Game design is one of the major roles required to build a successful video game.
Game designers are responsible for making decisions about every aspect of the game. From how the world is laid out, to how game progression works, to small things like how the character jumps and so on.
How is the “Lead game designer” involved in all this? Well, the lead game designer is responsible for the coordination and the overall progress of the whole game design team that is working on a certain game.
If you are working on a video game on your own, then you will be the lead game designer of your game, and you’ll be doing many other things too.
However, in the context of this article, I’ll be discussing the role of the lead game designer in a large team that includes other game designers, engineers, artists, managers, and so on.
What does a lead game designer do?
Lead game designers are responsible for the overall progress of the game design team of a certain game. Lead game designers allocate tasks to other game designers, guide them and provide them with resources, review their work and help them improve it, and much more.
That’s just a quick summary of the things that a lead game designer is responsible for. The rest of this article will be going over more details about each of the responsibilities of lead game designers in the large game development studios.
List of things that lead game designers do
Every team has their own structure and their own ways of doing things. With that said, the roles of the lead game designers may vary from team to team. However, there are some general things that apply to most lead game designers in large teams. Here are some of these things/tasks:
1- Review and approve ideas.
If any of the game designers on the team has a new idea that they think is worth adding to the game, they will most probably consult with the lead designer before adding the feature.
The lead designer will critique the idea, help in refining it, and then decide whether it should be added to the list of planned features/ideas or not.
A good lead designer should always encourage the other designers on the team to come up with ideas, critique already existing ideas, and freely share their thoughts on the overall direction that the game is moving towards.
Healthy and productive discussions between the designers on the team is extremely important, and it is the lead’s job to make sure that the communication between the design team members is going smoothly.
2- Divide the work among game designers and monitor them
There are different types of game design. There are the level designers, the system designers, the UI designers, the content designers, the experience designers, and the list can go on depending on how large the team is.
The lead designers of the team are the ones responsible for dividing the tasks among all the other designers, and motoring their progress.
For example, if there are multiple designers capable of doing level design, then the lead designer might assign a level to each one of them, and then monitor their progress.
Good lead designers list the tasks to be done based on priority, and then allocate these tasks based on the strengths of the different team members.
3- Help other game designers where needed
In general, lead game designers have a lot of experience in most areas of game design. With that said, they are usually capable of helping the other designers who are stuck on certain tasks, or who might just need a little bit of guidance.
The help can be in the form of sharing certain resources with them that can improve their knowledge and help them overcome the problem they are facing, or it can be in the form of a 1 to 1 guidance and support, where the lead designer helps the struggling designer figure out the solution to their issue, and makes sure they learn how to deal with similar problems in the future.
4- Work on the areas that are lacking behind
As mentioned before, the lead game designer is responsible for making sure that the overall progress of the design related tasks are on track.
With that said, if the lead designer finds out that there are certain areas that are lacking behind, they might join as an extra workforce to help close the gap and accelerate the development in that area.
The lead designer might also just work on certain tasks themselves whenever they have some free time. Ideally, they will be helping in the areas that are predicted to lack behind in the near future.
5- Represent the game design team in management meetings
The lead game designer is generally the representative of the whole game design team that they are managing.
In large management meetings, the lead game designer is the person who summarizes the work done by the design team, reports on any issues or concerns, and so on.
6- Participate in the hiring process
Since the lead game designers have a lot of experience in many areas of game design, they might be asked to join the technical interviews of the new potential team members.
The lead game designer will be making sure that the candidates have the required experience for the role they are applying for, and they also make sure that the candidate chosen is someone who will get along with the other existing team members.
Before I move onto another question. I would like to point out that there are some teams that are large enough to include multiple lead designers.
If there are multiple lead designers on the team, they will probably sit down to coordinate who deals with what, and what resources are available to each one of them.
Coordination between the lead designers is crucial for the success of the whole project.
How to become a lead game designer?
If you want to become a lead game designer, first you need to be a “regular” game designer.
You first start as a junior game designer who is not expected to know a lot. Then you learn from your team members, and from the lead designer of your team.
Once you gain enough experience in your field, you become a senior game designer, and then you will get promoted to the lead game design at some point.
Some exceptionally talented designs might be able to quickly jump to the lead game design role though.
After you become a game designer, here are a few things that you can do to accelerate the process of reaching the lead role:
1- Diversifying your experience in game design
As mentioned earlier, the lead game designer will generally have a lot of experience in different aspects of game design. This is to ensure that they are able to communicate well with all of the game designers no matter what they are working on, and to make sure that they are capable of helping in different areas whenever needed.
With that said, expanding your field of knowledge as a game designer will help you reach the lead game design role quicker.
For example, if you start with level design, try to also give system design a try after you feel confident that you have mastered level design. Keep learning and expanding to different territories whenever you feel like you have gathered a good amount of experience and knowledge within your current position.
2- Improving your communication skills
Communication skills are one of the most important skills when it comes to lead game designers. The most important role for the lead designers is to make sure that the whole game design team is working together in a smooth and healthy way.
This in itself requires a lot of communication skills. As a lead game designer, you need to resolve conflicts between different ideas, help the designers communicate their ideas clearly and effectively, and present the design ideas that you have to other departments (e.g. engineering).
This is not only about verbal communication, it’s also about written communication. Game designers are usually writing documents all the time. They write design documents to explain how certain things should work.
Having the ability to explain your ideas in simple and effective words can save a lot of time and money.
3- Expand your knowledge beyond just game design
As a lead game designer, you will be communicating a lot with other departments in the overall team. For example, you will be asking the engineering team to build tools for your designers, and you will be writing design documents that the engineering team will have to follow.
You’ll also be dealing with the art department, and your ideas should be stated clearly to the artists who are working on the worlds, characters, and interactions that you have in mind.
With that said, having knowledge in the engineering side for example can improve your communication with the engineering team, and can help you know what’s possible and what’s not possible, which can save you and the engineering team a lot of time. The same thing applies to the art team, and so on
You don’t have to know a lot, you just have to learn enough to be able to communicate better with the team.
4- Be confident
I understand that this is a very generic “rest of the owl” type of advice. However, reminding you that confidence is key when it comes to being a lead designer might trigger you to start actively working on your confidence at work.
Show confidence and accept criticism and improvement. Game design is all about trying things and seeing if they work.
A lot of the time, ideas that seem great on paper end up not working at all. A team lead should have the confidence to present their ideas, explain why they might be good, and then accept and respond to criticism with confidence.
If you want to represent a large team in front of management, investors, and other people, you need all the confidence you can have.
After all, the decisions that lead designers make can make or break the game, and making some of these decisions will require a lot of confidence.
As long as you confidently state your reasons behind your decisions, listen to criticism and take it seriously, accept when you are wrong, and keep iterating on your ideas to constantly improve them, then you will hopefully become an excellent lead game designer.
Being a lead game designer is a huge responsibility, since it is a job that requires making difficult decisions that can decide the fate of the whole project and possibly the fate of the team working on the project too.
However, it is an extremely rewarding job. The lead designer gets to help other designers bring their ideas to life, and they help shape the overall experience that the players will get to enjoy.
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