In the past it was not uncommon for a hit video game to be developed by either a single individual or a very small team in a short period of time. For the most part, those days are behind us. Yes, there are plenty of indie developers out there, and some of the games that they release can become pretty popular, but by and large the most popular and successful video games are now created by large companies with dozens or hundreds of individuals working on them for months or years at a time.
As the game industry has grown, it has also become more specialized. Professional writers are brought in for story and dialogue, teams of artists and graphic designers handle the visuals, and some games even have dedicated cinematographers to direct the cut-scenes.
All of these roles are incredibly important to the process of making a modern game. However, if somebody says that they want to “make games” for a living, they probably mean one of two things. They either want to be a game designer, or they want to be a game developer.
From the outside these two jobs may seem similar, but they actually serve very different roles. In this article I am going to talk about the difference between these two positions and explain the different roles that each of them play in creating a game.
Idea and Execution
As the title of this section implies, the primary difference between a game designer and a game developer is the separation between ideas and execution. In general, a game designer is concerned with the big picture of the game. The come up with concepts for mechanics, levels, characters, items, enemies, etc. The game developers, on the other hand, are involved in actually implementing the design of the game in code.
Because of the different roles that these jobs serve, they require vastly different skills. Game developers tend to have a high level of technical skill with areas such as programming, mathematics, networking, etc. These technical skills are necessary to effectively turn the ideas of the game designers into real, working code.
Modern games tend to be incredibly complicated pieces of code, and many aspects require specialized knowledge. Because of this, there are many subcategories of game developers that each focus on particular aspects of the code. There are developers who focus almost entirely on physics code, while others focus on areas such as AI or rendering.
Just because a developer focuses on implementation doesn’t mean that they don’t have any influence on the design, however. On the contrary, developers are often responsible for a lot of the ground-level game design decisions. In many cases details about the design – how fast something moves, how accurate a particular gun is, or how much damage a move does – will be implemented and tweaked by developers to help refine the overall feel of the game.
Modern players have extremely high expectations for games, and if anything feels slightly off they will notice. Entire games have fallen to the wayside because one particular aspect, such as facial animation, was not implemented accurately enough. Because of this, having talented developers is vital for today’s modern blockbuster games. However, it is unlikely for a developer to be responsible for larger changes to the game, such as rewriting a script or scrapping a major mechanic.
A Game designer, on the other hand, is more concerned with the larger vision of the game and does not necessarily need to know how to program. Instead, they rely on player psychology, history, and an in-depth knowledge of past and present games. Designers need to make sure that the overall concept of the game is appealing to players, and that all major decisions made about the design of the game help to further the intended experience.
While a developer may study new and emerging programming languages, or be excited by a new breakthrough in rendering technology, designers are more concerned with games as a concept. They may study Johan Huizinga’s work on the relationship between play and culture, or study different types of players to determine why they are attracted to particular mechanics.
Designers also need to be very knowledgeable about the gaming industry as a whole. Thousands of games are released every year, and most of them go unnoticed. In order for a game to stand out, the designer(s) must be aware of what is going on in the industry and make sure that their game has something unique enough to stand out from the crowd.
Game designers and developers both have very different but extremely important roles to play in creating a game. Without talented developers, a designer’s ideas will remain just that – ideas. On the other hand, without a strong design even a technically impressive game will fail.
Until Next Week
That is all I have for this week! If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, when I look at the design of RPG’s!