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Five Unappreciated Developer Positions

By Shannon Drake on November 19, 2009 | General Articles | Comments

Five Unappreciated Developer Positions

Follow MMORPGs too long and you begin to forget it's not just a world of rock star designers making amusing youtube videos during breaks from single-handedly shaping the destiny of their perfect, ultimate online world. The face of the modern MMO tends to be a single person, or a handful of people, who are well-spoken or amusing enough to go out and promote their title, while not giving away too much in the way of specifics, hopefully, though sometimes they are prone to overpromising based on the vague idea in their heads, much to the chagrin of PR handlers and fanboys everywhere. They become the loved and/or loathed figureheads of a title or studio, the guys blamed and/or praised when everything goes right/wrong.

We're not here to talk about them.

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A modern triple-A MMO sports a team of well over 100 people (sometimes over 300 people), and only a handful of them get to be Internet Famous and the subject of fanboy rage slash worship. Most toil in obscurity, with their name in the credits and the satisfaction they take in their work the only rewards other than salary that they receive. The three or four guys that get credit for The Vision are backed by hundreds of people toiling in the code mines to bring The Vision to life, who seldom get any recognition at all, though they frequently get the blame when everything goes poorly. These are just some of the least-appreciated positions in the gaming world, the guys who seldom get noticed for their work.

Sound Designer

Sound design is a demanding field, requiring a good ear--after all, what would it sound like when an enchanted sword made of a metal that never existed hits a robe blessed by a dead priest to be stronger than steel but softer than silk--as well as a specialized background in audio engineering and a considerable amount of experience, neither of which is something you can pick up easily or cheaply. While some games gain recognition for their musical scores--be it soundtrack CDs or touring orchestral performances--sound design is not all Theme From Elven Starting Area #2. Every single PING, thump, and ARrrrrrrrgh is either made by an individual game's designer or licensed from someone who previously made Sword Striking Chainmail #3 and whose entire business may be the creation and licensing of sounds you don't ordinarily think about.

Players do notice if, for example, female characters have a hilariously manly "BWAH-HA!" battle cry or groan in a vaguely erotic fashion when they're hit in melee combat, but most players are content so long as nothing is too far out of place, like the pyew-pyewing of their space lasers sounding like the gentle purring of a contented kitten. Worse still is when a game--and, thus, a sound designer--prides itself on its realistic combat sounds, carefully crafted for the total and complete immersion experience, like you're actually standing on a battlefield while a strange man in silly clothes hurls balls of fire at you and a giant dragon doesn't notice 39 people pelting it with deadly things because one large cow has a particularly big sword and shouts really loud.

This sort of dedication requires a significant amount of time figuring out imponderables, such as what would it actually sound like when a Sharpened Elven Mace hits a Studded Leather of the Bear or, even worse, what it sounds like when Fireball III crashes into Protection Aura. How do you know what it sounds like when something that doesn't exist crashes into something else that never has existed? This is the labor of the sound designer, making everything sound completely normal, at least within the confines of each game's universe.

All too frequently, all that painstaking work is buried somewhere beneath thirty people yelling on Teamspeak and the guy that insists on playing terrible heavy metal over TeamSpeak, which is why he's being berated in the first place.

Recognition: A Grammy. Any fool can sing into a microphone. Who has the patience to figure out what twenty types of swords and axes hitting magical chainmail sounds like?

Lore Guy/Quest Designer

Most games, especially the fantasy MMOs so common and beloved, have rich and detailed worlds detailing what exactly happened when the Queen of All Despair cried crystal tears, which caused budding rogues worldwide to have to steal 10 Dried Crystal Tears to advance in their class quest. There are occasionally even novel-length "bibles" at the very heart of the game, with a Lore Guy presiding over decisions on what is proper and correct regarding the world at large. These decisions eventually filter down to the Quest Designers and content team, noble individuals tasked with filling the world with hundreds of things to do, and giving them some modicum of flavor so people don't realize they've been killing 10-100 variations of the same thing over and over again for weeks of their lives.

First, a disclaimer: It's not about you. You know every single detail of The Unique And Mysterious World That's Totally Unique, including why the Midichlorians are locked in terrible, endless combat with the Jedi. But there are a lot of people--again, not you--that scamper toward an NPC, click on them, roll their eyes as a bunch of carefully worded and lore-correct words stream out, mash Accept, and go running off toward a marker on their map, which has been placed in the most efficient way possible to maximize their XP per hour, all so they can blow through hundreds of carefully arranged quests, hit the cap, and complain about there not being enough content.

In fact, there are entire schools of interface modifications devoted to avoiding any troublesome entanglements like "plot", "story", or "actually having to read the quests." One of the most popular mods for World of Warcraft does precisely that and, on top of that, provides a giant arrow for players to follow, avoiding the troublesome notion of people actually having to read at any point on their journey to the level cap. Even worse is if one of the game's features is some painstaking collection of books, notes, and other lore unlocks, which players chase not so much out of deep and abiding personal interest, but largely because it gives a small but steady amount of experience for unlocking lore items.

Recognition: For one day, all quests, in every game, are replaced with, "Thank god you're here. Kill these 10 things. Bring friends."

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