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This is a question basically to programmers with experience working in game companies.

How common is it that game coders participate in the design process of the game? Both gameplay design, and content design. Do you participate in related meetings and such, or do you have some other (formal/informal) opportunities to sound your opinions of game features / levels / even story, and for them to be actually considered?

Another question, not completely unrelated - is it possible for a programmer with interest in the field to move from the technical job to a gameplay design related job (or do both in smaller companies)? Does that happen?

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Just a comment on your terminology. The term "developer" is used differently in the games biz than in othet tech fields. In other fields "developer" is basically a synonym for "programmer" but in game development it means "anyone who works on the production of a game." Programmers, artists, designers... they're all "game developers." Which come to think of it is an oblique answer to your question. –  jhocking Apr 12 '11 at 13:27
    
@jhocking thanks for pointing that out, i edited my answer –  Zaky German Apr 12 '11 at 13:51
    
It's possible for a programmer to move into game design, though it might be rare. If I remember right, Cliff Bleszinski was originally a programmer, but now he's involved with designing the Unreal and Gears of War Games. Ian Schreiber started out as a programmer, and has since written books about game design. –  thedaian Apr 12 '11 at 18:42
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6 Answers

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Frequently coders are called upon to figure out if designs are possible, and also help order new features in schedules, but when it comes to actively providing creative input, each company varies wildly. Some don't have many dedicated designers and the coders are meant to "add value" while developing the features. In other companies there is a very strict "if it's not in a design doc, it's not going in".

So, choose who you work for carefully.

Also, it's very possible for a coder to move to being a producer, which can lead to some more creative control, but I've not yet seen a good designer start out as a professional coder. (being a computer games enthusiast turned bedroom coder doesn't count, as many games designers have to start trying their ideas out somewhere)

This distinction of mine seems to have stirred up some feelings, so let me elaborate:

Games developers that are first and foremost coders, the ones that started out by coding, then realising that they liked computer games and then started to develop them became games developers, those games developers I would say are probably a bit hit or miss for being games designers.

The ones that started out by loving games then attacking SDKs with gusto, the ones that make mods, generate a lot of random stuff in game creation kits, only finally getting into a job where they code much later, those are games designers that can code. These ones, often, have the feel for games design that makes them good games designers.

Admittedly, I'm one of the former, I do love coding games, but for the joy of developing the game, and in the case of my home projects, for seeing the reaction from my family when they play the games I make for them. I am, however, aware of my shortcomings when it comes to games design. I have to try really hard not to be blinkered into thinking like a coder when designing games. I have to stop myself from adding features just because they're simple, and stop myself from trying to avoid adding features just because they're hard.

The coders that started out by designing annoy me with their tolerance for shabby code, but when I take a step back and see what they've done with the code, I have to be humble and admit that they made the game better, regardless of how annoying they might be to work with when it comes to code cleanliness.

I found a rare one at my last job that was the combination of both and wish him much luck in the future.

So, although coders can be involved in the design process, add their own creativity to the mix, I think it's probably better to sum it up differently: Design meetings can include coders and designers, sometimes they even have the right job description.

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As mentioned this is very company dependent but is more likely to happen in smaller companies than large. There are quite a few features in video games I have worked on (I am.. erm.. was a game programmer) that were from me and not the original design. Some of these were up-front design considerations, but a good number of them fall into the category of 'This is not doable as designed by the deadline, how about something like this instead?' hehe :) –  James Apr 12 '11 at 16:19
    
@James i believe most coders have participated in the second method of "design process" you mentioned ;) –  Zaky German Apr 12 '11 at 17:35
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"I've not yet seen a good designer start out as a professional coder" - Richard Garriott, Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier, Will Wright, Chris Crawford, David Braben, Doug Church, Jonathan Blow, Soren Johnson, John Romero, and a fair few others might take issue with that - for subjective values of 'good', obviously. :) –  Kylotan Apr 14 '11 at 3:43
    
@Kylotan, which is why I did specify that bedroom coders don't count. People who get started in games by designing them and coding them because they can (to my mind) are designers that can code, not the other way round. I think that Jonathan Blow might be the most obvious exception there. –  Richard Fabian Apr 14 '11 at 11:32
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I don't understand the distinction you're making. They were professional coders, who are now successful designers. They weren't professional designers who could code. The concept of a professional game designer didn't even exist for most of them when they started out. –  Kylotan Apr 14 '11 at 14:07
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One question I'd like to answer even if you didn't ask directly: SHOULD game designers involve programmers in their design meetings? (As others have said, whether they actually do or not varies from team to team.)

I think this is an emphatic YES. A programmer's job is, essentially, to turn the designer's ideas into working code. For that to happen, the programmer needs to have buy-in to the design, whether this comes from feeling like they have creative input, or merely that they are "in the loop" in terms of the current state and direction of the game.

Especially in teams where the designers are not strong coders, it is also vital that programmers have "veto power" over any designs that would be more difficult or time-consuming to code than they are worth... especially if they can suggest trivial-to-implement alternatives. Programmers also tend to be good at finding holes in the design, because they are thinking in terms of "how do I code this" so a missing detail will stick out to a programmer easier than it will to a designer.

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How common is it that game coders participate in the design process of the game?

I've had experience of 3 companies:

  • One had no designers at all. All design was done by programmers and artists, typically the most senior.
  • One had designers, and programmers had virtually no input into the process. The lead programmer might be brought in to provide a feasibility check on the design after it was made and adjustments made accordingly, but they did no design as such.
  • One has separate programmers and designers, but programmers are encouraged to contribute high level design just as much as the designers are - the division of labour takes place more on the implementation side.

So, no standard there!

is it possible for a programmer with interest in the field to move from the technical job to a gameplay design related job (or do both in smaller companies)? Does that happen?

Yes, and yes. I think it's actually quite common, and I would argue it's preferable - I would much rather have a designer who has (a) experience of the game making process and (b) understanding of the medium's limitations.

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There's no rules, sometimes

There was no rules in the game company I worked at. Sure, I don't think it's uncommon for coders to do design. I'll share my examples.

Regarding,
While I was hired as a programmer, but I did design and music. It's not that I wanted to do the creative stuff, they just had no structure and needed my design.

Yes, moving from a technical job to design/gameplay is possible in an unstructured company. You need to bring some real skill, and be careful about territorial issues and egos.

Because I came from the multi-media industry and was just doing programming as a hobbie, I had the confidence to move into game design. That was my break, but instead of lacking experience with design, I lacked experience in the programming.

I hope you get a break in the industry if that is what you're after. I recommend getting some experience with design in a gaming company, but stay within your job title. You can always go to an other company with the experience you've gained, without ruffling egos at your current company.
Good Luck,

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Good point about the ego, definitely something a coder who's motivated towards design should keep in mind. –  Zaky German Apr 13 '11 at 16:51
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First: your mileage will vary depending on both you and the company you work for.

That being said, let's look at some job titles:

Technical designer - These individuals straddle design and programming. Often times, the ones I've encountered have started off as programmers and then heavily migrated to design. Responsibilities often involve working closely with both the design team and programming team to build technically challenging design elements.

Gameplay programmer - I've been a gameplay programmer on a triple-A FPS. Typically, our responsibilities involve translating a designer's dreams into realities. Depending on the studio, you can be given a great deal of latitude in how your implementation functions and what if offers the designer. I've seen more than one gameplay programmer's initial values be used in the shipped product. Additionally, being a gameplay programmer gives you a close dialogue with the design team, potentially allow you to comment or influence their designs.

Other programmers - Engine programmers and tools programmers typically have very little sway in any design decisions beyond "can it be done". Though, this depends on the studio. My current studio (a social/casual house) expects everyone to provide input for design, including all programmers.

So, basically, it all depends on the company and your position within the company.

I hope that helps!

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Thanks alot, that's exactly the kind of answer i was hoping to get. –  Zaky German Apr 13 '11 at 13:45
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In our company game designers are separated from other developers. But we have special page on our internal wiki where we can post our thoughts about different aspects of game and of course we can talk to them directly. But the last word always have game designers and we are not allowed to do anything outside the specs. And it is great, actually. Division of labor.

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