Today, design remains the cornerstone and the biggest bottleneck in the development of a video game, it is (as in Software Engineering) the heart of the process; although its role in that process has undergone a great transformation since the 80s.
The concept of design has gone through different phases, from its identification with the primitive “logic” of games (Pong, 1975) to its current relationship with that whole complex phenomenon we call “the gaming experience”, from the use of abstract elements that demanded a considerable effort of interpretation from the player’s brain to the current degree of realism that greatly facilitates their immersion in the game, practically from the time of Doom (1990) onwards. Doom created a ripple effect in the industry that can be felt to this day. This game did so much for the games we know and love today, inspired developers to create one of the most iconic titles we know and love today. Arcade games can be compared to Doom’s success, they are all in the evergreen group of games that will be played forever. Such games today can be found on online platforms for free, without downloads. So everyone can enjoy some arcade fun as a blast from the past.
In the 8-bit generation, the design was focused on developing extremely simple interfaces and mechanisms, seeking to create a certain addiction in the player (basically because that was the business model). In the 90s there was a technological boom that made designs focused on the multimedia aspects of the game (graphics, sounds and special effects) prevail. Today we are still living under the effects of that technological boom, although it is becoming increasingly clear that the important thing is to offer a gaming experience that meets the expectations of the target audience. The designs are suitable for different purposes (Mario Kart is a fun racing arcade game for all audiences, Grand Theft Auto is a game -more and more casual- of cars, action and violence for adults, Doom 3 is the latest technology for the hardcore FPS, etc.).
At the dawn of video games, Crawford and other pioneers spoke openly of the birth of a revolutionary new procedural art. The industry today does not consider game design as an artistic endeavor (which is true for music or graphics), mainly because most of a designer’s real work lies in the mass production of content.
Levels and Phases of Design
We distinguish three levels within the design work: a high level, where we talk about general characteristics that will attract potential buyers of the game (unit selling points), a medium level and a low level of formal specifications agreed with the implementers of the game.
We can also talk about three design phases: a concept phase where we decide the genre of the game, its main characteristics, the type of rules, challenges and levels it will have, etc., a pre-production phase where we design the levels and all the content of the game, and a production phase (not to be confused with the “business” production of the game) where we undertake the implementation of everything the game needs apart from the source code and the artistic resources (maps, scripts, texts, etc.) In a development studio like Pyro Studios the pre-production phase of a game like Commandos Strike Force (7.8 million euros) involves only 3 or 4 designers, while in the production phase it is necessary to triple that number. The number of people involved in testing the game can be even higher, such as the 115 in Need for Speed: Underground.