What Does a Game Designer Do?

“What does a Game Designer do?” This is a question I get asked a lot. I often jump into the technical details and my day-to-day responsibilities, but that all too often seems to go over the heads of my audience, leaving them just as clueless as to what it is I actually do as they were at the start of the conversation. Today, I’m going to take a different approach. Today, my answer is “a game designer is like a carpenter.”

Carpenters start by choosing what sort of project they want to work on. This could be a house, a bench, a stool, or whatever. Similarly, at a high level, someone on the design team (Typically the creative director or some other high up designer) has to decide what project the team is going to work on.

Once the project has been decided, it’s time to get to work. The carpenter then draws up some schematics that detail exactly what they project entails. This is done for two major reason. First of all, fixing mistakes on paper is much easier than fixing them in the finished product. Secondly, it’s much easier to create something when you have an blueprint to work off of and to point to when something doesn’t look quite right. In game design, we call these blueprints design documents, or documentation.

After making a plan, the next step for a carpenter is to gather all the tools and materials they need to complete the project. A carpenter might gather materials like nails, screws, and various pieces of wood, as well as tools like hammers, saws, and screwdrivers. A skilled carpenter needs to know how to select the exact right components. Should the nails be made out of steel or iron? Should they be 1″, 2″, or 3″ long? Should they be common nails, box nails, or finishing nails? Game designers have to make all of these decisions for everything they, or someone else, makes in the game, and some decisions are much tougher to answer than you might think. There’s a common design problem called “The Door Problem” that showcases this very well. Unlike carpenters, game designers not only have to select what they want, but they have to effectively communicate what the game needs to other teams. Here’s where communication skills come in handy, as this is sort of like playing a game of telephone. To make matters worse, it can sometimes feel like other teams speak an entirely different language.

It’s important to note that while a carpenter knows how to use the materials and tools to make something beautiful, the carpenter doesn’t actually *make* the materials or tools themselves. Similarly, a game designer needs to know where to place assets (Art, audio, etc) and how to use tools (World editors, quest editors, behavior tree editors, etc), and likely has a hand in how they’re made (ie, their design), but they aren’t typically the ones that actually create them. It’s a designer’s job to put everything together, not make the individual pieces.

At the end of it all, a game designer, just like a carpenter, has to spend the time and do the work to put everything together in a cohesive manner. Artists can add beautiful animations to models, but without a game designer, that’s just a movie. The audio team can make hours of epic music, but without a game designer, that’s just a soundtrack. Writers can write stunning prose that would make even Shakespeare jealous, but without a game designer, that’s just a novel. So what does a game designer do? They’re the people that bring everyone’s work together in a cohesive manner to make it shine.

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