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Do video game programmers get to contribute to the game design?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Derek, who asks “I’m interested in both game programming and general game design, my talents lying mostly with programming. Do game programmers often get much input in the game design outside of simply how the game functions? I assume this would largely depend on the size of the team. But I’m just wondering if it’s likely I’ll get to participate in both areas.”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How team size influences programmer input to game design
  • Why your choice of subject matter expertise affects your design influence
  • The #1 most impactful way to ensure you get your say in a game’s design

If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.

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Hello, and welcome to the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast. This is episode number 37. I’m Jason W. Bay from gameindustrycareerguide.com, and this is the podcast where I answer your questions about getting a job and growing your career making video games.

This week’s question is from Derek, who left a comment to ask this: “I’m interested in both game programming and general game design, my talents lying mostly with programming. Do game programmers often get much input into the game design outside of simply how the game functions? I assume this would largely depend on the size of the team, but I’m just wondering if it’s likely I’ll get to participate in both areas.”

Programmers as designers

Game programming and game design are two separate jobs, and they’re quite different from one another. The primary job of the programmer is to write the code that drives the game. Whereas, the main job of the designer is to conceive the game world and to map out the interactions that the player has with the game world and its characters. But is there any overlap between the two? Do game programmers get to have any say in the game’s design?

On most game teams the answer is yes. The game programmers do have some input and influence on the game’s design. But the amount of contribution will vary from team to team, and it depends on several factors. Let’s discuss three of the factors that I’ve found to be most influential, as to whether or not a programmer gets to have much say in the design of the game.

Factor #1: Team size

The first factor and maybe the biggest is team size. I’ve found that on smaller game teams, let’s say anywhere from four up to maybe 20 team members, the game programmers get more say, and they can have more impact on the game design then they do on larger teams. And that’s because when the team is small, there aren’t as many dedicated game designers. So design ideas, they need to come from everybody, regardless of where they are on the team. Also when there are fewer people on a team, each team member needs to wear many different hats.

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Each one needs to help out with different roles. For example, the game programmer might need to design some of the enemy behaviors. Or the environment artist might also be called on to do some of the game’s level design. Now compare that to a larger AAA size team, that might have several hundred team members. On a team that size, most people are specialists of very well defined roles, and there’s not much crossover between jobs. For example, I know of a really big game team that had an entire art group dedicated just to making rocks and shrubs for the game world. They certainly didn’t have much time to work on game design. But on teams that size, there are usually several dedicated game designers. So it’s just not as important that ideas come from everywhere in the team.

Factor #2: Specialty

The second factor that influences whether a programmer gets to contribute to the game’s design, is the type of programmer that you are and the areas of specialty that you bring to the team. For some programming roles on a game team, it makes sense to contribute to the game’s design. For example, if you are the game’s combat programmer, it’s likely that you’ll be working closely with the game designers to design, implement and refine the games, player controls and the combat mechanics. In fact, the best combat designers that I know are also game programmers. It’s just one of those areas of game play, where it’s hard to separate the code from the design. There’s just a lot of collaboration between the two and a lot of ideas flowing back and forth as a part of the process. Now, compare that to some other types of programmer, like a networking programmer or a user interface programmer. There’s just less of a need to get design input from them, and there’s fewer opportunities for them to give their input on the design.

Factor #3: Talent

The third factor that influences how much you’ll get to influence game design as a programmer, it’s probably the most important, and it boils down to this question: How good of a game designer are you? Even if you’re not trained in game design, you’ve probably played enough games to have developed some game design instincts. In fact, you might even have read some game design books or tried designing some games yourself, as part of a school project, or in your spare time, or whatever.

So how good are you? As you work with your game team, over time you’ll naturally contribute ideas to the group, in meetings, over email or even just in hallway discussions. Some of your ideas will be good, and some of them won’t. But if you seem to have a knack for game design. And you seem to have good ideas that you can communicate to the team in a constructive way. Well, people on the team are going to notice that. And before long, game designers might be coming to you for input and suggestions, especially in the areas where you’ll also be writing the code. So if you really want to have a say in the game’s design, put in some extra effort to study game design, and contribute to your team whenever the opportunity arises.

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Scratch that design itch

I think that’s a good overview of what it takes to contribute to a game’s design as a programmer. Work on a smaller team, or program areas of the game that require close work with designers. Or study game design enough to get to contribute relevant ideas to your team. If you follow any of those suggestions, I think you’ll find that you’ll have enough input into your game’s design to scratch that creative design itch, while also spending most of your time doing what you really love, which is of course programming the game.

All right. Thanks to Derek for that question, and thank you for hanging out with me for just a few minutes today, to learn more about game dev. If you haven’t checked out the website yet – man, what are you waiting for? I have over 100 articles about topics like pay ranges and salary, about how to write a great resume. How to find and apply for jobs and a lot more. I even have a couple of dozen interviews with professional game developers. These are people who have been making games for years. And they talk about how they got started, and they give tons of great advice for how you can start your career too. So check it out.

For more information and inspiration on getting a job, and growing your career making video games, do it. Visit me at gameindustrycareerguide.com. I’m Jason W. Bay, and I hope to see you again next week, right here on the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast.

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