The Role of Game Design
The role of a Game Designer, particularly a Systems Designer, can often be misunderstood by smaller studios who might focus only on engineering or art; however, not understanding the value offered by a Game Designer can be a very costly mistake because these individuals often drive gameplay and drastically reduce the amount of cycles spent by other members of the team.
While there are many different benefits provided by a Game Designer for a small startup, this post focuses on the benefits of data driven design.
What is Data Driven Design?
Data driven design is an approach where the Game Designer(s) establish all the necessary data in a format that is easily adjustable and tweakable. Often this can be completed with spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel and then parsed as separate .csv files.
Essentially the Game Designer acts as a co-architect with the engineers to create systems that can be tuned by the design team without absorbing more time from engineering. The beauty of this approach is that after a small initial investment of time, engineers are able to move onto additional feature development while design takes full responsibility for the enjoyment of gameplay. When game values are entered directly in a spreadsheet such as Excel, additional calculators to determine combat outcomes and drop chances become exponentially easier to predict and control. The data driven approach eliminates hard coded values, offloads a considerable amount of time and effort for tuning, accelerates faster iteration, and provides a native framework for predicting intended design. It’s a win-win!
Dangers of Data Driven Design
A lot of small startups with limited resources may cringe when faced with longer development time for tools development (essentially data driven design is a tool that engineers provide to the designers). Data Driven Design does take longer to establish up-front and can sometimes lead to unintended consequences if not executed properly.
If a studio is looking to iterate in a few hours time, data driven design may not be the best initial investment because hard-coding values can often be accomplished much faster; however, realize that hard-coded design never ends well - especially on larger projects.
Besides time, the other drawback to Data Driven Design often results from a lack of communication between design and engineering. Often design will wrongly make the assumption that if a value is in a spreadsheet that the engine is consuming that value when the engine might in fact be ignoring it for a hard-coded value. This can often lead to confusion with quality assurance to figure out why a behaviour doesn’t match user expectations.
Similarly, offloading execution to design creates an additional failure point with execution. As an example, a designer might enter a value for an arrow projectile that launches extremely slow or a movement speed for a character that is extremely fast relative to the animation. If the designer isn’t fully aware of what the value represents, it is meaningless.
Data Driven Design isn’t just a recommendation - it’s a requirement for a project of any scope or size. Relying on hard-coded values scattered throughout various scripts is a recipe for disaster for an engineering staff that is already most likely crunching to fix the next feature.
Empowering Game Designers to execute their own vision using easy to use tools such as Excel frees up significant time for all party members and places the gameplay squarely in their hands (as it should be).
Like development of any feature, yes, the data driven approach will take more time to set-up, will create unintended communication failure points, and may not be preferable for early iterations without any direction or structure; however, this approach will free up significant time bottlenecks and help foster synergy among all members of the team.