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.
Many people confuse the positions of game designers and game programmers, thinking they are the same role. However, as anyone who has worked in a development team of more than a handful of people knows, the game designer is responsible for specifying the mechanics and rules of a game, while the programmer is responsible for implementing those mechanics and rules as computer code. However, the game designer is not, and should not, be the programmer’s boss.
it is part of a game designer’s responsibilities is to advocate for refinements to the game design so that it is as engaging as possible, and to ensure that the programmer has implemented the design properly. However, individual designers vary in their zeal. If that zeal results in too many changes to the design, especially in the later phases of development, the game’s schedule and budget can be put into jeopardy. That’s one reason why development teams are not led by the game’s designer, but by a director or producer, who can be a bit more impartial in balancing a game’s quality and schedule.
A game designer’s zeal can lead the designer to providing excessive instructions and feedback to the programmer, resulting in micromanagement, a pejorative term for exercising so much control that its a detriment to productivity. A good producer will try to minimize micromanagement within a team, both from the designer and from the producer, so that the programmer is allowed to use some judgment and discretion. Although the designer is responsible for the game’s design, everyone on the team should be able to make suggests for it, since almost everyone in the game industry plays games and can contribute good ideas to the game.
Yet another problem can come from the designer providing too little direction to the programmer. I have also known many programmers to seek out the game designer and get more information about how a design is to be implemented and to get feedback on their implementation, sometimes needing to pull the game designer away from another task that he or she is working on. Here too, game designers vary on their desire and ability to give clarification and feedback to the programmers. When designers are so hands-off after the game design document is written that they become neglectful of their playtesting or balancing responsibilities, the producer needs to step in an ensure that there are regular communications between the design and programmer.
Just as gameplay needs to be balanced so that the game is neither too easy or too difficult for the player, the game development process needs to be balanced so that the designer is neither too much of a micromanager nor too hands-off, while the programmer is neither too autonomous or too constrained is his or her implementation of the design.