The Lazy Designer

Design Expectations

Much of this will be a summary of my replies to some of the excellent comments I’ve received here over the last few days but I figured those may have been missed by some readers.

Game development is a group business. Often in a game one or two individuals from the development team will appear more often than others in interviews and will become figureheads for a project. This might give the illusion that they are the only drivers on the project but that would only ever be an illusion.

Each decision, each feature is discussed in numerous meetings. Ultimately a lead in one department can make certain decisions for his or her department but every department has its own lead (design, art, programming, marketing, quality assurance, et cetera). And every decision made impacts every other department. If a particular art style is called for and has a particular cost, that cost is passed onto the programming department to make sure the right tools are in place to build and display the art and then the design department has to determine how much art can be built with that style and how gameplay has to evolve to fit the style and quality assurance has to test it and so on and son. Generally a project director is the arbiter for the more difficult decisions.

Now of course this is not a linear progression where X says this and then Y does this. It is very much a negotiation with give and take on all sides, hopefully making for a better product. Now what I’ve found interesting on the various projects I’ve worked on is that often there is a driver of sorts, a department lead (sometimes the project director) who is maybe able to influence the other leads just a little bit more. So in that one respect I guess occasionally an individual’s will can start to dictate the shape of the game being made.

Also influencing the game of course is the built in expectations of the company. If there’s one truth about game development it is that there are meetings, meetings, and more meetings. From team meetings to project meetings to company meetings. And in all of these meetings the core philosophy of the company is ‘broadcast’ to the teams working on the games.

There may not be a specific command to build this or that but in the demo reels that are played and in the speeches of the leaders there is a push towards a particular kind of product. That is inevitable and I imagine any large company functions this way. And every team member walks away from those meetings with an idea of what those expectations are. Strong leadership results in the team members having very similar expectations (I suppose in a company with weak leadership the team members would probably walk away confused and shaking their heads and argue with one another about what had been said).

So these expectations do trickle into every decision.

What kind of gameplay was shown in the company meeting? What kinds of competitor titles were spoken of with respect? What does the developer say about themselves (and others) to the media. Were any past projects disparaged or pointed to as examples of what should not be done? What did the leaders say, in regards to their fan base — do they talk about them with respect or with ridicule? Do they try and anticipate what is wanted or do they decide what is needed?

All this influences every employee, every team member and will make its way into the products being built.

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.