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April 2007

A Model of Game Designers

First published on Chris Bateman's blog, Only A Game in September 2005.

Knowing a little about psychology and the games industry gives me an opportunity to hypothesise about the different types or flavours of game designer that might exist. What follows is a hypothetical model of game designers, which suggests that there are three or four recurrent patterns - which in turn reflect three different aspects of the game design process. As a hypothesis, the next step would be research to test its predictions - but I doubt this will happen. Instead, I invite game designers to share how this model fits or diverges with their own perspectives.

For context, I will be using primarily Myers-Briggs typology, Temperament theory and Interaction styles as my source material - and probably a few other psychological models that I don't have the names for. As ever, my perspective is rooted in Linda Berens work. Note that what I am in effect describing here are 'game designer archetypes' - individuals will be much more complex than the personality templates I am about to describe.

The Path of a Game

Broadly speaking, there are three phases of game development:

  1. Pre-dev: This is the period before the game goes into full production. Although the complete game design is not always generated in pre-dev, for the sake of this model we are going to consider the generation of the game design documentation as a pre-dev task.
  2. Implementation: from the first line of code, to the last piece of art, the creation of the game up to the Alpha milestone (when every element is in place - in at least a rough cut form) can be considered the implementation phase.
  3. Tweaking: the QA process, bughunts and everything else on the road to gold master can be considered the tweaking phase. We are particularly interested in the final adjustments to the game design - especially parametric changes and interface improvements.

The model I am about to propose suggests that there is a flavour of game designer who is best suited to each of the three phases of game development.

The Design Advisor

During the pre-dev phase of a project, design documentation is generated. Often, this paperwork is created before any aspect of the game is in production so a game designer who specialises in this portion of a project has to be able to think abstractly, theorise and plan ahead. I call this flavour of game designer the design advisor.

The design advisor could be in charge of the project, but more likely is an advisor to the person who leads the project (the game director in my preferred terminology). Their role is like a military advisor attached to a general of an army... they anticipate problems and issues, they solve problems before they become problems.

The Myers-Briggs patterns I associate with this role are the Conceptualiser-Director (INTJ: Rational/Chart the Course) and the Designer-Theoriser (INTP: Rational/Behind the Scenes). The INTJ is associated with strategising, envisioning and masterminding; defining goals, creating detailed plans and outlining contingencies. They drive themselves hard. The INTP is associated with designing and configuring. They define precisely and bring coherence to systems based on the patterns of organisation that are naturally there, and they notice inconsistencies. It does not take a great leap of faith to see why I am suggesting these two personality templates could be associated with game design.

These two patterns share a lot in common - a focus on the abstract (versus concrete details), a bias towards pragmatic decision making (versus affiliative decision making), and a tendency towards responding to situations (versus initiating actions). There is a key distinction between the two: INTJ's tend towards directing processes, whilst INTP tend towards informing them.

This creates two subclasses of designer director - the director-advisor (closer to INTJ pattern) who can be in charge of the design process, and the informer-advisor (closer to INTP pattern) who prefers to be behind the scenes. In practice, the roles are very similar, but they are highly complementary. The director-advisor (which I tend towards) rushes forward, pulling the game design behind them in their wake. Forward progress is therefore fast paced, but prone to having problems which need fixing. The informer-advisor would have the reverse approach - they want to delay proceeding until they are confident that problems that can be anticipated have been identified and eliminated.

An alliance between these two patterns can be hugely beneficial to a game, and it is worth nothing that either role could be in charge. When I worked with Gregg Barnett, he was in charge and fulfilled the informer-advisor role - I charged ahead with the game design, but nothing actually proceeded until Gregg was happy with it.

Game Planner

In Japan, game designers are generally called 'planners'. This is apposite - there's an awful lot of planning involved in designing a game. During the central phase of making a game - the implementation phase - the game needs someone who can keep the project on track, can relate the game design to the game (or the game to the game design) and ensure that the team are fully supported.

The game planner is an adjunct to the development team (although they are often in charge at some level). The overall shape of the game has already been determined when the game planner comes into their own - they look at where the game needs to be (from the design documentation, if it exists, or from the team meetings if it does not) and create the necessary plans of action.

I associate this role with the Planner-Inspector (ISTJ: Guardian/Chart the Course) pattern in Myers-Briggs typology. ISTJ's are associated with planning and monitoring, and are considered systematic and careful, seeing discrepancies, omissions and pitfalls, and eliminating them. They are considered dependable, realistic and sensible - just who you want on your side when you're trying to get your game up and running.

They share the same interaction style as the director-advisor (Chart the course), that is, they direct processes and respond to situations, but whereas the director-advisor is biased towards abstract thinking and pragmatism, the game planner would hypothetically be more focused on concrete details, and would tend towards an affiliative approach to decision making. This means the game planner is likely to be hugely loyal towards their team - always in their corner, looking out for them against anything that threatens production. They listen to what their team says, and they take the necessary actions.

Although not my strongest suit, I can fulfill the role of game planner when necessary. I would greatly prefer to know there was a dedicated game planner working with the team, making sure that everything remains on track.

Game Fixer

At the end of the game development process, it's usually a crunch. It shouldn't be, but the process up to that point is never perfect, milestone schedules always fail to some degree, and in the last few months of the project, someone has to make the game work. In this tweaking phase of development, the game fixer comes into their own.

They look at what the game currently does, and see what is wrong... They have strong instincts about what needs to be done to make it work properly. If they were given the resources, they could probably fix any game - but in practice, the work of the game fixer comes down to damage control. The game fixer cannot be in charge - unless the developer is happy to throw money at the project until it works (and some developers do use this macabre business model). Most game fixers are part of the QA team - but this can be a mistake . It's a waste to have such talent just running sweeps and methodically checking for bugs. Game fixers need to be working more closely with the game design team.

I associate this role with the Analyser-Operator (ISTP: Artisan/Chart the Course) pattern in Myers-Briggs typology. ISTP's are associated with action-driven problem solving, and are skilled at analysing and solving problems. They share the concrete bias of the game planner, but have the pragmatic bias of the design advisor. Once again, the interaction style is Chart the Course (directing-responding).

I need game fixers to back me up, because it's not my strength. I can take reports from game fixers and work out how to solve them in the parametric data for the game (which, according to this model at least, requires the abstract thinking of a design advisor), but I need talented fixers to be down in the trenches, playing the game and reporting back the problems. The game fixer has to be careful - they have to try to tell the difference between problems with the game that matter to them and problems with the game that will matter to the audience as a whole. Although, in an ideal game development process, the fixers should probably have a design advisor to theorise, and a game planner to keep the QA process on track.

In an Ideal Project...

I believe that the perfect game design team should contain representatives from all of these game designer archetypes. With a large enough project budget, I would want a director-advisor and an informer-advisor to form the core of the design team, backed up by at least one game planner for each of the teams working on the game. Finally, I would want at least three game fixers working on the game design and working with (and listening to) the QA teams to provide the information necessary to steer the project in the right direction.

In reality, the budget isn't usually there, so one has to make do with what one has. Ideally, I'd like at the very least to be backed up by an informer-advisor (to prevent me rushing too far ahead on the design, and to highlight problems at an early stage) and a game fixer like my good friend Neil, who sadly only works part time with me these days, but whom I rely upon for all sorts of every day problem solving situations.

This is a hypothetical model - it is built from theories and makes somewhat broad predictions about the behaviour of different flavours of game designer. It would be interesting to hear what other game designers make of the model. Do you recognise the patterns in yourself? In others you have worked with? And what would your ideal game design team consist of? If you have a spare moment, I'd love to hear your thoughts.