High Voltage Designer Needs his Freedom

Game design can be very rewarding, but publishers, licensors, and directors can make it frustrating as well. David Rodriguez explains

David Rodriguez, Lead Designer at developer High Voltage, has written an interesting column for PopCultureShock.com's Buzzscope in which he voices his frustration over not being able to make full use of his creativity when designing games. It's a compelling piece that offers unique insight into the world of the game designer.

Rodriguez describes how when people find out what his job is that they tell him about the kind of "awesome" game they would make if in his position. However, he notes that you usually can't make exactly the kind of game you want because most developers have to answer to publishers. Not everyone has the freedom to create like Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto and other luminaries in the video game industry.

If the game sucks, don't blame the dev

"It's like these people think that all bad games are the result of the people who make them not knowing or caring about what they are doing. While this is surely the case in some instances, it isn't always how it goes down," Rodriguez explains. "I've been involved with or have watched other games that were on a track to possibly be a good game, slowly get churned into a giant steaming piece of crap through no fault of the people directly working on it. Developers, for the most part, all want to make a great game and will work themselves to death to get it done. But sometimes no matter how hard you work, someone more powerful than you is going to come in and stick their d!^* in your peanut butter."

He continues, "Many developers work for publishers who fund the production of the game and so they have a limited influence on how the final game is going to turn out. Sometimes you luck out and get great producers who let your team do what they do best. They offer suggestions and some feedback but they don't attempt to live in your assh*le during the fourteen months of development. Sometimes you don't work on a game that has seven levels of approval (Yes seven. There is publisher, licensor, licensor reps, directors, and some other people I can't remember. I just remember seven levels). Each of these seven people having different opinions and ideas as to what should go into this game, and each one of them having more direct control than the people making it.

"This isn't an easy thing to deal with. The people who work in games are creative by nature, and having that creativity directed, shaped, and abused by people you perceive as non-creative can be a very painful experience if you're not prepared to withstand it. Some developers feel that in a fair world, the best idea should win out and what is obviously good should naturally go into the game. While in a fair and just world that might be true, reality is a harsh mistress."

The frustration that Rodriguez describes got to the point where he was even considering quitting his job. "I went from loving going to work every morning to having anxiety problems, insomnia, stomach cramps, and general hatred of all things around me. I hated the game I was working on. I hated the people I was making the game for and I hated them for taking the 'magic' out of my job," he says. "I didn't feel like I was being 'heard' creatively."

A designer's revelation

Just when he thought his career in game design might be coming to a close, Rodriguez had a revelation that got him through his bout of depression. "I'm not an artist," he says. "Sure I work in a creative field. Sure many of the things I do are creative and I get to imagine things and attempt to put them into reality. But an artist gets to do what they want, how they want, when they want. That's not what I do. Someone comes to my company with a contract. They give us money to make something. I make it. They take it and sell it. I don't work in art. I work...in customer service.

"And fortunately or unfortunately, the customer is always right. That means that no matter how bad I think an idea is. That means no matter how unreasonable the request or how STUPID the last thing they said was, in the end they write the check, so they get to decide. I can voice my opinion. I can tell them what I think because that's what they are paying me for, but ultimately, if they decide that something must be in the game...then you can bet your sweet ass it's gonna be in the game."

Of course, this kind of situation isn't exclusive to video game development, as Rodriguez points out: "From movies to comic books to music, the overproduced 'Poochies' of the world are anywhere there is money to be made and a place where people want to make sure they make their mark on a product."

With this new mindset in place, Rodriguez suddenly was far better equipped to deal with his job on a daily basis. "Once I realized that this was how the world worked, I immediately became a happier person," he notes. "... I attacked my work with new passion and enthusiasm and I made sure that I made the game the best I could with the constraints I had been given by publisher and licensor(s)."

Rodriguez concludes with: "So next time you're playing a game that makes you wish the developer would go to hell, just remember it's not always their fault..."

The entire column can (and definitely should be) read here.