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ARE DESIGNERS A NECESSARY EVIL?

28 Oct 2008

Jim Mummery seems to think so.

In an op-ed on Gamasutra today, he seems to suggest that designers only came to exist because, back in the day, programmers (and later, artists) simply got too busy:

There was simply much more to do, more code, more art. The coders were too busy, the artists were too busy. Someone was needed to do the odd jobs, the little tasks, putting the pick-ups in the game, spawning enemies, making the coffee...

This little guy worked with the other more talented people, the artists and the coders, he helped them out but more and more, the things that needed changing in the game were the things he was doing...

As ‘designers’, we came to this party last. Everyone else here has a defined role; we exist only because coders and artists were, for lack of a better term, too busy.

That may be true to a certain extent when we're talking about the pre-'90s, and if we're limiting our perspective to include only a narrow range of games and styles. But the art of game design has existed since long before video games ever entered the picture.

Chess, anyone?

Designers, like coders and artists, are specialists. They bring something to the table that's unique to their discipline: a deep understanding of interaction. They--

--what's that, you say? Mummery's not done yet?

Some designers even claim to know games better than anyone else -- but this is obviously a fantasy.

These days, anyone who enters the industry (coder, artist or designer) has had similar game-playing experiences; they all know games and what they like in the games they play.

There is a misunderstanding that a designer is someone who mysteriously understands how games work and knows intuitively what is needed to make them good. All gamers know this on some level -- and we, the game developers, are all gamers.

Oh Jesus, this is gonna be worse than I thought.

Let's deconstruct the argument. Basically, Mummery is saying that everyone who plays games is equally qualified to be a game designer... because they play games.

Isn't this a bit like Sarah Palin claiming she has foreign policy experience because she can see the coast of Russia from Alaska?

Now I'm not saying gamers are dumb, not by any means. But different people have different strengths... and *weaknesses. To illustrate the point, pick out any game that has a mod community or supports user-generated content. Look at *Half-Life 2 mods, or Forge layouts from Halo 3, or even LittleBigPlanet levels. Odds are you'll find more crap than gold... a lot more. And more to the point, most of what you find isn't going to be anywhere near as good as what shipped with the original game; you know, the stuff that was created by professional designers. (To be fair, users have been known to, occasionally, wildly outstrip the game's original creators in the quality department. There are several mods for Oblivion which attest to this.)

This is far from a scientific study, but it supports the point that, as design goes, not everyone is created equal. Some people are better artists, others are better storytellers. Maybe some have skills that don't even apply to games: they're engineers or doctors, teachers or athletes. Some are, quite simply, better off as just players.

But what about those programmers and artists? They're professional game developers, so at least *they *are just as qualified as any ol' designer, right?

Perhaps not.

It's not that programmers or artists are bad at design; it's that they're good at programming and art. More specifically, they specialize in something other than design.

That, or we're making the assumption that design is inherently easier *than programming and art... so much so, in fact, that nearly anyone can do it. And if that's the case, then why is the industry average metascore only 69? If design is so easy, why isn't *everyone knocking it out of the park?

It's clearly a silly assumption, but no more silly than assuming that a non-specialist is as good in a field as a specialist in that same field, simply because both are consumers in that field. Programmers and artists are no more capable as designers than designers are as programmers and artists... which is to say, "somewhat capable", but certainly not "best-qualified".

In short, I think Mummery is trying *to argue that programmers and artists should be treated as equals -- not necessarily as equals *in design, but as equals in terms of their contribution to the game as a whole -- but along the way he's ended up marginalizing designers as some kind of third-string players who simply lucked into their careers, while trying to address a problem that, as far as I can see, doesn't even really exist.

Designers aren't a necessary evil, nor are they a godsend. They're simply a specialization, not unlike programming, art, audio design, production, and QA. They didn't luck into their careers when other people got too busy to take care of "the little stuff"; instead, they came along and gradually rewrote the book on what games could be. And they aren't just sitting around taking credit for everyone else's work, now; they're continually advancing the field, along with their colleagues across all disciplines, making gaming better for us all.

But thanks Jim, I really do appreciate your opinion. ;)

Posted In:

design-essays game-design