My main goal is to create games which is why I'm planning on studying IT so I can later on be a game developer/programmer.

My question is: does a game programmer get involved in the game designing process or is that only the game designer's job? Is a game designer always needed or can programmers work on game design some of the time?

Do programmers need to have game designing knowledge or do they just follow orders? Similarly, do game designers require programming knowledge?

I'm kind of confused over what I want to be which is why I'm asking here. Basically, do game programmers also get to be game designers?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Josh Aug 3 '16 at 15:32
up vote 90 down vote accepted

It depends on the company. Roles and titles vary widely across the industry, so at some companies roles will be very rigid and strict and at others they will be more flexible and allow for more cross-discipline work.

It also depends on the person; some developers like to explore beyond their "technical" role or job title, others don't.

You'll probably find more flexibility in a smaller game company, but it's certainly possible to find the role flexibility you are hoping for in a larger one. You just need to be aware that's something you want and look for it during the interview process. Or start your own company where you can be everything and do everything.

  • I see,thanks for the response and post correction,have a nice day! – Tim Jul 28 '16 at 18:59
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    Random fact: This is not only true for the gaming industry. I often find myself in the role of a project manager or software architect (sometimes even a system administrator). That happens in a medium sized company (around 12.000 employees) and tends to get less with growing employee number. – OddDev Jul 29 '16 at 5:08
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    @OddDev Since when is 12.000 employees medium sized? – Raidri Jul 29 '16 at 9:08
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    @Raidri Ah sorry, it's not a software development company. We actually produce something else. So the development part is about 120 people :) – OddDev Jul 29 '16 at 10:00

It's important to understand that the hundred coders in a company will be implementing high-level designs, not making them. In design terms, you might get given a task like "design the graphic format to be used for all art assets" but you won't be given the task "design a way to encourage users to interact in groups of five to ten people". Or indeed be asked to design a solution to prettymuch any question from my list of basic MMORPG questions.

Game designers get to decide that stuff.

HOWEVER... don't think that being a game designer is all wonderful pie-in-the-sky imagineering, either. Most of it is research, math, data-mining, crunching numbers, and grunt work, and that work will be massively under-appreciated by almost everyone in the company. The advantage of this is that it's entirely possible your bosses will not know if you suck at it, because nobody knows what game designers really do.

An example I always give of why I could not be a game designer is that I had the joy of working with a good one: a guy called Ben Jans. He left the company I was working with to work for Lolapps as a game designer on a game called Ravenwood Fair. Notice how at that link, you don't see Ben Jans listed there: you see John Romero, Brenda Brathwaite and Dr Cat, all those three designers deservedly being massive heavyweights in the industry.

So, the way I heard the story, about thirdhand because Ben is too humble, is that shortly after Ben applyied to LolApps for the job, the company director went to the hiring manager and said "why are you hiring game designers? Why can't you just get the coders to design it?"

The hiring manager handed Ben's application to the Director, who read it, nodded, and walked out, never to ask that question again.

Ben got his acceptance letter the next day.

What was in that application? Design notes for two questlines for the game. Not just a high-level overview, but extremely low-level: character names, lines of dialog with perfect tone for the game (including hundreds of carefully-researched references to the lore of the game, and countless gamer in-jokes), carefully balanced quest rewards (in a Farmville style game where every single action gives some level of reward), carefully balanced task costs, and far more, and summing it all up with a list of all required assets for each quest (sounds and graphics for the characters and their environments; each questline using all existing features of the engine, but requiring one small extra piece of programming just to show that he understood the cost of doing things that the engine did not already do).

In my vague memory, I think one quest was "the dragons visit the player's island", starting with vague rumors that the dragons were coming, culminating in meeting a dragon and getting to hatch dragon eggs... I completely forget what the other is.

Both were exciting, engaging, and novel, taking the game in slightly new directions without violating either the lore or tone of the games, like the very best DLCs you see for games nowadays.

Now, what made me realize that I could never be a game designer is that in order to do this job, he would have to come up with a new questline, in that level of detail, at that level of novelty, every single week. I'm not sure I'd run out of ideas first, or would get bored to tears by the minutiae first.

Just like everyone has one novel in them, so every programmer has one or two good game ideas they'd love to try making someday. Some do make them. Some of those ideas do actually turn out to be both good and successful. But almost all are one-shot wonders.

Most people are scared to tell others their One Idea. Scared it might get stolen. True creatives have so many ideas, they don't care - they just shout their ideas from the rooftops and hope one of them takes root. Like the rantings of the madman in Sandman's Calliope made me realize that Niel Gaiman must have an infinite supply of ideas, so working with Ben Jans made me realize what you need to be a game designer.

A game designer needs to have amazing patience and attention to detail, yes: but infinite ideas.

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    FWIW, this is also what made me realize why our graphics designer was so valuable in our setup even though he can't do css or HTML. I can design one website or two but not one every week. – slebetman Jul 29 '16 at 7:02
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    Regarding being afraid that your idea gets stolen: Nobody should be. 1. Everyone in the industry has enough own ideas they would rather work on and 2. Nobody knows if an idea is worth stealing until someone turned it into a playable game. – Philipp Jul 29 '16 at 8:14
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    Joined gamedev.SE to upvote this question. One of the best answers to any question I have seen. – jwg Jul 29 '16 at 10:34
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    @Philipp And 3) Every idea either is wholly or partially stolen by someone else, or is itself wholly or partially stolen from someone else. Most if not all basic plots have been discovered, the thing that makes each one unique is how it's implemented. [If you can come up with something truly original, that doesn't follow a basic plotline thought up ages ago, kudos; you truly are a mastermind.] – Justin Time Jul 29 '16 at 21:18

At my previous job as a backend dev at a game studio, the programmers had very little input into the gameplay/mechanics of the game. Occasionally a game designer or UI/UX designer would ask me if something they wanted to do was feasible, but that was the extent of my input into the design of the game.

That was at a mid-size studio of around 40 people, at a small indie studio you would likely have much more input as a programmer.

Something to keep in mind is that at my former studio, there were somewhere between 10-15 programmers and 1 game designer. If you want to create games, please please think about your job prospects. If you stick with programming, you can create anything you want on your own time. As a game designer, you may or may not be able to build very much without a team behind you. Programming is also a more transferable skill, which is handy if you discover that making games for a living takes the fun out of it, or if you end up working for a studio that goes under (sadly not uncommon in such a hit-driven industry), or for any reason want to relocate to an area without a strong games industry.

  • Thank you for sharing that backstory it gave me a better insight,i hadn't thought of some of your points before,appreciated! – Tim Jul 29 '16 at 0:41

I have worked on a big-name game officially as the AI programmer, in truth I didn't have that much interest in other design aspects but I had to analyze the game mechanics carefully and do an awful lot of play-testing in the process of implementing the AI. As such I ended up in a good position to critique design aspects. My suggestions on design were almost always well received and sometimes even implemented verbatim.

Dev teams are usually, well, teams, and everyone ultimately works together. If you're smart enough to be on the team, you're also smart enough for your opinion to be taken seriously even in areas outside your official role.

A title is just a title so it will vary from company to company, but usually a game designer does a lot of scripting of events/quests etc. and if you are hired on as a straight up programmer it is very unlikely that you will have any input into the game design.

In short being a programmer for a game company is not much different from other places, while being a game designer means you will design games but will usually also have to know a decent amount about coding or at least scripting.

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    So if i want to create my own game ideas im better of as a game designer? I like the idea of programming and i thought you had to do both as a programmer so i kind of got discouraged.Can you become a designer of IT studies or it a different major? Im sorry if i sound ignorant i have little knowledge of the topic. – Tim Jul 28 '16 at 18:48
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    You are probably much better off that way, but learning programming will be an invaluable skill. It may not even be a bad career path to start as a programmer then move into design later, which would make you much more valuable than a game designer who has only light programming experience. – Yudrist Jul 28 '16 at 19:01
  • I see,thanks for replying,have a nice day! – Tim Jul 28 '16 at 19:05

As the other answers have pointed out, this will vary from company to company, but I need to point out something about the video game industry, something that it has in common with all other branches of the entertainment industry.

In short, game design is the "fun" part, so the people in charge, and the people that have paid their dues, tend to monopolize it. People with less experience, or less seniority, tend to see their attempted contributions dismissed out of hand.

Compounding this, so many people think they want to work in the video-game industry, and the people in charge know this, so they have little motivation to treat newcomers kindly, since they are so easily replaced. So don't expect to successfully call them out on their exclusive behavior.

There are other nasty truths in the video-game industry, such as long hours, emotionally immature peers, and video-game consoles that are toys in more than one sense of the word, but they're beyond the scope of an answer to your question. The bottom line for me is, I'm glad to no longer work in the video-game industry, and never want to go back.

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    Even though you speak some truth, this sounds a lot like a rant. – Alexandre Vaillancourt Jul 28 '16 at 20:31
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    It's a bit of a rant but unfortunately true nonetheless. Personally I'm glad that I switched to "regular" software development, working at a company where the hard work of software development is actually appreciated and deadlines aren't just determined by the roll of a die as it so often seems to be the case in game development. – ma_il Jul 31 '16 at 17:06
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    Yes: while rant, it's stuff that needs to be said and warned about to prospective game coders. – Dewi Morgan Aug 1 '16 at 0:34
  • If my rant can prevent just one starry-eyed youngster from splattering themselves on the windshield of the video-game industry, it will have been worth it. – ulatekh Aug 2 '16 at 23:36

Firstly make sure you take a course that gives you fundamentals of Computer Science. IT generally means focus on business and information systems. I interview programmers a lot and we tend to ask a lot of questions about algorithms and data structures as well as the principles of OOP and Functional Programming. This would be in addition to making sure you can program, or can demonstrate the ability to learn quickly.

My question is: does a game programmer get involved in the game designing process or is that only the game designer's job? Is a game designer always needed or can programmers work on game design some of the time?

As others have said it depends. If you work on gameplay (game features, animation, AI) then you will almost certainly be involved in game design. If you're not then you will be less effective in your job and have less fun. The best experiences I had were when a small group of people with multiple skills get together to implement something. For example a game designer, animator and a programmer may work on some new combat move. Each person has their own perspective on the feature. The game designer will explain how this works in other games, why it will be fun in our game as well as what the tuning parameters will be. The animator will need to know what animations are needed and how they will fit together. The programmer needs to explain how they will implement the feature and let the team know of any performance issues or technical challenges. When a team works together like this, that's when magic happens. In an environment where people are protective of their jobs and don't let anyone else give them feedback, nobody can grow and the quality of work is lower.

Do programmers need to have game designing knowledge or do they just follow orders? Similarly, do game designers require programming knowledge?

It's important to play a lot of games. Especially the ones your company made before, and games in the same genre. Game designers spend a lot of time studying and playing other games. If you don't know what they're talking about then that makes things take longer. It's also more fun to work on a game if you know what you are making. However there is a lot of skill and domain knowledge that game designers need to do their jobs, and as a programmer you don't necessarily need that.

I'm kind of confused over what I want to be which is why I'm asking here. Basically, do game programmers also get to be game designers?

Yes. To different extents all programmers are also game designers. Game designers do not need to know anything about programming but if they do it helps them understand when a programmer is telling them that some feature is too complex to implement in the time available, or will take up too much memory and so on.

In my experience of the years I've worked on a 200+ team at EA where I got very little input into the game design (but I was a graphics programmer anyway), and on a 60-70 person team at Activision making movie licensed games where I was very involved in the game design.

My current role is on a 30 person team and everybody is deeply involved in the game design as well as their own role.

protected by Josh Aug 2 '16 at 16:06

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