Last week, a Twitter debate broke out over the exact definition of a ‘game developer’ and to whom that term can be ascribed. Should the title be extented to anyone contributing to the development of the game or be reserved solely for those with direct creative input? Are QA staff “https://www.nintendolife.com/developers” or do you have to write code to qualify? What about artists? Writers? Publishers? Players? Okay, perhaps not players, although Early Access and Beta periods can muddy the waters even there.
This semantic argument spilled out beyond the confines of Twitter’s character limit — as so many online spats do — and drew comment from a host of onlookers, including various industry professionals. Nintendo Life staffers Tom and Kate — both with experience in the industry from the other side of the video gaming veil — sat down recently for a virtual chat to discuss their thoughts on his disagreement and how it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how video games are created. Twitter is a fantastic forum for quick, snappy debate, but it’s rarely the place for nuanced reasoning or takes that go beyond a combative tone or a blunt “NO, YOU’RE WRONG!!!!11″.
In order to delve deeper into some of the finer points and arguments that fuelled the debate, we contacted a host of developers to find out their views on a topic that seemed to touch a nerve.
We spoke to:
- Ashley Ringrose (CEO of Moving Out dev SMG Studio)
- Daley Johnson (designer at Yooka-Laylee studio Playtonic Games)
- Dylan Cuthbert (founder of Q-Games and developer behind the Star Fox series)
- Jools Watsham (founder of Mutant Mudds dev Atooi)
- Olle Håkansson (SteamWorld series Game Director at Image & Form)
- Matt Alt (co-founder of localisation company AltJapan)
- Rami Ismail (co-founder of Vlambeer, creator of presskit())
- Ross Bullimore (designer at Playtonic Games)
- Steph Caskenette (lead artist at Wargroove dev Chucklefish Games)
- Victoria Tran (community developer at Among Us dev Innersloth)
What’s the key approach you take to bring everyone’s contributions into a cohesive whole?
Victoria Tran: For me and my work, the thing that streamline’s everyone contributions is knowing your team’s goals, values, and priorities. Community-first studio approach? Then you’ll work and push for the things that ultimately benefit the community in the long run, or try to integrate things that would bring them the most long term happiness. (E.g. while a reporting system doesn’t sound like the most “fun” thing in the world, it’s an important step for building a strong, positive community space.) Or a studio’s goal could be to push an innovative feature! Or art style! It can be a mixture of many different things, but it all depends on the project and studio. Knowing the core values helps prioritize what comes first.
Dylan Cuthbert: Open and honest feedback between the entire team is the best way to create a cohesive approach to the game. If something isn’t feeling right, call it out and help find a solution.
Steph Caskenette: At Chucklefish everyone has their own roles and responsibilities that of course come with a lot of experience and expertise, but the entire studio is always encouraged to join development meetings, from art to gameplay design to character development (I’ve even sat in on a few tech discussions). This leads to some packed meeting rooms (now Discord channels) that generate fantastic ideas that often go onto defining our game. Our different perspectives are invaluable to prevent tunnel vision within a certain discipline and ensure that what we’re making will appeal universally.
Olle Håkansson: Knowing what the game is about. Once you know the game, it’s almost easy to decide what you should include.
I think the most important thing is to ensure there is a strong vision that everybody agrees on. Game development changes and shifts rapidly, and requires a ton of flexibility and adaptability from people both creatively and technically – but that means it’s easy to get lost in things that don’t matter too.
Rami Ismail: I think the most important thing is to ensure there is a strong vision that everybody agrees on. Game development changes and shifts rapidly, and requires a ton of flexibility and adaptability from people both creatively and technically – but that means it’s easy to get lost in things that don’t matter too. Without becoming inflexible, having a strong idea of whereabout you want to end up helps.
Daley Johnson: We’re a super collaborative studio and always open to everyone’s ideas. Everyone is free to bring ideas to the table and contribute to creative discussions. I think that openness within the studio brings us together.
Jools Watsham: At Atooi, the most important person in the room is always the game. We have a game director on each game, who ultimately holds the overall vision for the game, but no one’s ego or role on the team can override what’s best for the game. Each person has a designated role that they are responsible for, such as design, programming, art, audio, and QA, but everyone is encouraged to share their opinions on any aspect of the game.
The key to deciphering which ideas should and should not be implemented into the game rests on the requirement that each idea must be justified from a game design / player perspective. How does the idea improve or change the game? We try to analyze everything we do from a psychological and communication perspective and how it affects the player’s experience in a positive or negative way.
Ross Bullimore: If you want to bring things together successfully at the end you need to have set a goal at the start for everyone to work towards, so people know what they need to be doing. I find the best way to do this is by laying out user stories, breaking down the whole game into what we are trying to achieve in terms of how it affects the player in smaller moments. These smaller moments are then built back up to the finished game.
What’s the most important factor in having a strong development team?
Daley Johnson: Developing games is a highly collaborative and creative process. It’s hard to nail a single most important factor, but for me, it’s a friendly and open environment. Posturing and gatekeeping roles only leads to people feeling shut out and forces them to retreat with their ideas and contributions. Who is to say the best idea or the solution to a problem has to come from a designer or coder? If everyone at the studio feels free to give their input, you’ve got a lot more to play with.
Posturing and gatekeeping roles only leads to people feeling shut out and forces them to retreat with their ideas and contributions.
Matt Alt: The most important factor in building a strong development team is cultivating a spirit of teamwork, which doesn’t happen when one implies those not involved in direct creative roles are somehow not contributing to the development of a game.
Steph Caskenette: Communication skills! Not just between individual people but between the different disciplines in our studio.
Programmers need to be able to explain their systems to non-programmers, artists need to explain their asset design to non-artists. Knowing what other teams are working on and how it slots into both your own immediate work and The Video Game is vital to ensure everyone is working towards a fully unified and cohesive vision (which creates a better game).
Dylan Cuthbert: The ability of the team to stand back a bit and see the greater picture is one of the most important qualities of a great team. You need to be able to play the game as the end user and not as the developer.
Rami Ismail: I would much rather work with an inexperienced team that communicates well than with an experienced team that cannot. The ability to communicate goals, thoughts, ideas, and problems is paramount in a good game development process, and that requires your team-members to be willing to communicate, but mostly it means your team has to feel safe to communicate thoughts that might seem obvious, small worries, and silly ideas. So, I’d say safety and communication.
Jools Watsham: Team leaders must trust and respect their teams to do their best, and teams must trust and respect their leaders to do their best. When one’s trust in someone waivers, falling back on the requirement to justify your decisions helps strengthen trust and also help keep everyone on the same page.
Ross Bullimore: Good communication is so important during development. Even when you have a highly skilled team to get the best out of them communication is key. From writing design specs, letting people know what they need to be doing, letting people know what you are doing, keeping track of tasks, it touches pretty much every aspect of game dev, even down to laying out scripts and code in way that makes sense it’s absolutely vital and in my opinion the most important factor in having a strong development team… Well that and the steady supply of cake that appears in the Playtonic kitchen.
Victoria Tran: Respect for each other’s work, expertise, and being. Being able to communicate dissent or feedback, trusting someone to do their best work, and creating amazing worlds together needs to come from a place of respect. I also add respecting someone’s being, because any sort of “looking down” on someone because of their role (whether junior or something like QA), inappropriate crediting or financial compensation, or any form of harassment/discrimination undermines this entirely.
Olle Håkansson: Excellent people.
Do you think this all just a minor semantic squabble or indicative of a wider misunderstanding about roles within the industry?
Matt Alt: It’s a semantic issue, AND it’s indicative of a wider misunderstanding about roles within the industry — particularly among consumers. Big-budget games are not the kind of thing that can be made by a single auteur, so the idea that only the director and key creatives contributed to the success of a game is simplistic. Think of it like Formula racing: yes, in the end, it’s the driver who takes the car over the finish line, but that car is such a finely-tuned, volatile machine that it can’t run without a pit crew and many other support staff. Those who really understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a creative product understand that they didn’t get there alone, and in my experience are often the most humble when it comes to taking credit or scrutinizing job titles. It takes a village to raise a child.
How would you define ‘game developer’?
Ashley Ringrose: Do you work at a game studio? Yes! Then you make games! Have you contributed to the creation of a game in some capacity? Yes! Then you make games!
Would all these people refer to themselves as a Game Dev? Not sure. I guess ‘game makers’ doesn’t sound as nice? If you make it about the company then people can have their roles and still ‘make games’. Then these sentences work: I make games! – I work in QA; We make games! – I work in finance; I work for a game developer – I’m the office admin, I help the games get made.
I normally would say who cares what some random person thinks but I understand some people can feel left out if they don’t fall under the ‘game developer’ title.
Dylan Cuthbert: Game developers are anyone who is involved in the creation of the game, QA included.
QA are really important for the final production and polish of a game. Nintendo’s Mario club is especially good and their meticulous feedback has helped shaped many Nintendo titles for the better.
Steph Caskenette: Any person who works to develop a game at any point between start to finish is a game developer. With all the moving parts and work involved, it’s a miracle that ANY game gets made. Everything needs doing! Coding makes the player jump but art makes the jumping look cool. Design decides why the player jumps and narrative decides why the player jumps. Of course, there’s a bug discovered by QA where the player will kick instead of jump, but only when you press the jump button for a frame too long and also under a full moon. Producing prevents the jump feature from being cut from the schedule, and then marketing mastery is the only way that people will even know about your jumping game in the first place amongst all the other jumping games.
That’s only a fraction of the fields involved and they ALL need to be working in harmony with each other in order for someone to play a game on their couch. There’s so much. It’s overwhelming to think about. Every discipline in game development relies so heavily on each other that removing one from the equation would result in chaos and probably something on fire.
Matt Alt: In my mind, today, a game developer is a company, not a person. That’s part of the semantic issue here. Those who work inside it have any number of different roles. But in a big-picture sense, they are all working to develop a game. To me, that means everyone on the team is a developer. Obviously, titles and responsibilities vary, but the term “develop” is so broad given all of the hard, often intricate work that goes into making games that it’s barely functional as a descriptor. If someone came up to me or anyone else in the industry and simply identified themselves as a developer, my next question would be, “and what’s your role on the team?” But whether that individual is a producer, a creative director, an artist, a localizer, or a tester doesn’t matter — they’re all working for the game developer, which makes them developers, too.
whether that individual is a producer, a creative director, an artist, a localizer, or a tester doesn’t matter — they’re all working for the game developer, which makes them developers, too
As a personal aside… There is a long history of treating localization as secretarial or even janitorial in nature, as in something left to do once the “real work” of making the game is done. But that’s seriously outdated thinking. Ever since simship of multiple languages became the norm, localization concerns have needed to be considered from the very earliest phases of development, affecting all sorts of tasks and schedules. And given that the marketplace for games is fiercely competitive and literally planet-wide, making multiple languages available isn’t some kind of extra — it’s essential to doing business. That’s even before we get into the art, and it is an art, of rendering a creator’s vision into the tongues of so many different people. Localizers are not some kind of content gatekeepers or censors. They work as part of much larger teams, and ideally confer closely with the creators to ensure their message makes the linguistic transition.
Ross Bullimore: Even though I’ve been in the industry for over twenty years it’s not something I’d really given any thought to until the other day. I’ve never had a business card that has said ‘game developer’ on it and I’ve pretty sure I’ve never used it to describe myself. Since I’ve been a Playtonic it has opened my eyes to all the things it takes to keep a studio running that I kind of took for granted when I was at larger studios, office managers, people to do payroll, community managers, IT people, these are all vital rolls in a studio and to break things down into ‘game developer’ and ‘not game developer’ seems a bit reductive. Without all the people in the studio, if a game managed to come out at all, it wouldn’t be nearly as good.
Olle Håkansson: I wouldn’t define it. Whatever line you’d draw, someone would end up feeling left out, so what’s the point?
Victoria Tran: If working on a game has given you depression or anxiety, you’re a game developer! Haha! …I’m joking. Seriously. Please I don’t want that to be the norm for making games. Anyways my real answer is if you’ve helped work on a game, internal or external, you’re a game developer! Nice!
Jools Watsham: I honestly don’t use the term ‘game developer’ much. I prefer to be more specific when it comes to an individual and their role within a development team. However, if pressed, I would say the term ‘game developer’ could be used to describe any individual involved with the development of a game.
Due to how game development has evolved from a single person making a game in the 1980s to teams of dedicated disciplines has affected the term ‘game developer’ and how different people interpret it.
Rami Ismail: The term has changed a lot – originally ‘game developer’ meant what we now commonly call an ‘engineer’, ‘programmer’, or ‘coder’. Because the audience at large used ‘developer’ interchangeably for anyone who makes games, the term has become a catch-all for anyone involved in the game development process. It’s a bit silly of a discussion — there’s no value or status in being a ‘game developer’ — but frequently the idea of someone being ‘not a game developer’ is used to limit the ability of certain disciplines in game development to grow or gain better working conditions. That’s why it’s worth arguing every time it comes up.
Daley Johnson: A Game Developer is someone who contributes to the development of a game, it really is that simple. It’s not some magical, coveted title that should be used to beat people over the head with. Really baffling stuff when people get up in arms about it. We’re making games, not converting water to wine.
Our thanks to all the game developers above who contributed to this article.