Today I read an article about a game announced at E3, the annual mega convention for video games. And it made me realize how little people consider the role of the designer in developing a game. A commenter complained about the decision not to add guns into the game. When someone made the good point that adding guns meant you needed to design the game for them, someone simply replied that you didn’t.
Now, I understand where this last commenter was coming from. Adding guns doesn’t mean you have to create an entire game where using guns is the point. But this completely misunderstands the role of a designer in the game. The designer isn’t just deciding what players should be able to do. It is making sure that when the player wants to do something, the game can handle it. (And conversely, if the game can’t handle it, then make sure the player doesn’t do it.) The designer’s role is much more than simply choosing how a player will shoot.
On the surface, many of the decisions may seem simple. Are there different guns? Do they need different ammunition? How does the player acquire a gun or ammunition? To a player the answers to these questions seem very natural, if a designer has done his or her job. But in this situation, there is so much more than just choosing to include guns. There are deeper consequences. How would guns change existing portions compared to the default? If it makes them too easy, everyone will go for the gun, except for some percentage of people who want to make it harder. So a big portion of people miss out on an experience. That also influences the rest of the game. Why should players ever avoid guns if they’re going to wish they hadn’t for a certain level. It breaks continuity of experience.
On the other hand, players who choose the gun route will almost certainly encounter portions that must be played in the default mode. Even if we are content as designers to force the experience towards the default, players are still going to complain that the game took away options. [See the original boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.] And even without adding content specifically intended to make use of the guns, the designer also has to decide how the game will react to guns. Perhaps we can assume that enemies already have guns in the game, so there isn’t additional work to give guns to enemies. Even so, AI has to be changed to understand a possible player with a gun. That introduces an entirely new set of questions. Do enemies take cover? Do they react differently if the player has a gun? Do they assume the player has a gun, or wait to be shot at? If enemies aren’t expecting them, the game will play like the scene from Indiana Jones. Funny when you aren’t expecting it, but not when it happens over and over again.
Again, if the designer does his or her job, all of these decisions will be invisible to the player. Because the designer’s role is shaping the entire experience, not just adding things to the game. In fact, sometimes choosing what to leave out is sometimes an even more important part of the job.