Should Game Designers and Developers Be Gamers?
Even as a game developer, I don’t often get the opportunity to play games. I mean, I’d love to if I had more time, but I don’t.
And that’s not necessarily an uncommon thing among game developers; we’re generally busy people. We have to deal with work or school, other hobbies, sleep, general life errands, and the list goes on. And when the list gets longer, playing games is usually pushed lower and lower down the priority ladder.
So it’s not surprising when some game developers like me don’t get to play games that often.
But should playing games ourselves be something we feel obligated to do in the first place?
I’m going to answer this question from the perspective of game design first (where the answer is a definite yes), then the game developer side (where the answer gets a bit more complicated).
What Is a Gamer?
This is just something I want to clear up before I write anything else. The truth is, the word “gamer” is an awfully vague term.
“Gamer” literally just means anyone who plays games of any type at any frequency. However, some people understand the word “gamer” to mean someone who lives and breathes games, playing almost whenever they have the opportunity.
To add to the confusion, there are also distinct communities of gamers based on the type of game they play, be it Minecraft, roguelikes such as Nuclear Throne, first-person shooter games like Overwatch, or indie titles like Oxenfree and Undertale.
So, in the context of this article, who qualifies to be a gamer?
Anyone who casually plays a variety of games at least a few times a month qualifies. I’m not looking for any die-hard, health-sacrificing, all-day gamers—just someone who plays often enough (and well enough) to have meaningful game conversations.
Why am I creating this definition? Well, it’s mainly to make the point that even if a game designer or developer decided to play more games, they don’t have to increase their game time by a huge margin. If they try and go for the vague goal of “becoming a gamer,” they may end up mistakenly going for the extreme end of the definition and play an unnecessary amount.
Sheer quantity is not too important, as long as you play with insight and attention to detail.
Developer versus Designer
Another thing that needs clearing up is the difference between a game developer and a game designer. These two terms will be popping up in this article, so I don’t want anybody confusing the two.
A game developer is anyone involved in materializing the game itself—from molding graphics to programming gameplay logic to recording sound. It’s a very general term, but it all boils down to anyone who is involved in actually making the game software in a direct and literal way.
A game designer, however, is the person who designs the game creatively. They think about the game mechanics and the flow of the game. They think about how the game should feel and the underlying pillars that define the game. They think about immersion tactics and how to guide the player’s brain through the experiences they want to craft. While game development is technical, game design is creative.
Many times, game designers have experience in programming or some other aspect of game development, and often play the role of both a game developer and a game designer at the same time.
In this article, I will mostly focus on why game designers need to play games, though the benefits are valid for developers too.
How Game Designers and Developers Benefit From Playing Games
Of course, we should try to play games when we can—it can do a lot for us as designers. As it is often said, writers who want to improve have to read, and chess players who want to get stronger have to study games. As a contributor of your industry, it can be beneficial to know how others are contributing.
Here are some specific benefits designers and developers can get from playing games:
Gives you a well of experiences
The first thing that playing games does for us is give us our own palette of experiences and lessons we can draw from when making our own games.
The more games you play, the more you can get to know what works and what doesn’t, and the more you can see what people have tried often and what people haven’t tried enough. This is a very useful well of knowledge to have access to, and can allow for more means of guidance when making your own games.
Additionally, when you play more games, you’re more likely to be able to think as a player better when making your own games. This is important, of course, because that means your games have the potential to be more player-oriented, hence providing more enjoyable experiences.
Trains your inner critic
Playing more games also gives you the opportunity to train your designer’s eye and inner critic (if you’re a developer, it also gives you some insight into how game design works, and strengthens the designer side of you, which can be useful when working with a team. The more you play games, the more mechanics you encounter, and more importantly, the more mechanic systems you’ll encounter.
Each game has a set of mechanics (a system) that form its backbone, and the interactions between those mechanics craft the game’s overall experience for the player. Some systems work better than others, and as a game designer, it’s good to have an idea of why they fail or succeed, which mechanics and systems work, and which ones don’t.
You should also be aware of the nuances behind the execution of mechanics in games. It’s great to have an idea about how some games got around limitations in design and technology as well, because you’re almost bound to face some of them, too. The devil is in the details here, and you can get to him only through playing games and honing your inner critic.
Provides you with more reference points
Have you ever seen or heard game designers talk? Perhaps over Discord, Reddit, YouTube, or even at Game Developers Conferences? It always astounds me how many games they know.
To game designers, game titles are like a language on their own. They can reference so many different games to help communicate feelings, mechanics, or situations that it’s mind-boggling.
But it’s also very useful. It means that if they want to be able to know more about how well a concept can go (or how poorly it can be executed), they can easily just study some of the games they know, or ask a fellow designer about the concept and study the games that come up in the conversation.
I remember when I was planning a game called Daze (still in the works!) and I joined a Discord channel of game designers. I pitched the game to them, and was bombarded with questions and game titles as they tried to understand the pillars (i.e., the underlying concepts) of my game. The amount of stuff they knew blew me away, and was immensely helpful in my conceptualization of the game.
This kind of knowledge can come from many places, such as working with other game designers for a long period of time and keeping abreast of game news and trends—even as a developer. But it also comes from playing games themselves.
Inspires your own creativity
Needless to say, if you play games, they can definitely inspire you when making your own game. They could inspire the whole game’s concept, or just a small part of it. Either way, game development can become a lot easier if you have more sources of “Eureka!” moments.
While designing one of my mobile games, I was working on a way to allow players to switch easily between weapons without disrupting game flow. I asked some questions online for help, and got some suggestions for a circular menu. So I took inspiration from how smooth The Witcher 3’s circular spell selection menu is; it was such a perfect solution that it became one of the defining aspects of my game.
Games are creative works, and by virtue of that fact, they have a great potential to inspire each other’s creation. A lot of interesting solutions can come up when you’re inspired by other games you know.
Is Playing Games Necessary for Game Developers?
So of course, it’s more than just a good idea for game designers to play games; it’s a bit more of a must.
But what about game developers? Let’s return to my initial question: Should playing games be something we feel obligated to do in the first place?
Now, adapting for a more specific audience: Should game developers feel obligated? In other words, does it absolutely need to be done if you’re a game developer?
The truth is, not really.
One of the main reasons is because of the value of team dynamics and secondary influence—something this Gamasutra article explains beautifully.
If you’re on a team, you’re working with loads of other people who have different backgrounds and skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses. All that variety is crucial to coming up with something special in a game studio.
So, if everyone on the team spends their free time only playing games, they’d have a ton of knowledge, sure, but knowledge from only one part of the human experience. Games are designed to engineer experiences, so those experiences could be richer if they’re derived from a larger spectrum of the human experience.
Some studios look for people who (apart from being good at what they do) can bring something called secondary influence. In the context of game development, this is the act of allowing different fields of interest separate from the gaming world to influence the games one makes.
Developers who spend their time doing hobbies like hiking, snorkeling, yodeling, modeling, and so on can bring knowledge from those fields into the studio’s games in very creative ways. Different forms and angles of thinking would be present in a studio with such a diverse staff, and that’s almost always good.
Of course, they’d still have a need for people who know plenty of games and have a good understanding of game systems and concepts (because they’re game studios, after all), but that doesn’t mean they’ll turn away other types of people. As long as you’re a good animator, programmer, sound designer, or whatever, you have a chance.
But if you’re specifically a game designer, then you gotta know a lot of games. Secondary influence alone will make a pretty poor designer.
Our Answer—Games Are Good, but With a Pinch of Salt
So, to round up, should game designers be gamers? I would still say yes, because:
- It gives designers a greater breadth and depth of knowledge about mechanics and game systems, showing them what works and what doesn’t. It also shows them what could work, if tried.
- It gives designers the chance to train their inner critic.
- It allows designers to use more games as reference points when making their own games and studying game concepts.
- The games could inspire parts of their own game, making it better.
But must all game developers be gamers? No, they don’t need to be, because the power of team dynamics saves them the trouble.
Hopefully, this has been as fulfilling to read as it has been to write. I’ll write to you all next month; in the meantime, keep designing, and start playing! Steam and PlayStation have been waiting for you.