How Much Of A Creative Contribution Can An Individual Developer Really Make To A Game?
Many gamers have heard of rock star game designers like Sid Meier (Civilization) and rock star programmers like John Carmack (Doom), and while developers like these two get a lot of press, many other unheralded people joined them in developing their games. The games with the highest development budgets, called AAA games, have development teams comprised of dozens (or even hundreds) of designers, level designers, artists, animators, programmers, sound engineers, project managers, and other specialities. So with so many people on a development team, how much of a creative contribution can an individual developer really make?
During the planning, or preproduction phase of the project, where the game’s overall vision is established, the design is fleshed out, and the development plan is created, only a small portion of the team — primarily those in leadership positions such as the Lead Designer, Technical Director, Art Director, Producer, etc. — are involved. It is this core group who make the greatest creative contributions to the game.
When the game’s production phase begins, the team ramps up with additional personnel — programmers, level designers, artists, animators, etc. — to implement the game’s features, levels, and art/audio assets. At this point, the game’s overall look and feel, gameplay, and tasks have already been established, and the team members are responsible for implementing their assigned tasks. Some team members, especially artists, may find themselves working as part of an assembly line doing the modeling, texturing, rigging, animating, or lighting on hundreds of similar assets that need to be made for the game, all according to the production pipeline and specifications established during preproduction.
However, even though there are creative and technical specifications that team members must follow, there are still opportunities to make a certain degree of creative decisions when implementing their task. Game development is all about creativity within constraints. Still, your individual work must fit in well with everyone else’s work to create a unified whole, and so your contributions are subject to the scrutiny and approval of the lead developers you report to.
Finally, in the post-production stage of development, where testing, polishing, balancing, and fixing is done to create a shippable game in time for its promised release date. During this time there are minimal opportunities for creative contributions. In fact, many projects have a Feature Lock milestone, where no more changes to the design, art or audio is allowed; only programming fixes are permitted, since any polishing changes to features or assets could introduce new problems that might put the release date in jeopardy.
Think of a game development as a team sport. There are opportunities to make individual contributions, but each developer’s main focus should be to support the team in creating a cohesive project. If your game is a smash hit, you may not be the one to be handed an award, so you need to adopt an attitude that a game’s success is shared by all, even if not everyone had a large enough contribution to be singled out.