The cast - 3. The game designer

In the beginning there was Word, and Word and Excel. As a game designer in Japan your job title would be “planner" and your toolbox would be Microsoft Office, more likely than not the Japanese version. Powerpoint and/or Word for initial design and pitch-documents and after that Excel for everything else. Bear in mind that I’m generalising here.

Don't expect to be the God of the game design, though. You will answer directly to the producer and, if he feels like a managerial decision is called for, the boss. In fact, you may have certain things dictated to you, and you'll just write them down in Excel sheets. If you're working on, say, a racing game or RPG be prepared to write page after page of specs, test them out, rewrite them, etc.

Other tasks often include asset control; creating naming conventions and asset lists, running between programmers and artists constantly adapting the list and annoying everyone by making them redo and re-export stuff as slight changes are called for. Even, if the task hasn't been assigned to the leads, as it should be, you may find yourself writing schedules.
Of course you will also be working on level designs, but as mentioned above you will play second fiddle to the producer but it will be you who does most of the hard work.

Because of the software and the lists you need to create for the rest of the team your Japanese should be pretty advanced, with very competent reading and writing abilities. You'll also need to discuss and check with other team members as they do their work and follow your designs, so good speaking skills are also a must. You will also be in meeting after meeting getting game designs dictated to you by your superiors, followed by meetings where you dictate those designs to the rest of the team.

There doesn't seem to be the same kind of career structure for planners as in the west; as there are no real QA departments to promote aspiring designers from. I'm not sure where these planners come from or what background they usually have, but it isn't in code or art. As such the naming conventions and asset lists are usually very rough and full of mistakes and oversights and require constant reworking. If you want to actually be the auteur you’ll have to work your way up to producer. But being a planner isn't necessarily the career path to producerdom. These seem to spring up from all disciplines, from art to code, and are often chosen for longevity and not necessarily skill.

What with the high levels of Japanese required, as well as the many obscure differences in tastes becoming a planner in Japan may be one of the more difficult careers for the aspiring foreigner. Indeed, I have not met any yet. I wouldn't say it's impossible but be prepared for a lot of hard, underpaid work and many dead-ends.

1 comment:

  1. The design path isn't clear in the US either. The 2 year programs for Planners seem to produce a decent crop of Excel Sheet Fillers, but I could be wrong.

    The mod community is a great path to becoming a level designer and crossing over from level to systems isn't too difficult. The vast majority of modders work on PC games, which as you stated earlier, is smaller than an ant's feces. I've heard level(Map) design has been left to the art team by and large. Do correct me if I'm wrong.

    The US gaming school scene seems way too...stratified, so to speak. You've got the cheesy "Tightening Up the Graphics" end which comes from places trying to fill the education gap at participants' expense. Some might be taught by some 'former industry person' but there's a saying in America:
    "Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach become school administrators."
    A sizable chunk of my former workplaces' animation team had times where they'd teach a class or two when they needed money but weren't able to score a job or contract. Not that I blame them for it, but when designer has been regularly teaching to put food on their table, it raises eyebrows to say the least.

    The way upper end is the graduate school programs in video games. Graduate school is bloody expensive and a year of student fees alone exceeds my game designer salary, even with the juicy raise I recently earned. Most of these Grad school graduates balk at entry level game salaries, especially when they're saddled with Medical School-size student loans.

    The sad thing is, when it comes to actually hiring people, unless these graduates participated in a well known program such as the Experimental Gameplay Project which would give them a killer portfolio, these graduates are most likely going to be passed over in favor of someone who has real industry experience through QA testing and the other disciplines.

    In the end, it seems like designers tend to crawl out of the woodwork through variations of blood, sweat and tears. Get in the industry 1 way or another, see what designers do, build a portfolio and express your ambition(I know this goes blatantly against the Japanese 'Salary Man' ethic of not sticking your neck out.)

    Sorry for the lengthy ramble...This was something I've been meaning to post on my own game blog for some time.