Designers, Programmers, and Bears. Oh My.

by Darius Kazemi on November 7, 2005

in Uncategorized

I direct your attention to a provactive post on Lost Garden:

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. (Lost Garden: The myth of programmer-designer greatness)

I take issue with this. I agree that game designers need not be incredibly amazing programmers. And I agree that there’s a dark side to our industry’s worship of programmers. Ernest Adams gave an excellent presentation about this at GDC 2004, called The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design. In this talk, he draws attention to the ol’ C.P. Snow two cultures thing. His conclusion is what stuck with me the most:

As for us in the game industry… look at who our heroes are. John Carmack. Chris Hecker. Michael Abrash. Jonathan Blow. Doug Church. Now, all of these people are completely brilliant and they each deserve the accolades they get. I don’t dispute that for a minute. But many hero artists can you name? How many hero audio engineers? How many hero writers?

I feel that the game industry needs new heroes. We cannot simply look for them in the traditional areas of aesthetic endeavor. Computer games have always required engineering and they always will require engineering. Engineering is as essential to the game developer as words are to the writer, as paint is to the painter. But we need to restore the balance between the two. (Ernest Adams: The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design)

But I also believe that game designers need to be proficient programmers. I take issue with Danc’s analogies. While “the best authors are also typesetters” is certainly an absurd statement, many excellent authors are made better by their knowledge of typesetting. Some of the most profound moments I have seen in books have been when the author was clearly working with the typesetting in mind. There was a moment in Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity! that was brilliant solely because of where the page break went. So while being a typesetter is not required, if you want to be a great author, I think it can only help to know about your craft as a whole.


Patrick Dugan November 7, 2005 at 5:45 pm

I agreed there is a need for proficient coders to be involved with a game’s design, particularily at the level of balancing and the implementation of specific features, but are you at the same time dismissing the need for the designer/writer? Remember, the whole crux of the two cultures debate is that people tend to think in polarized ways: left brained folk are more reductionistic and mathmatical, while right brained folk are more holistic and aesthetic. Don’t you think a good game is dependant on design input from both hemispheres at different points in the project?

Darius Kazemi November 7, 2005 at 6:05 pm

I was not saying that coders need to be involved with design. Not at all! I’m just saying that the designers should understand coding. The designers should by all means be designers first and coders second!

solipsistnation November 7, 2005 at 9:51 pm

How many audio design heroes do I have? Funny you should ask!

Eric Brosius, BABY. His audio ROCKS MY WORLD. Not to mention your friend and mine, RobotKid of I.T. (not Kool from Kool and the Gang).

But I might be a) a fanboy, and b) a big audio nerd.

Patrick Dugan November 9, 2005 at 12:27 am

I think a designer should be a designer first, a writer second, and a software engineer third, and maybe a marketer fourth, but thats debatable. Seriously though, I feel (notice how I didn’t say “think”) that a nesscary ingredient for game design to undergo a paradigm shift is to have more designers with artistic, humanities backgrounds, rather than problem solving oriented backgrounds like CS or engineering. That said “prodecural literacy” is essential; I might not be even a proficient coder, but I can understand system dynamics and how algorithms interrelate to creat gameplay and probable distrubutions of causation. However, its my crucible to view these typically cold mathematical characterisitcs as means of representation to a human audience.

Darren Torpey November 22, 2005 at 2:54 pm

A few comments:

As a programmer, you cannot count on a designer understanding what’s feasible to program for a game. Even more so, as a designer you cannot assume that a programmer really understands what ends their systems, algorithms, and heuristics serve.

So if one intends to work effectively in a team with someone from a different educational/skill focus, it helps a lot to understand the basics of the other person’s field.

As for what makes you a better designer yourself… I find the comment about directors in the Lost Garden quote particularly naive. The best directors aren’t necessarily camera men, but understanding how a camera works and what you can do with it is, from what I’ve always heard, essential to good movie making.

If the quote is referring to a “common” cameraman whose job is not creative at all, then the comparison is probably misguided, as programming is inherently creative (albeit to greatly varying extents). The better comparison is to directors who have a good deal of knowledge about how to operate a camera to good effect.

Film geniuses like Spielberg started with a home video camera making WWII movies (inspired by his father’s stories) in his back yard. I’m sure he learned a lot from this and I’ll bet some of the most important lessons were about the nature of the camera itself.

Of course, there’s a larger issue underlying the question of whether or not designers need programming knowledge or background, and it has a lot to do with roles and process in game development. Without stated assumptions about what the designer’s job is to begin with, we can hardly talk about what background she needs to fulfil her role.

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