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About Video Game Design
By Michael Dance
OverviewBecoming a video game designer is one of those things a lot of people think they want to do, but nobody actually knows how to do it or what goes into it. Yes, designing a video game is a creative and rewarding task; it also requires business acumen, budgets, staffs, production plans, and lots and lots of time and money. That said, judging from the breadth of awesome games out there--everything from Fallout 3 to Bioshock to The Sims 3 to Crysis--it can be done, and done wonderfully.
Early Game DesignIn the early days of game design--when the Odyssey and Atari consoles were released, and people spent their time playing Pong and Space Invaders at the arcade--the designer and programmer were one and the same, and all games were basic action games. It was only later in the 1980s, with the release of the first Nintendo and ever-maturing personal computers, that the roles of designer and programmer began to separate. Games like Super Mario World, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda were released. On the computer end, things began to really mature in 1992, when Wolfenstein 3D--the first "first person shooter"--was released, followed by watershed games Doom and SimCity 2000 a year later.
The Design Process: The ConceptOn its face, the video game design process is a lot like the process done to get a movie made: there's a concept, then pre-production, production, and post-production. In-house designers, like screenwriters, don't necessarily get to come up with their own ideas. In practical terms, the video game company's higher-ups come up with an idea based on marketing potential, the availability of a pre-existing property, the need for a sequel, or a desire to trump (or usually just to catch up with) the competition.
Once the idea is agreed upon, the game is assigned a producer, who only then goes to a designer to work on some conceptual ideas for the game. A few days or weeks later, the designer and producer present the company with a formal design proposal: a document outlining what's special about the game, the look, feel, gameplay, plot, interface, and characters. If it gets the green light--and it needs to be approved not only by the company but by the console manufacturer and the property owner, if there is one--the game moves into the pre-production phase.
The Design Process: Pre-Production through ProductionPre-production is all about taking design ideas and figuring out the painstaking reality behind them: what technology needs to be designed, who the development team is going to consist of, what the programming schedule will look like, how big the budget needs to be, and so on. After getting approved again, the game moves into production--where months and sometimes years of programming work takes place. Artists need to design what the game's settings, characters, and even user interface and menus will look like; the sound engineers need to create sound effects; actors are cast, cutscenes are produced, and the marketing department gets rolling.
Throughout this process, it's the producer's job to keep things rolling, but the actual designer on the game is still the creative boss. Like movie directors, designers guide the creative team, approve the concept art and oversee the casting and music departments. They also make sure the game is as balanced and as fun as possible. "Video games always have been, and always will be, an imperfect medium," Fallout 3 designer Emil Pagliarulo told Play.tm. "If a player wants to use exploits or power game, if they're bound and determined to beat the system, there's usually little you can do to stop them...[but we do] everything we can to ensure that the player's challenge level is consistent and balanced throughout the game."
The Design Process: Post-Production and ReleasePost-production is where things start to move beyond the initial designer's scope. At this point, the game is playable, but it's not finished yet, so a lead tester is assigned to the project. Manuals and packaging are created; the sales team creates a plan to sell the game; and ultimately, when all the pieces have come together, the game is manufactured and shipped. As this was probably all done on a brutal deadline, the designer then prays that not too many bugs remain in the final version.
A Video Game Design CareerWhen finding work, you're not going to walk into a lead designer position. You could be a storyboard artist, a level designer, a character animator, a tester, or any number of other positions, and many people still follow the traditional route of getting hired in a non-creative entry-level grunt position and working their way up from there. But game studios regularly post high-profile job listings on the Web; to apply, you'll need a resume and a portfolio.
For that portfolio, you could get a proper education. The ITT Tech School of Drafting and Design, DeVry University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh are just three schools (all available online or nationwide) to offer some form of game design degrees--or you could go the independent route. Independent designers across the world are consistently making their own games, and some of them even turn out pretty well--and allow these designers to get a foot in the door at a real company on the strength of the finished independent game.
Designer Francois Bertrand, in an interview with Game Zone, encourages this route. "It is still my biggest recommendation to people who want to get in the gaming industry. Create something very cool in your spare time, and send it to a developer. It doesn't matter if it's small; in fact, it is MUCH better to send one small thing that is very cool than five 'okay' projects...In a portfolio or demo, only show the best of what you can do; by extrapolation, people will establish the quality level of your work at that bar."