Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Game Designer

So, I’ve been working at Black Lantern Studios for the past two weeks now in the Game Design department. For those of you who don’t know what exactly a ‘Game Designer’ does for a studio, here’s a quick rundown:
  • Game ideas
Game Designers get the privilege of taking an idea for a game and actually making it into a game. They have to foresee all possible problems with an idea, come up with compelling ways to make the idea a game, and watch the implementation from beginning to end.
  • Storyline
For the games that have a storyline, the Game Designer has to write it. Depending on the complexity and audience, the story can be very simple or very complex. Because BLS has a focused more on children's games in the past, a lot of the storylines haven't been incredibly in-depth. This isn’t to say it’s not a lot of hard work because of constraints, but allows much more room to reuse children themes without sounding stale.
  • Psychic and Fortune Telling
Designers give a game to programmers and artists in a huge document called a Design Document. This document is essentially the ‘Bible’ to how the game is supposed to work. Because this document is so vital, designers must write it so that it makes sense to all who reads it. They have to put themselves in the role of someone who didn’t come up with the idea and look at anything they write completely objectively. They also have to make sure they plan out the game. If the programmers and artists spend work hours only to find that a designer wrote the wrong thing in the Design Document, it can create headaches for all departments.

So, with that being said, I bet you’d like to hear what I’ve been doing! Well, to be honest, not much yet. Most of what I’ve been doing has not been design tasks (manual XML conversion, bug testing), but soon, I promise! However, there is one design duty I’ve been working on called ‘Balancing.’

Balancing is usually done once a game is built and in a relatively playable form. It allows for designers to go back and look at the design implemented by the programmers and make sure that it will not be too hard or too easy for players.

A good example of this would be in the Half-Life 2 games.

Valve has a nice setup for balancing in their games. They have a group of people each playing through a HL2 level and, each time a player dies, they record where the player died and how he died. After all players have beaten the game, they aggregate all that data and look for where players died the most.

If a lot of players die while trying to kill a particular boss, it’s a good sign that maybe that boss is over powered, or the player is under powered. This is also useful to find places in a level where there is bad level design. For instance, if a player has to jump over a pit, and a lot of players were shown to fall into the pit and die, it’s a good sign that there’s something wrong with that part of the level.

Balancing is a very important part of keeping your game playable. Gamers are very finicky. If they find themselves dying because of bad design, it can turn them off from playing that game. The real trick is to make a game challenging for all types of gamers, which turns out to be a very fine line to walk.
I have a few things to say about the industry, but I’ll hold off until next post.

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