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Technical Designers: An Emerging Role in Game Studios

Alex J. Champandard on September 11, 2007

Face it, games are getting bigger and engines more complex. As a result, there’s more “interaction” between the game assets and the engine itself. In the gameplay department, scripting and AI interfaces are growing too.

If you’re a game development team, why not have a technical designer to help with these issues? Alternatively, to get into industry as a designer, your best bet is to become this indispensable link between design and code.

A Niche in the Development Team

You may have the best intentions at the start of the project: keep a clean scripting interface, provide the scripters with good tools, but there are always rough edges… Dealing with these little problems, and managing the interaction between technology and design is (at least) a full time job.

In the graphics department, technical artists help handle all critical problems — bridging the gap between art and code. Similarly, the most useful people in a multi-disciplinary gameplay team have a technical background, but also retain the big picture in terms of the creative direction.

What’s Your Motivation?

From my experience in industry, I believe there’s a huge career opportunity here for many reasons:

  1. There’s a shortage of programmers, and technical people in general. You’ll have much less trouble finding work towards the technical side of the spectrum.

  2. Programmers are paid more than designers or artists with the same experience. Technical people are paid more than non-technical ones.

  3. Unless you’ve got the credentials, it’ll be very hard to get into the industry as a designer who has no technical responsibilities.

  4. Team members who fit the role of the “technical designers” are in heavy demand in most industries relating to games.

Employers too benefit from hiring technical designers. They cost less than programmers and mostly do a better job of interacting with scripters.

Responsibilities

Think of technical designers as a highly trained ninja capable of solving all non-programming problems relating to AI and scripting. They are useful to have around at all stages of the development — if only to reduce the workload on the programmers and provide friendlier interaction with designers or scripters.

Pre-production
- Provide input for the scripting API
- Help set up a scripting workflow
- Establish workable coding standards
- Create important or challenging scripts
- Support prototypes of new functionality
- Train the designers on new features
Production
- Help isolate or reproduce difficult scripting bugs
- Be willing and available for firefighting
- Implement one-off scripts for special levels
- Assist content creators as necessary

Discuss!

Does your company have a role similar to that of a technical designer? If not, who takes over these responsibilities?

Discussion 1 Comments

Sergio on September 15th, 2007

I said once that, contrary to misconception, us AI programmers don't tell the NPCs what to do. The designers/scripters do, which is why every team will need a number of people filling that role. The technical designer, as the person who wrestles with the script language of the game to provide the specific functionality that the missions require, has existed for a long time. I would call this role technical designer, and would consider a non-technical designer someone whose main tasks are related to creating documentation, establishing general or mission-specific game mechanics and playing the game to, as we say, find the fun. I completely agree that if you are a technical person, but maybe not ready for a programmer job (as Alex said, internal engine complexity has been growing), then a technical designer position might be a perfect match, especially if you have some inclination for design as well. I personally think that some of the responsibilities Alex outlined for a technical designer actually belong to the *lead* technical designer (who will hopefully be the most knowledgeable one), so don't expect to be redefining the API that the designers use at the beginning, as most likely you won't have the necessary experience when you start in the industry. Expect instead to be learning a tailored programming language (or maybe something like Lua) and development environment that is less fragile and more productive than developing in C++. Further describing the environment a technical designer might use is difficult, as every studio uses a different approach. Maybe someone will build a graphical interface on top of the Behaviour Tree that Alex has been describing, and you'll be moving and linking pieces of behaviour. In any case, when there is an obscure enough problem, or the game crashes or there is a bug in the code, the technical designer will have to rely on the programmers to fix it, so we still have a job.

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