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Evolution of Our Design Role

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At its core, game development is composed of three disciplines: programming, art, and design. Programming and art are obvious: programming provides the foundation and infrastructure (skeleton and muscles, if you will), art the aesthetics (the facade, the appearance, the beauty). Purpose of design is less obvious. After all, throughout game history, there are countless one or two-person teams consisting of only programmers and artists. When resources are tight, design is a luxury and the first to be sacrificed. Nonetheless, the right designer on a team provides the vision, direction, and plan, which in turn help fully unlock a game’s potential. It is no wonder that the most notable names in the game industry tend not to be programmers or artists but designer legends like Shigeru Miyamoto (Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda) and Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims).

A peek at our About page reveals that our team consists of three programmers and one artist. That’s right, no designer.. at least not one with professional experience. Marshall (artist), Duong (programmer), and I, Randy (programmer), were coworkers at Rockstar Games, the publisher of the Grand Theft Auto series. Chen (programmer) competed in gaming eSports at a professional level. The Makers of Mayhem team has tremendous amount of experience, skill, and talent. More importantly, all of us share a burning passion for game making. However, the seemingly unbalanced skill set puts us at a disadvantage — while we definitely need all the programming help we can get when production kicks into high gear, it’s often not the most essential in early stages. In fact, having too many programmers, but not enough programming tasks, can actually be counterproductive. This was made obvious in our initial effort. Observing the mobile game market at the time, we came up with a free-to-play game idea inspired by a popular game. With a general idea in mind, we happily set out on production immediately. Big mistake. Since we didn’t have a unified direction and understanding of the needs of the game, everyone had different ideas of the specifics, and everyone was making up his own tasks. What made it worse was that we each worked on what we thought was most important, which at best were tangential and at worst conflicting. A clear vision and prioritization of the tasks would’ve prevented these difficulties. Sensing something must be done, I quickly drafted a design doc that at least provided a general direction. However, I was still primarily acting as a programmer, and design continued to be an afterthought. The goals we defined for ourselves were so vague, we frequently missed our deadlines, and that just stopped the momentum cold in its track.

The lack of focus was certainly a problem, but a bigger issue was that the scope of the game was too big. At the pace we were going, we weren’t sure if we would be able to complete it to the full extent of our original vision in ten years (!!). Reality set in, and we had to temporarily table the idea. Thinking that we should work on projects that we could finish quickly, for our next effort, we pooled ideas and collectively decided to work on a couple of mini-games simultaneously, most of them with similar gameplay to the then popular games. The limited scopes of the games also meant a dedicated designer wasn’t necessary, since it was clear how each game should play. This, nevertheless, didn’t last long. Because the games were so small, there was little fun in developing them. The lack of challenge led to waned interests, and we found ourselves making excuses not to work on the games.

Learning from our failed attempts, we’ve concluded on a couple of things to do differently in our next endeavor. First, the scope of the game should be just right: not overly ambitious, but also not so limited that it would be boring to develop. Second, the game has to have enough variety of interesting elements for development. We’ve formed Makers of Mayhem because we believe we can bring, on our own dimes and time, some very unique gaming experiences to the world. However, each of us has a different area of development that piques our interest and curiosity. Making the game should appeal to all our interests, so it’s more labor of love than work. Third, we no longer want to chase trends. Even if another type of game surges in popularity while we’re working on ours, we won’t let it influence our vision, and we would focus on getting the game released; i.e., we want to minimize the shiny object chasing syndrome. Lastly, we need a strong vision and direction. This last point is what made me decide to forego my programmer hat and become the dedicated designer of the team.\r\n\r\nAfter more brainstorming and electrifying discussions, VentureHearts is born. It’s a shop simulation set in a fantasy world, where player assumes the role of a shop owner, crafting and selling items like weapons, armor, and magic potions to adventurers. The twist is, unlike most shop simulation games, the focus isn’t on the customization of the shop itself. Instead, we are creating a sophisticated item creation system that lets player craft truly unique items. The game idea is not so daunting that we feel we will never be able to finish it, yet there are plenty of challenges — technically, artistically, and design-wise — to keep each of us feeling fresh and excited. Ultimately, if we’re not fired up about our own game, how can we expect the same of anyone else?

As for me personally, I love wearing the designer hat, at least for the foreseeable future. In addition to defining the vision and goals (design docs and spreadsheets are my best friends), coming up with gameplay ideas, and fine-tuning various aspects of the game, my day-to-day tasks also involve the meta, like coming up with a user-acquisition plan and marketing strategy. Maybe when the game development gets close to the final polish stage, I will help out with some of the programming parts again. For now, as the designer, I can be of the most help to the team and make the most impact on the game. This is where my true passion lies.