Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"Gamegineering" and the role of the game developer

More and more lately I've heard people talk about the role of a developer in boardgames. The idea has certainly existed for many years, and every game on the shelf has undoubtedly gone through some level of development, but only recently has the role of board game developer been recognized in the industry.

When Dominion was coming out in 2008 was the first time I noticed game developers being named. It was about that time I was realizing that, while I enjoyed designing games, my real strength was in game development. So I guess it was good news the role was beginning to be highlighted in the industry!

A decade later, very little progress has been made with respect to recognition for developers. I think there are more of them nowadays, and if you check the back page of your favorite games' rulebooks, you can probably find out who they are. But I don't think many consumers have any idea...

People frequently look out for new games by their favorite designers, and these games often come from different publishers. Which means they're often worked on by different developers. Depending on how much work each developer puts into each game, "shopping by designer" may end up being a misleading metric to find a game you like.

People also frequently look out for new games by their favorite publisher. And it might be the case that most or all of those games were worked on by the same developer (either in-house, or perhaps 3rd party). For a small publishing company, the publishers themselves may be the ones doing the development. So in some cases, if you enjoy many games from a particular publisher, it might be the case that what's drawing you to those games is that publisher's development skills. Or it might be that publisher's judgement when choosing which games to publish.

This kind of thing is difficult to even talk about, because the role of the developer is so inconsistent from publisher to publisher, and from game to game. Even from developer to developer! Very recently I've seen a number of prominent people in the design community taking on developer roles, either freelance, or for a particular company. And more power to them! Sometimes I'll listen to a podcast interview, and I'll hear the role of the developer defined, and it makes me cringe a little bit because what they describe, to me, sounds more like an insightful playtester than what I consider a developer.

Maybe I've been putting too much work into games I develop, but to me the role of the developer isn't just to "make suggestions that are in line with the designer's vision for the game." The developer's job is to bring out the full potential of a game. I don't feel like I can do a proper job as a developer without taking the game under my wing, so to speak, and treating it as my own. I don't propose changes, I make those changes, try them out, and then explain why they did or didn't work. When a mechanism is just not working right, sometimes I re-design that mechanism from the ground up to accomplish what I think the designer was going for with it. Like I said, perhaps I've been putting more work in than necessary, but I'm not so sure.

I had hoped that, over time, players who found themselves liking the big box TMG titles would start to see a pattern. No matter who's name is on the front of the box, they'd see the green dragon logo, and hopefully they'd see "developed by Seth Jaffee" on the box back. But 10 years in, that doesn't seem to have happened. Maybe they see the dragon logo, but an innocuous mention in the rulebook or box back does not seem to have put my name into the minds of the end user.

One thought I've had, and that I might one day make good on, is to create a logo for myself:

Not final. I'd prefer if the typed "SETH JAFFEE" were taken out from beneath the signature, and put in the circle in lieu of "BOARD GAME"

Maybe adding that logo to games I have a big hand in would lead to a higher level of recognition. I like the composition of that logo, because it looks like a professional's seal, like my engineer's stamp. This communicates that the game literally has the seal of approval from a professional game developer!

But there's another aspect of "developer" that I think may be lacking: the word itself. I’m considering proposing a new term, because “developer” carries so much baggage, and so many different meanings to different people. In the video game world, it’s synonymous to both “designer” and also “programmer,” which doesn’t help matters. Even in tabletop gaming, it’s been used to mean everything from “insightful playtester” to “product manager” to “uncredited codesigner.” Depending on how thorough a job the designer does in the first place, there may be more or less work required of a developer. That doesn’t help matters either.

On many of the TMG big box games, my efforts have been closer to a co-designer than an insightful playtester. For that role, I’ve been tossing around the term “Gamegineer.”

What do you think? Do we need terminology to differentiate various levels of "developer?" And if so, how do you like "gamegineer," on the end of the spectrum closer to "co-designer" then "insightful playtester?"


Michael Brown said...

Coin that phrase! I think that someone needs to do it, and you make a good point about designer being nebulous at best.

Jonathan Ruland said...

That will certainly get people's attention, and it's catchy.

I've been wondering, how much control do you take over the game when you agree to publish it? Do you OK all the changes you come up with during development with the designer, or do you just make whatever changes you deem necessary once you sign them?

Chris Backe said...

Unpopular opinion time!

'Gamegineer' sounds like something concocted by Disney.

As someone that wears both hats, it's also to say where one job ends and another begins. I'd just as soon give equal credit to the designer and developer via a slash, a tilde, or something similar. This would appear in the same notable place, in the same font and font size.

Developers need to begin asking for (or demanding, in their contract) their rightful place in the headlines. They could also greatly assist in making their case by talking more / at length about how they transform a game after a designer has passed it on to them.

Mark Mistretta said...

Glad you posted on this topic as I have had questions about game development for some time and never knew who to ask. So if you are a developer at one of the larger game companies, is that a paid position? Do you get paid a salary or is it based on commission per game? Is it part of a full-time job or could someone "develop" part-time?

The reason I ask these questions is that I have always had an interest in game development (more on the co-design end of the spectrum and not the insightful playtester) but I have a full-time job so it would have to be something on the side.

Seth Jaffee said...

@Michael Brown -- Thanks! I feel like "Gamegineer" sounds dumb, but maybe that's a plus in that it could grab attention.

@Jonathan Ruland -- I personally like to keep the designer in the loop. but I don't ask permission to try changes, I try what I think needs trying, and once I find a change I like, I ask the designer to try it out.

@ Chris Backe -- I agree, the word is a little bit silly, but in a way that's the point. I'm open to other terminology, the crux of the matter is that currently we have this term "developer" that does not adequately convey enough information, and for the exact reason you state: It's hard to tell where the role of the designer ends and the role of the developer begins.

Sharing credit is one end of the spectrum (sometimes development is practically a co-design effort). But other times, it's not warranted.

There are other issues as well... when we were kids, games didn't have the designer's name on them. In the last 20 years, hobby games have that info front and center. More recently, we've started to see the artist's name on the box cover as well, and rightly so (there's no question, good art sells games). But where do we draw the line? If developers get a front-of-box credit, shouldn't the graphic designer as well? What about the rulebook editor?

@Mark Mistretta -- I am a developer at TMG, but my situation may not be the norm. In addition to game development, I also do other things (discovery, product management, etc). I am not sure how other companies with in-house developers handle things, not how freelance developers do things.