“The Door Problem”

“So what does a game designer do? Are you an artist? Do you design characters and write the story? Or no, wait, you’re a programmer?”

Game design is one of those nebulous terms to people outside the game industry that’s about as clear as the “astrophysicist” job title is to me. It’s also my job, so I find myself explaining what game design means to a lot of people from different backgrounds, some of whom don’t know anything about games.

The Door Problem

I like to describe my job in terms of “The Door Problem”.

Premise: You are making a game.

  • Are there doors in your game?
  • Can the player open them?
  • Can the player open every door in the game?
  • Or are some doors for decoration?
  • How does the player know the difference?
  • Are doors you can open green and ones you can’t red? Is there trash piled up in front of doors you can’t use? Did you just remove the doorknobs and call it a day?
  • Can doors be locked and unlocked?
  • What tells a player a door is locked and will open, as opposed to a door that they will never open?
  • Does a player know how to unlock a door? Do they need a key? To hack a console? To solve a puzzle? To wait until a story moment passes?
  • Are there doors that can open but the player can never enter them?
  • Where do enemies come from? Do they run in from doors? Do those doors lock afterwards?
  • How does the player open a door? Do they just walk up to it and it slides open? Does it swing open? Does the player have to press a button to open it?
  • Do doors lock behind the player?
  • What happens if there are two players? Does it only lock after both players pass through the door?
  • What if the level is REALLY BIG and can’t all exist at the same time? If one player stays behind, the floor might disappear from under them. What do you do?
  • Do you stop one player from progressing any further until both are together in the same room?
  • Do you teleport the player that stayed behind?
  • What size is a door?
  • Does it have to be big enough for a player to get through?
  • What about co-op players? What if player 1 is standing in the doorway – does that block player 2?
  • What about allies following you? How many of them need to get through the door without getting stuck?
  • What about enemies? Do mini-bosses that are larger than a person also need to fit through the door?

It’s a pretty classic design problem. SOMEONE has to solve The Door Problem, and that someone is a designer.

The Other Door Problems

To help people understand the role breakdowns at a big company, I sometimes go into how other people deal with doors.

  • Creative Director: “Yes, we definitely need doors in this game.”
  • Project Manager: “I’ll put time on the schedule for people to make doors.”
  • Designer: “I wrote a doc explaining what we need doors to do.”
  • Concept Artist: “I made some gorgeous paintings of doors.”
  • Art Director: “This third painting is exactly the style of doors we need.”
  • Environment Artist: “I took this painting of a door and made it into an object in the game.”
  • Animator: “I made the door open and close.”
  • Sound Designer: “I made the sounds the door creates when it opens and closes.”
  • Audio Engineer: “The sound of the door opening and closing will change based on where the player is and what direction they are facing.”
  • Composer: “I created a theme song for the door.”
  • FX Artist: “I added some cool sparks to the door when it opens.”
  • Writer: “When the door opens, the player will say, ‘Hey look! The door opened!’ “
  • Lighter: “There is a bright red light over the door when it’s locked, and a green one when it’s opened.”
  • Legal: “The environment artist put a Starbucks logo on the door. You need to remove that if you don’t want to be sued.”
  • Character Artist: “I don’t really care about this door until it can start wearing hats.”
  • Gameplay Programmer: “This door asset now opens and closes based on proximity to the player. It can also be locked and unlocked through script.”
  • AI Programmer: “Enemies and allies now know if a door is there and whether they can go through it.”
  • Network Programmer: “Do all the players need to see the door open at the same time?”
  • Release Engineer: “You need to get your doors in by 3pm if you want them on the disk.”
  • Core Engine Programmer: “I have optimized the code to allow up to 1024 doors in the game.”
  • Tools Programmer: “I made it even easier for you to place doors.”
  • Level Designer: “I put the door in my level and locked it. After an event, I unlocked it.”
  • UI Designer: “There’s now an objective marker on the door, and it has its own icon on the map.”
  • Combat Designer: “Enemies will spawn behind doors, and lay cover fire as their allies enter the room. Unless the player is looking inside the door in which case they will spawn behind a different door.”
  • Systems Designer: “A level 4 player earns 148xp for opening this door at the cost of 3 gold.”
  • Monetization Designer: “We could charge the player $.99 to open the door now, or wait 24 hours for it to open automatically.”
  • QA Tester: “I walked to the door. I ran to the door. I jumped at the door. I stood in the doorway until it closed. I saved and reloaded and walked to the door. I died and reloaded then walked to the door. I threw grenades at the door.”
  • UX / Usability Researcher: “I found some people on Craigslist to go through the door so we could see what problems crop up.”
  • Localization: “Door. Puerta. Porta. Porte. Tür. Dør. Deur. Drzwi. Drws. 문”
  •  Producer: “Do we need to give everyone those doors or can we save them for a pre-order bonus?”
  • Publisher: “Those doors are really going to help this game stand out during the fall line-up.”
  • CEO: “I want you all to know how much I appreciate the time and effort put into making those doors.”
  • PR: “To all our fans, you’re going to go crazy over our next reveal #gamedev #doors #nextgen #retweet”
  • Community Manager: “I let the fans know that their concerns about doors will be addressed in the upcoming patch.”
  • Customer Support: “A player contacted us, confused about doors. I gave them detailed instructions on how to use them.”
  • Player: “I totally didn’t even notice a door there.”

One of the reasons I like this example is because it’s so mundane. There’s an impression that game design is flashy and cool and about crazy ideas and fun all the time. But when I start off with, “Let me tell you about doors…” it cuts straight to the everyday practical considerations.

Recent edits: Added localization, character artist, system designer, combat designer, composer, audio engineer, monetization designer, and I think that’ll be it for now.

79 Comments on "“The Door Problem”"

  • This is great! My family will finally understand what I do for a living.

  • We have a strong and integrated customer support team. Can I suggest you add to the list:

    Community Management: Some players want more doors. Some players want fewer doors.
    Customer Support: Players are confused about doors.

  • Where is “EA: We can sell doors as a twenty dollar DLC.’

  • Liz, this is making its way around WayForward. You’re famous now.

  • That hits home in so many ways.

  • Community manager should probably say “…in an upcoming patch.”. If you promise “next patch” and things get delayed your players will excoriate you.

  • HAHAHA! This cracked me up real good! So true.

  • Someone who shared this article also mentioned localization.

  • When posting to FB added:
    Localization – “Door” “Porte” “Tür” “Porta”
    Business Intelligence – An average player opens a door 23 times an hour.
    Security – Bots can easily exploit the doors.
    Scale Engineer – If 1 million people close the door at the same time the game crashes.
    Brand Manager – Here is a blur trailer of a guy with stubble opening the door as it explodes.
    Web Designer – I made an online guide to all the doors in the game.
    Sales – Ok, for BestBuy I need blue doors, Target, red doors.
    Lore Master – That door knocker wasn’t added to the universe until 200 years after the setting of our game.

  • So at the top of the list, whose job is it to say what kind of doors the game needs to have in the first place?

  • You forgot:

    Apple Lawyer: “We are suing over our Patent on Motion-Enhanced Binary Manifolds in 3D spaces.”

  • And from my time at IBM i would change Producer to : “I promised the customer iris value doors and swoosh doors like in sci-fi shows – thats a quick change right?”

  • How about iOS? You can pay a small fee to open this door now or wait 24 hours.

  • Very nice list. Seeing it makes me so glad I left the games biz years ago. I might only add “we covered doors in the nine a.m. meeting, who called for the eleven a.m. door meeting?” Who cares, it’s catered.

  • Awesome!! This also shows that game design is really a team effort and is not developed by a single person.

  • UPPER MANAGEMENT: “We are now six months late to release. There’s the door.”

  • Colourblind gamer: I can’t tell whether the door is locked or unlocked, thanks a lot lighter!

  • Peter Molyneux “our doors will make you cry”

  • Who manages all the disagreements between all the different people that want to dictate everyone else’s part in door making? Who hires door people?

    • Negotiation. Buy-in. Empowering people with the ability to make decisions regarding their work. Appointing one person as the arbiter or owner of a piece of the game (i.e. doors).

      There’s always trade-offs between technical considerations (can we actually do it? will it hurt the framerate/memory or impact other systems? how much programmer time will it take? are there workarounds?) and design considerations (how important is this to the player? how does it impact the play experience? is it the right decision for this game?) and the need to balance them.

      Knowing how to work in a team is a very important skill. Knowing when you can make a decision yourself or among your team vs. when you need someone higher up – like a Creative Director – to make the decision is also pretty important.

  • Indie Dev 1: “Doors are so played out. Our game features cutting edge door-free play and is featured in the next Humble Bundle!”

    Indie Dev 2: “Our new game is Doors Tower Defense.”

    Indie Dev 3: “Our game is an epic tale about the life of a door as told in 8-bit art from the third person perspective in an RPG form narrated like Bastion.”

    Indie Dev 4: “Our game is about doorways and spiritual transformation in a post apocalyptic paradise.”

  • Strategic Marketing Director to team: “We just got the license for This Old House! The protagonist has to be changed to Norm Abram before the next milestone drop.”

  • Physics Programmer: “Do rag dolls collide with the door? Do they keep the door open?”

    This can be a tricky problem, depending on the design. Mainly because designers sometimes want behavior that is not physically plausible. Like, rag dolls must collide with the door but not block it. See the irresistible force paradox.

  • Was sad to see my role, a possibly even less understood one, excluded from the list!

    Technical Artist #1: “I’ve created a modular rig for our door animations that can be re-targeted to every door in the game.”

    Technical Artist #2: “I’ve split the door texture’s luminance and color data so we can use one set of textures for every door in the game.”

    Technical Artist #3: “I’ve written a Maya tool that generates one thousand unique door meshes in 30 seconds.”

    Technical Artist #4: “I’ve written an uber shader for our doors which fades opacity as players approach it, turns it into a hologram, animates the UVs to show a rippling effect…”

    Technical Artist #5: “I’ve re-written the naming conventions to accommodate door assets. Doors are now found in Environments/Props/Doors and are named in the format of ‘[environment prefix]_prop_door_[size of door]_[open or closed]_mesh.[filetype]'”

  • Thanks you for this, it spot on. Good job! :-)

  • Thank you. Thank you very much.

  • Soundtrack Performer: “Meh, I like the Beatles better.”

  • It sounds like any programming, or even broader, engineering problem. A full understanding of the system being modeled for user interaction should be planned out (depending on the process you’re using. Agile, waterfall, etc). I’d like to think that as a better than average software engineer, and a gamer, I could manage these complex yet mundane details, all the while maintaining focus on whats really important, the users experience. A lot of those questions you asked about the door should be answered with one question, “Why does the user care about this door?”

    You really make game design sound boring and thankless though. Now if you excuse me, I’m going back to my job of getting strings in databases…

  • Player: “Doors OP. Please nerfed.”

  • My son works in the games industry in Seattle. I struggle to explain what he does to my peers ; he’s a producer type. Now I know. Exactly.

  • lol From here on out I no longer make “like, menus and things”, I put objective markers on doors! ! Hehehe

  • This is great.

    One bit of feedback. If you have a company with both Narrative Designers and Writers, then the following:
    Writer: “When the door opens, the player will say, ‘Hey look! The door opened!’”
    Would be a better description for a Narrative Designer.

    The Writer would then be.
    Writer: “Snarky Protagonist [the Player]: The door opened. Gee, that was unexpected.”

    The difference being that the Narrative Designer is in charge of calling out where there will be a line and what that line will express, and then the Narrative Designer will go into the engine and make that line trigger in the tools. Then the writer will go in and write the line in the character’s voice. :)

  • You forgot about the wife of any of those positions who says, ” you’d better come home now or I’m going to change the keys on the doors!

  • Tough treatment of Production. Ouch.

  • I under estimated the complexity that a simple object could create when obstructing the possibilities of an entity to advance efficiently toward… a plausible end.

  • This is extremely well done. Why aren’t you the HR director?

  • This is so true. Not only for gamedev and doors, but for any kind of software…

  • Perhaps you could add:

    Media: In conclusion, the door opening wasn’t immersive, but this issue aside gamers who are fans of the door, potentially may have fun opening it. 7/10

    or

    King: People are confusing your door with Candy Crush Saga and we must protect our IP.

  • Thank you. Now I know, why big teams are needed for modern games and why games are getting worse and worse with no innovation. As described here, a couple of Nerds seem to think about the smallest detail of obvious things, rather to think about how to make a game, which is fun.
    Who cares about the size of a doorknob in a game with an innovative and fun idea?
    Remember “Castles of Dr. Creep”? A game made by two people packed with lots of great ideas and elements which fit together. Every room in every dungeon a new challenge. A density of gameplay nowadays a whole year of games can’t provide.
    It seems like I can stop wondering why, after reading this.

  • One of my co-workers proposed that :) :

     Editorial: “Doors are not an issue, let’s talk about the interiors…”
     Closer: “Too many doors related JIRAs, we need to cut the feature”

  • How about these…
    Metrics: Users open the door 6.45 times in the first 10 hours, on average.
    Analytics: 23% increase in users opening doors after the introduction of the tutorial.
    Focus Group: Users liked the blue door.
    Sales and Marketing Dept: Adding doors will sell an additional 0.05 units in the UK, and 1.3 units in Spain!

  • Jim Morrison would be proud. ;-)

  • Awesome description. I think I want to be a game designer, and I’m not kidding either. There are so many awfully designed doors in so many otherwise great games. I won’t mention any names, though, and instead just say that I really liked the doors in BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect and Remember Me.

    I think the funniest doors are those that when the player walks right up to them – and you know you’re only seeing like 1 percent of the door on-screen – the character can still manage somehow to open it. The funniest door can also be the most disappointing if you don’t actually see it open and it just goes directly to the transition load screen.

  • This is great! Perfect analogy.

  • VP: “Can you make the doors more door-ier?”

  • Wow! I had a clue but this is still amazing.

  • I’ve worked as scripter, level designer, systems designer, combat designer, lead and creative director on vrious game project involving doors and I vouch for this – Love the statements in the second part, I may have heard some of those exact lines spoken.

    And yeah, we definitely need doors in the game!

  • As a Producer, I’ve done most of the things on that list to a greater frequency than the action attributed to a Producer.

  • The ambitious solo indie programmer :

    Pre-alpha Release 0.4 is available. I did not have time to implement properly the user made voxels doors of variable size with hacking and electric wiring/actuators, that will be for the next build.

    (true story, http://www.xenogalaxies.com)

  • This is an awesome piece. I work in the industry and the only title that I’ve never heard before is “Monetization Designer”. Is this an actual title in game companies out there? Would love to hear folks chime in.

  • Distributor: “In order for us to get this placed with a specific retail store we need to provide them an exclusive edition. Can you make some kind of special door DLC? Preferably, they said they want a double door edition SKU, but they’ll accept custom knockers in a pinch.”

  • this is awesome! I think you missed:

    Gameplay Camera: Does camera clip through door? Does camera need special door logic
    FX: we need to add a sparkly glint to the doorknob because players keep missing it
    Level Design: We need to set up streaming volumes on each side of the door so we load / unload the previous level. We need to add a fade to hide the load between doors
    Mesher: I need the doors and doorframes modular and a fixed dimension so I can place them in my level correctly
    Animator: I need the door handle height a uniform location, so I can line up player animation of player opening the door
    Character Artist: You need to increase the door height so a our larger enemy can fit through it

  • CEO: “I’m afraid we blew the entire budget by assigning 35 people to work on a door. We won’t be able to pay anyone next month”

  • Now imagine the door problems in Pixars Monsters Inc.

  • And I thought only rotating door were complex

  • Very good blog. I suppose the mark of a good designer is if you don’t notice the ‘doors’

  • […] a very useful free game making programs list compiled by Liz England, THE Liz who wrote The Door Problem. And here is a fresh new checklist from Kotaku. It makes me very happy to see that more and more […]

  • […] often think of what game designer, Liz England, wrote in a post of her own. She goes on to explain how a game designer addresses a set of questions . It’s a great read; […]

  • […] Firstly, if you’re even slightly curious about who does what in game development, check out Liz England’s brilliant “Door Problem“. […]

  • You should add 1 more short sentence to the QA-Tester:
    “And the last one didn’t work”

  • Very cool article :) Might I suggest:

    Applied Games Researcher:
    ‘Has it been scientifically validated that this is how doors actually behave in real life?’

    External Lore Expert:
    ‘A WW2 door doesn’t look like this. Plastic was not invented yet.’

    Sales Trend Analyst:
    ‘ Our spreadsheet shows that doors are currently not sexy. Please consider turning them into whales.’

    Localization Tester:
    ‘Please enlarge the door in level one to accomodate the Finnish string for ‘exit’ as it is often 200% longer than English: poistua’

    Applied Games Customer:
    ‘But if you just build the pilot door for free, we can use it to get more money!’

    Guerillia marketeer:
    ‘Can you please Fraps that door while opening so I can put it on Youtube?’

    Indie Game Dev:
    ‘I can only make one door a week. I work at the McDonalds all other days to pay the rent.’

    Original Comic Book Artist:
    ‘This is all wrong! In my comic the door is super red! That’s why it is called Super Red Door!’

    3D-modelling intern:
    ‘I don’t get it… Why can’t the door have 10.000 polygons?’

  • […] involves making many decisions, some quite mundane. But they still need to be made and the designer is usually responsible for them. Decision fatigue […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>