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Being a Lead Designer

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Developer Journals 0

Being a Lead Designer

Jon Selin writes a great developer journal letting us in on the highs and lows of being the lead designer for an MMORPG. In this case, Dreamlords.

There are two major turning points in my life. When I was seven I played Super Mario Bros on the NES for the first time. I ran straight into a Goomba and promptly decided then and there that I was going to make computer games. That moment set me on a course.

Then when I was about ten I saw the movie Salute of the Jugger with Rutger Hauer, and it showed me what I needed to do.

It is not the fact that it may or may not be the best movie of all time, or that it is a bit too gory for ten year olds to watch, it is all about one short dialogue. I’ll retell the scenario from memory. Rutger Hauer is teaching some girl, I think the character is called Kidda, to play in the violent futuristic sport they are making a living out of. She gets tripped during the training and Rutger Hauer leans over her, all leather and chains and teeth. Then he whispers menacingly:

“You have to know where everyone is, always.”
Kidda winces a little but tries to remain cocky.
“What if I can’t?”
Rutger Hauer straights himself and growls:
“Then they’ll crush your skull.”

These two incidents are the direct causes of my current job as Lead Designer of Dreamlords. See, in this position you need two things:

  • A passion to make the best game in the world. Ever. Ever ever ever ever.
  • The knowledge that if you don’t know where everyone is, always, they will crush your skull.

The skull crushing is serious, and if you’re not careful it will happen several times a day. I will explain what the life of a Lead Designer can look like, skipping “irrelevant stuff” like meetings, planning, balancing, content creation, lore writing, community work, etc. I’ll bullet-point it to make it crystal clear.

  • Get an idea for a feature.
  • Write a design for said feature.
  • Have the design torn in half by the lead programmer (“We can’t do this.”)
  • Have the remains of the design torn in half again by the producer (“We don’t have time for this.”)
  • Have the shreds of the design torn in half again (see the pattern?) by marketing (“We can’t sell this.”)
  • Watch a broken down hobo-version of your feature get implemented.
  • Receive complaints about the feature being bad, and suggestions for improvements that are eerily similar to your original un-cut design.
  • Either get the feature scrapped if it’s beyond saving (don’t be afraid to kill your darlings), get it developed further if you have a glib tongue or move on to the next feature that’s facing the mower.

Here is the kicker. 99.99% of the times when something goes wrong it is because someone doesn’t know something that they should have known. And it is not necessary their fault that they didn’t. As a Lead Designer however, it is your responsibility to make sure that designs and decisions gets communicated correctly. Hence almost every time when something goes wrong, as per the previous statement that problems are born due to lack of knowledge, it is your fault.

This brings us back to Salute of the Jugger with Rutger Hauer; know everything, because if you don’t, things (like people) will break and other things (like your game) will start to suck. I choose to take Mr. Hauer’s advice and know everything, which means listen to everyone, a lot. The community, everyone in the project, etc. If you are anything like me, a hell-bent self-absorbed bulldozer, actually listening to people might take a little getting used but it’s so worth it.

Moving on to my next gripe. This is really just adding insult to injury. As a game designer everything you are doing looks extremely geeky. This is Martin, a technical artist here at Lockpick:

I caught him at a bad time but jist of it is that there’s always something flashy going on when you are sneaking a peek at an artist’s monitors. Now let’s spot the difference, my desk:

Basically, yes I do realize that this is starting to sound like Peter Gibbons in the movie Office Space. You know when he is explaining to his shrink that each of his days are worse than the ones before, hence every time you meet him he is having the worst day of his life. I even drew a picture to show exactly how it works:

This is it, my life, falling down the stairs one more step each day. I do envision it as more of a spiral than a stair but as you can see I can’t draw, and a spiral would be well beyond my mspaint skills. The other thing you should have spotted is that despite the fact that our protagonist is suffering through some sort of Sisyphean nightmare he is smiling like [an idiot].

This is due to the fact that despite it all, being a Lead Designer is THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD. At times, you will see people playing your game, or see someone post about it on some forums, and they are utterly, truly, honestly enjoying something that you have conceived. That moment is what it’s all about, seeing the joy it brings to someone else and the validation that what you’re doing is worth a damn. Personally I wouldn’t trade those moments for the world. Take a look at this for example:

A bunch of our designers crammed together hard at work testing Dreamlords and having a blast. Christian that’s slouching in the middle with the bonnet on was the only one sulking, but that’s only because he kept getting his ass handed to him. This is actually what we get to do here at Lockpick from time to time, so who are we to complain?

To sum it up. If you want to design games: Love gaming, keep one step ahead of everyone else, savor the sweet moments, say “Thanks, you did an excellent job” to the chick at McDonalds. Oh and check out Dreamlords, hopefully there’s something there you will like! I’ll be back next week with some more in-depth reports of what’s going on here at Lockpick Entertainment now that we are acquainted.

/Jon Selin, over and out.


Guest Writer