Game Designer: It’s a Job, Not a Title.

A Crash Course on Functional Design Roles in Games

This article is intended for project leads, account holders, and producers who act as external liaisons and must interface with businesses outside of games and app development. It was created as a tool when building teams to help with budget and staffing requirements and is encouraged for anyone who is hoping to better understand the roles and responsibilities of Game Designers, UX Designers, UI Designers, Level Designers, Narrative Designers, and Systems Designers before approaching a design or development agency.

In the fall, game developer HalfBrick got rid of its entire design department (at the time of which was two people). I choked on my coffee thinking perhaps I had read wrong. How would it affect the white label, advert game, and outsourcing arms of games business, a side of the industry all-too-familiar with requests to create the next “flappy-ninja-angry-bird” success, if the creator of Fruit Ninja proudly claimed that game designers were redundant members of staff?

That meant work I had done was considered irrelevant to the outcome of the products I worked to release on the app store. It meant that I didn’t deserve to get paid for work I produced, other designers I worked with were overhead, and that non-design team members (who would jump ship without me), would be overloaded with problems and questions they couldn’t solve or answer because they were too busy with tasks on their already full plates.

When a team has worked together for a long time using the same tool sets, internal language, and without switching engines, functional design becomes something everyone can contribute to. We’re all working to build great games that players love, and sharing ideas is important to the success of a project. In many ways, I understand the decision, but respectfully, I disagree with it. More than anything, I wish it hadn’t come from HalfBrick, a studio whose games and level of polish I admire.

Perhaps that’s because at the time I read of the news I did not treat the role of game designer as the almighty being that everyone reports to. I’ve consistently had a problem with the 500 page game design bible, but I can separate this from the concept that ideation is all a designer does. Four months after Halfbrick’s decision, game designers continue to get work. They are not an irrelevant part of the industry.

You may be reading this because you represent a business — your business is not in the games industry, but is interested in entering the games industry as an alternative form of advertising, maybe as an extension of a brand, or perhaps you’re interested in joining a new venture. You are working with an agency who will be developing the project. They show you a project timeline, quote, and staffing plan that includes at least one functional designer, maybe more. Why are you paying for all these “designers”? Why do you need these resources to get the job done? Why is the budget what it is? How do you know if the agency is allocating the right internal resources to the project? Why can’t you just design the game?

Why can’t we just replace all the designers with programmers or fire them completely like Halfbrick?

There are good reasons that games need game designers. If you’re working with a development agency and you’re hoping one person can do all of the jobs below for your game, use someone on your own staff to do the functional design, or heaven forbid if you’d like to chop off an arm of the agency’s design team because you see them as irrelevant to your budget: Be careful — you may not get the democratic product you envisioned.

Game Designer

Game Designer is a broad term, a catch-all term, and it can include responsibilities of a other roles that follow this section depending on project scope and the size of the overall development team. A game designer is loosely considered the person responsible for defining the “fun” in functional aspects of the game, and not as someone who just comes up with ideas. This role can include, but is not limited to:

· Requirements & Features Matrices
· Digital & Non-Digital Prototyping of Game Mechanics
· User Scenarios
· Market & Genre Research
· Behavioral Research — Behavioral research includes user testing and data analysis as it relates to improving gameplay or driving behaviors. This can be used for metrics-driven design, supporting intuitive-design, and can also be fulfilled by roles in games user research (titled GUR) but that’s another conversation for another day.
· Rules Documentation — Rules documentation includes, if the team is small, documentation that a UX, UI, Narrative Designer, and System Designer may do, such as workflows, wireframes, and matrices. 
· Defining the Core Gameplay Loop — This includes defining all connected features of the game that make up the core experience for a player.
· Last, but not least, math

The game design team can include senior and associate design roles which designate who is responsible for finalizing mechanics and conflict resolutions.

Tips: Avoid all meetings with no follow through. No deliverables and design by committee can set your project up for failure. Do you want something specific as a stakeholder from a development agency? Send your development team reference games, movies, sketches, and photos that inspire you. Become a part of the conversation by sending references so they aren’t throwing darts trying to execute your vision, but trust them to do their job when it comes to the details.

UX Designer

Closely related to a game designer, but not necessarily game specific. Game design involves UX (user experience) design. UX designers may be needed for other aspects of a game that are not focused on gameplay mechanics. User experience is often combined with UI, but focuses on logic and flow as opposed to visual placement of information. Examples of UX responsibilities include:

· Menu Logic — The definition of menu architecture and pathing via workflows
· Non-core Gameplay Logic — For example, a “Team Ranking” system for players in competitive games, leaderboards, achievements, or social mechanics design. See also Systems Designer.
· Account Logic and Rules — Logging in and out of game accounts, especially in the event that users can use the same account in multiple games.
· Cross-Platform Workflows— What changes as part of the user experience when the user is playing on mobile phone versus mobile tablet? What about being on the web or when using a social media account?
· User On Boarding — Often called the FTUE or first time user experience, this follows the path and content a new player would see as a first time user. Depending on the project, this could be done by the game designer.

Tips: Continue reading. You will often find UX/UI combined and people who can do both; however, they are not the same.

UI Designer

Despite what many mistake as art, UI Design, is NOT stylistic design; however, sometimes you will find UI designers who are also very capable artists. UI Design is a focus on information architecture and button placement, but it does not necessarily require the visual treatment or stylistic aspects of those buttons. Make sure you clearly know what you are requiring your UI designer to accomplish. Some responsibilities of a functional UI Designer include:

· Low Fidelity Wireframes (Often grayscale)
· High Fidelity Wireframes (Often grayscale, but can have some color)
· UI Prototypes (Using tools like Azure, Flinto, Flash, Scaleform, and the many other options out there.)
· Pen and paper sketches, research, and brainstorming 
· UI-related Localization Concerns — What aspects of the UI will be affected if the game is going to be released in China? Is there a list of all the screens and copy that need to be translated to give to the localization team?

Tips: Find a well-rounded UI designer. A UI designer that understands the bullet points above, aspects of functional design, user experience, and sometimes art, as it relates to information design, can set your project down a successful path.

Narrative Designer

Narrative designers are responsible for the story and the world of a game. Depending on how narrative driven a game is, each of these roles could easily be their own job. Some responsibilities of a narrative designer include:

· Character Backstories — Where did the characters come from? How old are they? What do they look like? What do I need to tell the concept art team so that they can feel both creative and inspired, but not constricted as artists? 
· Setting Descriptions — Narrative designers may need to define the setting of each environment a user will see. This includes the location, time, environment, architecture, plant life, historical events, and even specifying names.
· Dialogue Trees — Some games give players choice in the form of dialogue from characters. Narrative designers must frame these choices for the user.
· Quest & Event Design — Narrative driven games may include a series of quests or events that exist independently or co-dependently with other gameplay mechanics such as shooting or fighting. These quests or events, defined by a game designer, drive the game and story forward and are required for the user to progress.

Tips: In some cases, character designers can fill the role of both a narrative designer (focusing on character story) and a concept artist (focusing on character visuals and abilities) depending on the needs of a project and the individual hire’s skillset. Narrative designers and game writers may also overlap in roles, but note that copy or actual dialogue is not mentioned here as a responsibility of the narrative designer.

Level Designer

Level designers are responsible for building puzzles and controlled environments for players to both discover and defeat mechanics. Some responsibilities of a level designer include:

· Blockouts — Level designers will often block out their levels and puzzles in engine so that they can be quickly tested by members of the team. This includes the placement of walls, floors, lights, objects, health packs, and tweaking variables made available to them to increase or decrease the difficulty for players. This applies to both 2D and 3D games.
· World Building— Level designers may be responsible for placing each game object in a scene during the blockout stage and tweaking once final assets are replaced.
· Set Decorating— Some level designers may even work on lighting, camera, and placement of decorative assets in their scenes if they are critical to a level’s puzzle.

Tips: Development agencies should be ensuring their level designers are given tools and prefabs to build out content fast. Consider talking to your agency about being okay with purchasing or licensing existing 3rd party tools or placeholder assets early-on instead of developing everything from scratch. Not every aspect of the project needs to be built from the ground up, especially when creating a proof of concept; the developer may consider using them anyway, if they haven’t yet made what you need and are factoring that into the budget; however, they may not specify up front all the 3rd party tools they are considering using until the technical requirements of the project are further defined. Trust the developer to do what works best for their team.

System Designer

This role can even be separated into specific games systems depending on their level of complexity. System designers in games are responsible for defining and owning specific systems in games and balancing related systems within the larger ecosystem of the game world. Okay, so what does that even mean?

Let’s take “Game Economy Designer” as an example. In a social game or even massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) this would be a huge role. In this example, the Game Economy Designer, aka a systems designer, would be responsible for tracking, modeling, and defining various aspects of a game’s economy and its relation to other systems in order to ensure balance. MMOs have many systems including crafting systems, weapons systems, player-leveling systems, classes, and much more — each of which may have its own set of rules, variables, and details to balance.

Systems designers love spreadsheets, predictive modeling, and discovering game-breaking conflicts within a game’s mechanics. In many ways, every person on the functional design team should have a little bit of a systems designer in them.

Tips: Figure out how many large gameplay features you have on your project. If it seems like each one is significant work, the development agency may require a systems designer managing one or two systems while working directly with a lead game designer. Like the level designer, they should be given tools to rapidly iterate in engine or update content server-side if A/B testing a live product.

Remember This

The biggest mistake when building out a team is to assume that only one or a few designers can design or do everything, especially if the project’s scope is big. Good designers push back when they know that a system or concept is going to be complex and need more time or resources. This is also true for good agencies when coming up with a project plan and timeline. It is okay to ask why a project is being staffed the way it is. Keep this in mind when reviewing any project plan:

What functional designers are NOT by default:
· “Programmers” — It is worth noting that there are many kinds of programmers and programming languages for which an entirely different set of articles would be necessary. 
· “Artists” — There are also many art production related roles in game development. Being a great artist requires time, expertise, and understanding of visual trends. 
· “Producers” — Last but not least, think of producers as facilitators. Producers have their own responsibilities (often what is falling off of everyone’s plates), none of which are inherently related to functional design.

Can some functional designers also program or create art? Yes, but having a dedicated game designer enables the rest of your staff to not get stuck on decision-making bottlenecks.

What skills can be helpful for functional designers:
· SOME programming skills & knowledge of programming terminology
· SOME visual design skills
· SOME presentation skills — the ability to execute via documentation, thoroughly communicate requirements, present, and unify a team
· POLISH — taking a rough idea and turning it into a video, a document, a prototype- something magical, well thought out, and inspiring to get everyone on the same page
· Working in existing game engines (for example, Unity or Unreal)
· Working on cross-functional teams
· Wearing many hats
· Decisiveness, thoroughness, iteration

That was a lot.

That doesn’t mean your project has to be. It also doesn’t mean you need every role listed here to make a fantastic game. Wonderful games have been made by tiny teams, small agencies, and AAA studios alike, but scope, budget, complexity of the concept, and time are key. Functional designers are not redundant, and it’s likely, if you’re looking into using a development agency, the scope of your project means that you need them.

This article was written by Molly Proffitt, who works with teams to produce cross-platform games for brands and creates original IPs at Ker-Chunk Games; however it was edited by writer and journalist Erich Schuler. Game writers never get enough credit — You should follow him on Twitter.

Want more? Check out these great posts:

Why Your UX Designer is Probably Unhappy” by Caryn Vainio

“UX is Not UI: An Infographic” by Sonia Harris

The Door Problem” by Liz England — Defining the role of a game designer (as well as other “door problems” on a game team)