Saturday, August 13, 2011

What do game designers do anyway?

We recently posted a job opening on the EverQuest 2 team for a game designer to fill my old role managing tradeskills. As most people know, I was hired directly from the player community, without any game design experience; in fact for many years I was an I.T. manager responsible for all things I.T. related in the Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and New Zealand offices of my previous company. So, some general business/I.T. knowledge but not related to gaming. And my hiring worked out very well, so the company is once again considering applications from the player community to fill the role.

I've noticed two interesting things from the comments made on various discussion forums about the job.

First, seemed like 90% of the comments took the form of "Wow, I'd love to do this BUT I can't because... ", where "reason" was generally "too far away/can't move/don't know how to program/not qualified/health reasons". These comments made me very sad, to think that so many people see this as a job they would love, but feel prevented by so many reasons from actually trying it. I certainly understand that people have many different things that might prevent them, and health issues are hard to argue with in particular. But most other issues are surmountable if a person really, truly, passionately wants to do something. Heck, I sold a condo, moved from Australia, and took a fairly significant pay cut from an IT manager's salary to take the job in the first place, because it was what I genuinely wanted to do and an opportunity that might not have come again. I've never regretted that. I hate to imagine that any of these posters WILL regret not doing the same. As I wrote in one thread, you might not get the job if you apply, but you're GUARANTEED not to get the job if you don't apply.

Second thing I noticed is that a large number of players don't seem to understand at all what a game designer even does. Several people mentioned that they can't program, when nowhere in the job description did it even mention programming as a requirement. Game designers don't program. NONE of the game designers on EQ2 program. Some of us have done some basic programming in the past (including me) but others haven't and none of us NEED to do it as a job requirement. The most we ever do (and not all of us) is some basic scripting language stuff, and that's only on rare occasions for most of us. For the most part, game designers work with the tools that the actual programmers - the code team - provide for us. We do most of the creative work. We come up with the ideas for the stories, we write the text of the quests, we name the items you get, we decide what the zones and monsters should look like, we assign what stats are on equipment, what your spells do, what components are going to be required to make which recipes, we name the NPCs and dress them up.

Here's an older post that Josh "Autenil" Kriegshauser made on the SOE blog describing some of the different job titles that work on a game. In particular, about designers:

Designers breathe the lifeblood into the game. They write quests, set up NPCs, populate the world, create items and scribe spells. Some designers focus on Mechanics (spells, balance, achievements, etc) while others focus on Content (NPCs, Quests, Lore). Tradeskills are also an important part of our world and some designers work exclusively on Raid Encounters. While most of designers’ work is done in tools written by Programmers, designers may learn skills such as scripting as they level up.

As a tradeskill designer I did a lot of work with Excel spreadsheets, working out the details of massive numbers of recipes which I either created from new or revised. By the time I was hired, sub-combines had been removed from the recipes but there was still a lot of cleaning up needed for consistency's sake, not to mention all the new recipes for Kunark that I joined just in time to work lots of overtime creating. I also spent many, many long evenings at home watching DVDs while updating the stats on older crafted gear that had gotten out of date, a slow and painful process. (Nowdays our itemization designer Silius has a tool - which a programmer made for him - that allows him to update stats more easily so he can maintain the tradeskilled item stats, but back when I joined the team I had to do it all by hand myself ... uphill barefoot in the snow ... you get the idea!) I also added lots of tradeskill quests, which I consider an important part of the changes I made to tradeskills. Learning to write quests well takes some time, and my first ones were not exactly brilliant, but I soon figured out what worked well and what didn't and what was fun. It didn't take long till I was helping out with non-tradeskill quests too as needed, and helping new apprentices learn the tricks. As tradeskill designer I also kind of inherited housing and furniture, since the carpenter class makes furniture and nobody else was very interested in it, so it ended up falling mainly to me to request/repurpose/make various new house items for all the other designers who needed an extra quest reward or faction item here or there. During the course of all this I did learn a little scripting and write a few perl scripts, but it's nothing I couldn't have lived without. I don't like to ask people for help so I usually figure stuff out on my own, but as a team we're always happy to help each other out when needed and we all give and take pretty evenly. One of the best things about being the tradeskill designer was that I had a chance to learn a little bit of almost everything, because tradeskills is a pretty broad area when you think about it. Itemization, quest writing, collections, house items, even making and populating new zones for some of the quests; I became a bit of a generalist and jack-of-all-trades which was great in my opinion since it meant I could help out with almost anything as needed. Pretty much the only thing I didn't ever get into was raids and boss fight design, but we've had some great designers doing those very well for as long as I've been on the team so there was never any need (though I imagine if I'd really wanted to get involved, I could have asked to help; I always had other things I wanted to do first for tradeskills though). So anyway, yes - a very broad opportunity to learn some very diverse things, and for someone looking to join the industry for the first time I think it's going to be a great position to start in for this very reason. And no, no programming required.

Nowdays I'm on the production side, which Autenil's blog also describes briefly. My role so far is fairly diverse and hard to describe in detail but basically boils down to keeping everything running and making sure nothing important gets missed. I don't tell designer A to make this raid and designer B to make that raid, but I might notice that the lead designer hasn't planned any raids for the next game update and check if that was intentional or an oversight. It's definitely a change from the tradeskill designer role but so far I'm not regretting the promotion; I love tradeskills and I loved working on them but after four years I was starting to feel a little tired, as if there wasn't a lot more new to learn there. And I firmly believe the tradeskill system will benefit from someone with fresh eyes taking a new look from a new perspective and possibly seeing things that I wasn't seeing. So now I'm learning new skills which always makes me happy, and able to help the team in new ways too which also makes me happy. :) The last associate producer we had on EQ2 has just taken over as producer on the FreeRealms team, and the one before that has recently gone off to be a producer at Zynga. I'm not sure if I want to be a producer one day; there still seems to be a daunting amount to learn just as an associate producer, so for now I'm just happy learning that. And who knows what other opportunities will come along while I'm busy learning? There always seems to be something new.

I haven't seen all the applications coming in for the tradeskill designer position yet - HR and our fearless leader the producer are handling all that so far, and besides I'm on holiday this week - but I know we've received quite a lot and I'm looking forward to meeting my new replacement once the process is complete. Good luck to whoever you are - and well done for going ahead and applying without adding a "BUT I can't because ..." clause! I'm sure you won't regret taking the job, I certainly haven't.