“So who writes the story? Who designs the bosses? Do you make the levels? What about skill trees?”
In an effort to help clarify “what does a game designer do?”, I want to go over all the different TYPES of designers. There are designers who are affectionately called “jack of all trades” who dip their hands in all elements of design and sometimes even art and programming, and then there’s specialized roles like “systems designer” and “combat designer” and “level designer”.
The truth is, any general definition of design has flaws because the actual responsibilities of a designer varies depending on the size of the studio, the platform, the genre, the size of the game, the studio culture regarding roles, how specialized people are, and even whether there is a “design department” at that studio. The designer on a first person shooter has very different practical responsibilities than the designer on your next favorite match-three mobile game.
Designer / Game Designer
Generic term to mean any or all of the design specializations, used at any size studio, any genre, etc. Most companies just use this term for job titles, while individual designers might still specialize informally. The larger the studio, the more likely they will have specialized designer titles.
Overall, designers are concerned with the rules of the game, what ways a player can interact with the game, how the mechanics and story work to provide a desired experience to the player. This is the vague description that gets clarified as you read on.
Junior Designer / Associate Designer
Junior or Associate designers usually have less experience, and less creative control. They may spend more time implementing under the eyes of a Designer or Senior Designer. This is often an entry level position, catering to new hires from outside the industry (such as students), those transitioning between roles within a company (from art to design), or existing designers hired into very different scale of games (moving from a 2D game studio to a AAA studio).
A senior-level position in the design department. Someone who could fill the position of “lead” and usually takes charge of a large system in the game, such as all combat or all levels, and delegates to or guides other designers. They may be the major point-person for a system and work with programmers and artists and the leads to bring it from an idea to a fully featured system.
Leads translate the Creative Directors vision to the design team (much like the Art Director or Lead does for the art team). They review the gameplay from its macro to the moment-to-moment bits, giving direction and feedback to designers and making decisions regarding the gameplay mechanics.
The top of the game development pyramid who reports directly to the owner of the company and to the publisher funding the game. They hold the ‘vision’ of the game – this is the closest to “the idea guy” that you can get. They are analogous to a film director, and are usually the most visible in the media as the face of the development team.
Creative Directors can come from any department – art, programming, design, or even an owner of the company. Some studios use Director or Executive Producer to describe this role, but Creative Director is the most common.
LEVELS & MISSIONS
A level designer is responsible for the architecture and gameplay in a chunk of physical space – a level. They care about how the player flows through the level, puzzles or enemies or other obstacles they encounter, and implement basic geometry of the level and the moment-to-moment gameplay. They work closely with level artists to get the aesthetics in place, and gameplay programmers for specialized functionality they may need, and the writer and creative director to ensure the level fits within the overall game.
Where do I hide the intel? Where is the next objective? How does the player get from A to B – an elevator or a ladder? Which enemies attack the player in this room? Where is the cover placed? What kinds of puzzles exist? Where are the exploratory spaces? What story elements do I need to communicate to the player, and when?
Multiplayer Level Designer
These designers have the same basic responsibilities as other level designers, but they focus on the unique needs and challenges of multiplayer gameplay. They focus on designing levels that accommodate competitive and/or cooperative gameplay and the placement of any elements specific to a certain mode (flags, control points, enemy waves).
How long is this racetrack, and is it wide enough to accommodate all the players? Where are the control points that players need to take over? How far apart are the flags in Capture the Flag? Where do players respawn and how do you prevent spawn-camping? How many players need to be in this arena to defeat the boss? What architectural features of the level best cater to different player classes, such as a sniper vs. short-ranged melee attacker?
World builders are a type of level designer – many of their responsibilities are the same, and someone qualified as one would usually be able to move to the other. The world builder title tend to exist more in open world and MMO spaces – games that don’t have individual concrete levels but rather large areas for the players to traverse around. As such, these spaces usually have multiple purposes (story missions, side quests, activities or minigames, multiplayer hubs) as opposed to traditional level design where the space has a single purpose.
Does this area have large city buildings, highways, shops, mountains, rivers, or flat? How does this area fit in with the areas directly around it? What landmarks make this area unique? What kinds of enemies, architecture, plants, or other features populate this area? How does the player navigate through it? What are the critical paths players take as shortcut, and what are the dead spaces players tend to avoid?
Sometimes a mission designer and a level designer are interchangeable, but in cases like open world games or MMOs a mission designer usually handcrafts gameplay in a space that already exists, or exists for multiple purposes. Mission designers are focused on what the player is doing during a mission – the gameplay beats, objectives, combat, implementing dialogue and ensuring story elements are communicated to player.
What is the player’s current objective – is it interesting? How does this mission fit into the overarching story? Where does the player traverse to in order to complete the mission? What is the pay-off at the end? Is there any new functionality being introduced in this mission? What kind of combat, puzzles, or other obstacles does the player encounter? Is there appropriate spectacle in the mission to signify its importance in the game?
Very similar role to the Mission Designer (and sometimes interchangeable), Quests tend to be secondary story-focused gameplay, usually smaller but still using many of the same mechanics as a mission or main story line. You find quest designers in studios making role-playing games and MMORPGs.
Is this quest part of a quest chain? What is the ultimate pay-off of this quest? What kind of quest archetype is it – explore and discover, fetch, combat, or something else? What enemies are involved? Where does the player have to go to get, engage in, and complete the quest? What area of the world does the quest cover? When does the player first get the quest? What story does the quest tell and how does that fit into the overall design of the game?
A catch-all term for various systems design. Systems refers to global rules or things the player interacts with across the entire game, not specific to missions, quests, areas, or levels. They aren’t focused on the moment-to-moment experience so much as the overall birds-eye-view of the game. To help clarify, a system may be something like “combat” while a mechanic may be “throwing grenades”. They spend a lot of their time in excel sheets and organizing information.
What kinds of slots can the player equip armor or clothing to? How does the player level up, and at what rate? How often does the player get a new weapon? How many pieces of intel are they, and what is their spread across the entire game? What are all the different puzzle mechanics and at what rate do you introduce them to the player? How many quests, challenges, minigames, and other optional pieces of gameplay are there?
These designers are often at large studios that make games where the main interaction is fighting. Combat designers are concerned with enemies, weapons, bosses, ammo, difficulty balancing, and any class-based combat skills. While they are focused a lot on the combat systems, they also govern the moment-to-moment experience a player has in various combat scenarios throughout the game.
When does the player encounter a new enemy type? What is the optimal combat distance for a shotgun and a sniper rifle? How many bullets is in an enemy volley, how often do they fire, and how accurate is each bullet? Does the game use dynamic difficulty adjustments to the player’s style, or a flat easy/medium/hard setting? How much do you want to starve the player of ammo? Do bosses have weak points and, if so, what is the optimal way to attack them? How much health does a player has, and how much can a medic class heal them for?
Combat designers on competitive fighting games like Street Fighter actually have a pretty unique role that differs a bit from the above. They are concerned with such details as how many frames it takes for an attack animation to play, and dealing with the rock-paper-scissors elements to ensure that each character is extremely well-balanced.
Economy designers are focused on the design, implementation, and – most importantly – the balance of a virtual economy. This mainly covers how the player earns and where they spend in-game currency. This is rarely a job title on its own but rather a descriptor for a type of system a design may be in charge of. For example, both Valve and CCP have full-time economists on staff, but any game that has loot and vendors would need a designer to oversee this system.
What ingredients are required to craft a new potion? How many experience points do you need to level up? What kind of loot drops from enemies? What are the loop drop rates, and how often do rare or common items drop? Can players trade items with each other? How does an auction house work? If there are vendors, how does the player interact with them?
Multiplayer Designers focus on custom cooperative or competitive gameplay modes and design, such as deathmatch, horde modes, MMO groups, guilds or clans, and leaderboards. They also serve the role of Multiplayer Level Designer where appropriate (depending on the size of the team or style of game).
Is the multiplayer mode cooperative, competitive, or both? What type of modes are in this game – horde, deathmatch, capture the flag? Can players organize their own guilds or clans? How many players can play together in a single match? How do leaderboard work and what do they score on? What, if any, rewards do players earn from multiplayer achievements? How do players enter and exit multiplayer from the singleplayer campaign?
Puzzle designers are kind of the mirror of a combat designer, except that the obstacle is not an enemy but a piece of logic, like a locked door or a series of scrambled letters. Puzzle designers are often a level designer, such as in Portal or any sokoban style block-moving game. However, the role extends to puzzle games that are not based about hand-made stages – they also include balancing games like Candy Crush Saga or Bejeweled.
What new mechanic am I teaching in this puzzle? How can I re-use the same mechanics, such as a switch and a door, in different ways that feel new to the player? Does each puzzle become progressively harder? Does the player have all the necessary information to complete the puzzle? Is there a timer and how fast does it count down? In this gem-matching game, what is the bonus mechanic for matching 3, 4, or 6 gems in a row?
Narrative designers are concerned with gameplay elements or mechanics that allow the player to interact with the story, whether that’s in a linear fashion or through meaningful choices that result in branching stories. While they certainly deal with some level of writing (which varies by studio), they mostly focus on the design and implementation of narrative-related gameplay. While many studios hire writers (because most games, particularly AAA titles, have a story), narrative designer roles tend to exist at studios that specialized in story-oriented games, like Bioware or Tell Tale.
How does the player interact with story elements – through dialogue options, quick time events, or text input? Is the story linear or branching? If it branches, how many branches are there and do they always branch or do they loop back together at key moments? Is there a morality system tied to player choices? How do you communicate that a choice is meaningful?
Crossover roles are usually a hybrid of design and another specialization, so they may exist in the design department or not.
A cross between design and business, a monetization designer deals with how to take gameplay or aesthetic (non-gameplay) elements and sell them to players for real money, and how much these elements should cost. These positions exist at mobile and social games companies, studios that make free-to-play games (like Riot’s League of Legends), studios that make MMOs (like Blizzard), and at large publishers that have microtransactions and small DLC packets in their games.
Normally your regular developers at large studios don’t worry about money or costs – that’s the job of producers, upper management, and business people. Since monetization designers deal with revenue so much they usually have a business or marketing background and come from upper management rather than up through design.
Usually qualified to be a software engineer or gameplay programmer, tech designers actually bridge the engineering and design departments. Sometimes this means they take the specs given to them by designers and work with the programming department to implement them. This can be full coding and the development of new features, or it can be using scripting languages to set up gameplay such as missions and then pass them to the designers to make modifications (depending on the studio’s needs and the tech designer’s skillset). You find this role at larger companies, open world studios, and few other places, but it’s not particularly common as a job title.
This person is usually part of the User Interface team, not part of the design team, but has a lot of crossover responsibilities so it’s not unheard of for them to be considered a designer. Their job is to organize and present information to the player in the form of HUDs and menus – any of the graphical elements that are displayed on screen for the player. These elements include health indicators, objective text, tutorials, button prompts, inventories, maps, and crafting interfaces.
Writers focus on the overall narrative of the game, which is informed by the creative director’s vision as well as the needs of individual designers (jn the case of a mission or level-focused game). They also write the text, descriptions, names, and dialogue throughout the entire game and work with (usually external) teams to localize this text into other languages.
Sometimes writers exist on the design team, since they work very closely with them, and sometimes narrative designers may take on writing duties. At very small companies, there may be no on-staff writer and this position maybe filled by a designer. But typically if you want to write for games, you need to be good at writing not at designing.
This role is a low-level design position that focuses mostly on implementing tedious grunt tasks, freeing up other designers to concentrate on bigger issues. They may go through and populate the world with crates or fish, or use scripting to trigger FX explosions as the player fights in a big battle. They may place volumes or clues around pieces of cover that tells the game how AI can interact with them, and then place those volumes throughout every combat scenario in the game.
I know this role exists at my studio and at least a couple other places, which is why I am including it (we technically call it QA Support, as they are all QA people we’ve brought into support roles to help designers). This role might be that of an Associate or Junior Designer, depending on the company, or fall into a more generalized “contract work” temporary hire.
These are roles that have “design” in their name but are not traditionally considered part of the design team at a game development studio.
A term for an artist that specializes in 2D art such as UI buttons, forum icons, web design, logos, splash screens, and similar graphic elements. They do not typically create any in-game content unless they are part of the user interface team, at which point they are usually called a UI artist and not a graphic designer.
User Experience Designer
Also sometimes called UX Designers or Usability Professionals, these people are usually not directly developing the game. Their job is to take the game in various forms – often demos or larger chunks – and put it in front of potential players in focus groups to test it. They’re concerned about whether players understand the game, are engaging with its mechanics, and where communication is breaking down – and then passing that information on to the rest of the team. This kind of testing is not about identifying technical bugs, but about poor or misleading design.
UX Designers often work for publishers like EA or Activision, large developers like Blizzard, or hired on a freelance basis. Smaller studios will rely on their publisher to organize focus tests or usability tests for the game.
Part of the audio department, a sound designer deals with the sound effects found throughout the game world (from the player’s footsteps, to the firing of a gun, to the ch-ching of money earned), in its user interface (button clicks, new objective dings), and the music that accompanies it. They may create their own sound effects, or choose effects from a sound library their company subscribes to and modify them to fit the needs of the game.
A software designer is one of many terms to describe the role of a programmer. Despite the name, this is not a design position.
This is a pretty specialized role that exists at companies that deal with hardware – console manufacturers such as Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Valve, for example. There are also companies that deal with peripherals, such as the belated RedOctane and upcoming Oculus Rift. You may also find these roles at toy companies that create electronics for kids, which may also use the terms Toy Designer and Product Designer.
Despite architecture and level design having a lot of shared elements, a “game architect” is actually a highly technical and senior role in the programming or engineering department.
Oh boy are there a lot of exceptions, but I think if you internalize this list you’ll be 90% of the way there. Remember that titles and roles usually share a lot of responsibilities. For example, on one project I was a level designer and mission designer for a one-hour chunk of gameplay, while also juggling systems design for skill trees/perks/leveling.
One of the big exceptions is that some companies still use different titles than the ones listed above, so there are still some weird cases out there that you might not recognize. For this article, I looked at a bunch of job posting at AAA companies and found titles like “Lead Gameplay Designer” and “motion designer” and an “industrial designer”. Some of these reflect unique jobs that don’t exist everywhere in the industry (ex: Valve), and others are just quirks of the studio’s organization, often reflecting specific gameplay experiences they deliver (ex: Bioware).