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Why And How To Hire A Game Designer

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Over the years I’ve worked for lots of studios. Some were hardcore game houses, some indies. Some worked in niche markets like casinos and some in more peripheral fields like gamification. Some were jobs, others consulting or contracting gigs. Having had such a broad range, one thing I’ve experienced a fair bit is “misalignment”. It’s common for a guy like me to be hired by a client, only for them not to really know why they did.

I think the reason is that the client doesn’t really know what a game designer does. We come across a little bit like high-end astrophysicists, talking a lot in terms of this magical space that we alone seem to really understand, and the client thinks “I need some of that. I don’t really know what it is, but I need it.” So the client hires someone, and misalignment comes after that initial romance.

My design brothers and sisters love a good challenge, so if you come to us with a wild idea we’ll want to believe you. Come to us and say you want to do something bold we’ll be eager. When you come to us and we start spitballing ideas and you nod appreciatively it makes us feel validated. You might not be listening closely, but you should. A lot of the time when misalignment occurs it’s because too much is glossed over too quickly on both sides.

So if, for example, we advise that the kinds of deliverables we produce reflect a certain style, and you’re enthusiastic, we actually think you get our meaning. We think you understand how those deliverables will function in your production process if you don’t ask. But often you don’t. You think it sounds great, but the devil’s in the details. We designers practice a craft that most people don’t understand, and our approaches are all different. If you don’t really take that in, it will later lead to trouble.

As often as not misalignment is caused by about the designer not fully appreciating the challenge as it is about the client not hearing the designer. Mostly it’s just a split resulting from different thought processes at work, different priorities, different senses of what works or doesn’t. However I do feel that if there was a better understanding of the designer half of this equation out in the world, some misalignments could be avoided.

What Do You Want A Game Designer To Do?

A game designer acts as a kind of creative translator between code, art, production and others by producing clear specs to drive the design forward. At a lead level she leads a team of other designers who do the same (such as in a big place like Riot). At a creative director (or game director, or CCO, it varies) level she does likewise but with a strong degree of management over the whole team.

The exact balance of responsibilities varies from studio to studio, and those variations pose many questions. One question is creative ownership. Does the designer tell the team what to make, what the strategy is, what the next product is going to be? Or is team ownership more important, more of a collaborative-environment sort of scenario wherein those decisions are made by the group. There is no one right answer, but it’s important to have yours clear.

Another question is methodology. Some studios prefer a consensus-driven approach to decisions while others are more deliverable- or momentum-focused. Some studios are large and departmental, necessitating sequenced chains of work. Some like snap decisions and fail-fast approaches. Some prefer to measure thrice and cut once.

The third question is what to expect as a deliverable. What a designer should actually produce. Documents? Spreadsheets? Maintain a bible of specs or a live wiki of data? Some designers (like me) are into short specs, wireframes and flow diagrams but the result of that can be pretty raw. Others swear by longer and more elaborate documentation. Some studios do not care for docs at all and want the designer to work direct in software tools. Some expect the designer to have a high degree of technical understanding. Others prefer if the designer avoids being a fauxgrammer and just tell them what they want.

How To Hire A Designer

It is very difficult to find the right designer. It’s such a linchpin position that feeds into so much else that it can feel paralyzing to even try. What if, after all, you choose wrongly?

I think the best route is to approach it like dating. Rather than hire a game designer with a traditional interview approach, hire her on a consulting basis first. Start slow. Ask her to conduct a review of where the project is to sanity check it, but also get a sense of whether the fit seems right. Then ask to see some work on specific problems as identified, maybe working for an iteration or two. Through consulting that kind of relationship can be grown and the team can grow comfortable with this outsider rather than risking tension or an allergic reaction. The downside is that the designer will likely have other clients doing the same.

Good luck!