everyone, but I believe that we cannot appeal to all types either.

    At some point we have to realise there are other influences on games and thier reception within the population at large and I'd dare to suggest that programmer personality bias is almost negligable compared with other social factors.

    For instance, people ask "why arent there more girls in game development". Well, my experience recently doesnt actually point to a problem with the industry itself, but with the perception from outside of the industry.

    We took a college class for 4 weeks and taught them some fundamental level design techniques, we actively asked for females to be asked to come because we want to promote the activity of games development and design.

    So what do we get? Of all the people who came on the course, the females did REALLY well. They enjoyed it and were really into the creative aspect of the work.

    Then we later on asked them if they would consider a career in games and you know what? Not *one* of them was considering it.

    Why? because thier careers advisor has basically been biased against games as a career. As if often the case, games development was seen as a complete waste of time and a joke.

    Now you might say that the games industry doesnt help itself, with horrid working hours and conditions, that is true. But that is the same for BOTH sexes, so I dont think thats fair. I think the reality is that women tend to take more notice of thier peers and others when they are taking career advice. One thing I can say for sure, is that almost every development company I've ever talked with would LOVE to have more women who were capable on board. If only the women would take the subject seriously as a career.

    Ok, so I've sidetracked the issue here, but my point is that I think youre overplaying the internal makeup of developers and thier bias. As it is, we are simply providing what publishers are asking for. If publishers ask for exploration or social science games, then youre damn sure they would be produced.

  31. I think that fundamentally, game design and programming are not exclusive crafts. At the 'bottom' level of game design, a designer thinks about things such as game mechanics and, at the very bottom, a finite set of rules and states in which the game is in. This is basically what an algorithm is. And algorithms are programming (or "Computer Science").

    Where the programming comes in is understanding how the rules and states of the game translate into the computer code of the game, the hard, perhaps 'unfeeling' representation of what the design is. I don't think it's possible to fully extract game design from programming, as programming is not typing lines of code, but the idea of such things as iterative and conditional statements. The problem of programmers being designers is that a great programmer thinks in terms of things like iteratives and conditionals, rather than narrative or theme. This can reduce a game to little more than figuring out how to best attack the algorithm that has been implemented (I'm thinking of older arcade games here) and reduce the "fun" for people who don't think like this. Take, for example, something like chess and compare it with something like D&D.

  32. There are certainly issues with programmers as designers and no-one can doubt it. Again, many make great games. But many don't. I think however, that the point has been missed and quite badly.

    The logical and modular thinking required for effective game systems design (not concept design, systems design) is not a function of programming.

    It is a function of analysis. The programmer/analyst with game or commercial experience will always outpace the liberal arts graduate when it comes to logical and modular analysis of how things work in real life and in games and how the two can be manipulated.

    Although the lib arts guy might well serve better French Fries with your burger.

  33. I want to make some interesting comments about personality types and games. This is completely unscientific and based singularly on personal experience, but here goes:

    My family on both sides have always loved games of all sorts. Every thanksgiving we would haul copies of scrabble, master clue, upwards, monopoly, and many more games with us. My grand mother always had some new game to show us. Games with creative names like "jinco" or "the word." Much of the time, these games didn't even involve a board, but were about telling an ellaborate lie to other players, or hiding a coin among three people. Another game I loved to play as a kid was one entitled "all the things you could think." One person would name a subject, say house or flower, and then the other players would make up a flower in their mind and describe it to other players. My father always had some blossom of untold beauty and grew on mount everest
    or something, while I tended more to the man eating types.

    Barely any of my relatives ever would touch computer games. Particularly as the industry matured, the different game types presented simply did not have any draw to them. My point is that each of these individuals should have been ideal candidates for gaming. An untapped market segment.

    I'd ask the question, why doesn't gaming care? It seems to me that part of the reason at least is that the people currently making games aren't really interested in creating the types of games that would appeal to this group. Thats fine. But why hasn't anyone been actively seeking out people who are able to create these types of games? When the Sims came out, my mom loved it. Why was it so hard to make that game?

    There is definately new money to be made, but there are a lot of factors holding the industry back. How can we change this?

  34. Very depressing thoughts I'm seeing from you industry folk.

    The most disturbing thing I'm reading is how often peole with technical software "skillz" are all lumped into the one big grouping of "Programmer". While I completely agree that not all programmers are capable of development, design, project management, or many other skills, this is no different than any other industry where 80% of the workforce can only barely do their job at a mediocre level. The other 20% are very talented and can perform their duties on a much higher level.

    Many games are not software, much like monopoly as stated earlier. However, the people designing those games knew the limitation of their medium. Do you think that the designer of monopoly had to ask someone if the dice could be automatically read by a magic piece of cardboard and then have the game pieces get up and move the appropriate number of spaces by themselves? No. The designer knew the limitations.

    A designer of video games better know the limitations in order to be effective. This does include knowing how to program, but be one of the upper 20% of programmers who know what their doing. Software design specs can only be created by someone who knows software development, and thus a "programmer".

    Is that all the game designer needs? No! Knowing 3D animation/art, music, human psychology, and so on, but to my knowledge there isn't a need for a technical document for any of the more right-brained type elements of a video game...that's why they are considered art, you let the artest do his artsy thing and get out of the way. You cannot just let the programmer's do their programming thing, so you must have documents that provide them direction. These documents can only be created by someone with a clue as to what will be done with them.

  35. It seems the one aspect that is being overlooked in this conversation is communication. A designer needs good communication skills. The designer does not personally need to know how to code, and may not know what the limits of the engine are, but if he/she has good communication with the programmer and the rest of the team, that is key. If I want the game to do X, I can talk to the programmer and find out whether that is acheivable and why or why not. Most of the posts seem to have a programmer in one box and a designer in another, without then actually *talking* to each other. Without communication, any project would be dead in the water, regardless of what background the designer comes from.

    I also found the conversation on who plays video games interesting. I think a lot of it is cultural. There is a cultural belief out there that video games are "for kids", despite the fact that the average gamer is now in his/her 30s. But people my parents' age would never play games because they are "for kids." Likewise, there is a cultural bias against women playing video games. Out of all my female acquaintances, I am the only one that plays video games, and none would ever consider trying it. It is really quite socially taboo for women to play video games, at least in my social strata, and this taboo actually is, interestingly enough, generated by women. The guys of my acquaintance think it's cool that I play video games. The women I know find it bizarre and rather "unfeminine."

  36. Hmmm...I think that drawing the distinction between programmer and non-programmer to be an artificial one when it comes to what to look for in a game designer.

    Great game designers (IMHO) designs games. Lots of them. The litmus test isn't (again IMHO) whether they have a particular skill/background or not but whether they have a portfolio of game designs that they have created (implemented or not).

    Massive bonus points for published and play tested in the real world.

    It is rare to see a great artist of any kind without a large body of work, whether or not they are in a published/finished form. Most will not be, but rather fragments created to learn a new technique or test a concept.

    Now, while the programmer does have an advantage to having created working video games (or mock-ups/prototypes), the non-programmer has access to the same pencil, paper and MS Word/Powerpoint design tools that the programmer has.

    The Shigeru Miyamoto story isn't one that suggests that someone with a liberal arts/non-technical background has more or less potential to great game design...but rather than an individual that constantly thinks about games and game designs has greater potential to be a great designer whatever their background/formal training.

    Execution is yet another story.


  37. Manual trackback:

    I'm in a whimsical mood, it seems. :)

  38. "Now, while the programmer does have an advantage to having created working video games (or mock-ups/prototypes), the non-programmer has access to the same pencil, paper and MS Word/Powerpoint design tools that the programmer has."

    Which are useless if the designer does not understand the limits of the medium. For example, a game designer on an MMO can very easily decide on a system where every player-made item is both unique and indestructible (because players dislike replacing them). The programmer, however, is likely to recoil in horror at the state of the database this will create and quite rightly so.

  39. "Which are useless if the designer does not understand the limits of the medium. For example, a game designer on an MMO can very easily decide on a system where every player-made item is both unique and indestructible (because players dislike replacing them). The programmer, however, is likely to recoil in horror at the state of the database this will create and quite rightly so."

    So after the initial design phase where the theme of "unique indestructable items" is chosen the technical team will negotiate the implementation based on the possible.

    In your example, perhaps player made items will be difficult to make since they represent "masterwork" items of the best craftsmen. Perhaps very expensive or perhaps simply an artificial limit to the number a craftsman can create (given the base monthly fee...more slot = more $$$). Mundane items are not unique.

    Besides, the initial design is just that...initial. You should limit the creativity at the early stages because you really don't know where the designs will evolve to. I'd rather have a designer that has a good handle on "fun" design vs "possible" designs.

    As a coder, I'm moderately arrogant about my abilities. There are very few designs that I don't think I can figure out how to implement the essense of the design (with the right team), even if the details aren't quite right.

    Even assuming the worst case above (player made items are common), I can imagine that the "unique" items could be encoded in a relatively small number of bits and reconstructed algorithmically when needed.

    This is not much different than the design that every item has a wear value to determine when it breaks or needs repair.


  40. Er that should read "You shouldn't limit the creativity at the early stages..."

  41. As a (aspiring) filmmaker, I can tell you straight out that absurd statement #2 is absolutely true. Stanley Kubrick (one of many examples) was a photographer long before he was a film director. He even collaborated on the design of the camera lens used for "Barry Lyndon" (allowing him to light the film entirely with candles and other available light). His deep knowledge of cinematography allowed him to create a unique visual effect in his films that is very hard to duplicate. Obviously, that wasn't his ONLY talent. He also knew how to direct actors and produce an original human effect.

    I can't see why this would be any different for the product designer/engineer. If you know the limitations and possibilities of the medium, you'll know how better to exploit it and produce an original effect. I don't disagree that we need more designers with a genuine interest in the humanities. But that doesn't release them from the requirement of technical proficiency.

    I should also point out that the author/typesetter example is a false analogy; you're confusing the production of the work with its reproduction. The equivalent would be to say that "the best film directors also know how to press DVDs," which is clearly absurd. The correct analogy would be to say that "the best authors also know how to write/type words on a page," which is clearly not. But of course that wouldn't work quite as well rhetorically.

    In an age where there are far too many unqualified people working in digital media, I think the need for designers to have technical skills cannot be overstated. It has certainly not been outgrown, and I doubt it ever will.

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  43. "Creative" design and technical design are not mutually exclusive. Both require creative thinking, and all humans have equal creative capacity. The questions is where you put this creative capability. Into drawing and story telling, or into application design? Or perhaps both, if a person has that much time.

    A lot of the time, it's the technical development that spawns game design ideas. It may be a mistake that a programmer makes during programming, which creates an unexpected result, which in turn sets of a creative spark that turns into a game design element.

    E.g. you could be coding a soccer game, and you mess up the gravity settings. we have a soccer game on the moon. Cool eh?

  44. Well,
    I am a well experienced C++ Programmer and also a 3d technical designer and also experienced mechanical Engineer.I don't care of programming languages or the tools. I care for making 3d games.Not even 2d.
    A Game programmer designer is not a programmer and neither a designer. He is a Game Developer. This is not programming only and its not designing only and not engineering. These field has evolved into something, it is called Game Developer. The product does not directly create something that produces or consumes Work Done(engineering) but it produces/enhances the feeling. So that is human. Human is not born an Engineer or an artist. He does things for bushiness and pleasures and survival. We are the next level.
    Even Engineers are supposed to document tenders, technical writing etc... A relevant term is Systems Analysts. These guys are experienced technical specialists with an all round knowledge. They are very much needed in the industry.

    Consider whatever you want yourself designer or a programmer, you will have an urge to do the other in a long run of life in game industry. You will wish if you were skilled for both instead of begging to someone who is your other half in the field.
    Another word that is very relevant to field of Game developer is Polymath. Search for Leonardo Da Vincy.
    Hence concluding with a Polymath reference straight from wiki:
    Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519, Old Style) was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, a man of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination"

  45. Well,
    I am an well experienced C++ Programmer and also a 3d technical designer and also experienced mechanical Engineer.I don't care of programming languages or the tools. I care for making games.
    A Game programmer designer is not a programmer and neither a designer. He is a Game Developer. This is not programming only and its not designing only and not engineering. These field has evolved into something, it is called Game Developer. The product does not directly create something that produces or consumes Work Done(engineering) but it produces/enhances the feeling. So that is human. Human is not born an Engineer or an artist. He does things for buisness and pleasurer and survival.We are the next level.
    Even Engineers are supposed to document tenders, technical writing etc... A relevant term is Systems Analysts. These guys are experienced technical specialists with an all round knoledge. They are very much needed in the industry.
    Consider whatever you want yourself designer or a programmer, you will have an urge to do the other in a long run of life in game industry. You will wish if you were skilled for both instead of begging to someone who is your other half in the field.
    Another word that is very relevant to field of Game developer is PolyMath. Search for Leonardo Da Vincy.
    Hence concluding with a Polymath reference straight from wiki:
    Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519, Old Style) was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. Leonardo has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, a man of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination"