Adopting a player-first perspective to systems design and lessons from a lead
My Journey to Lead Systems Designer
My background is actually in mechanical engineering and computer game software engineering. However, I realized fairly quickly that I’m mediocre at programming(!) but I did really enjoy the whole design aspect of my studies, so put my feelers out to see what I could do locally to get into game design.
What turned up was a serious games company who developed e-learning sims and had contracts with the military and the EU Customs Board among others. They were really interested in my skills in designing, scoring and rewarding systems, so I then spent three years there working on really interesting and varied projects.
Since then, I’ve worked at Playdemic, Atomicom and Codemasters; working on game and economy systems and assisting with the service and launch of titles like Gourmet Ranch™ and GRID™, before joining Firesprite as Lead Systems Designer 2 years ago.
It was whilst I was at Codemasters that I got my first real taste of leading a team making a big budget boxed product. I found that as long as the team were comfortable in their individual roles, that I could act as the mesh underneath the project holding all the necessary areas together, and I realized then that this is actually what I want to do – I want to hold the game vision and ensure players get the best experience by directing and managing a team of professionals who all work together to get amazing results.
For me, that’s what being a good leader is about. It’s about listening to your team’s experiences, listening to how they want to make the best game, then realizing where to compromise and where to build and nourish in order to keep that vision whole.
So What Makes a Good Systems Designer?
Systems design can be quite a technical role, it requires a slightly more ‘coder-y’ way of thinking because you’re the mesh that sits under the game, connecting all the systems together, making sure all the individual bits of the game work together and all work as a whole. It’s the role of the systems designer to ensure that you’ve got a game which serves the needs of the players.
Everything has got to work together in harmony. The game has to always strive to engage the player and ensure they get maximum enjoyment; if you’ve got a solid initial bedrock and you build all the systems to be harmonious, you can actually layer a complex economy over it, and it’ll never feel egregious because it suits the game you’re working on.
As soon as you put one foot wrong for a player though, it will lead to another and another… It’s like picking a thread in a sweater If you keep picking and picking, you’ll ruin your sweater - I think the role of a good systems designer is to make sure there’s no loose threads to pick at.
Systems design focuses on how features lock together and interact with each other. A focus on connected thinking and a player-first mentality, that’s the key to a good systems designer. Being a good systems designer also leads to having a really good understanding of exactly what makes the game economy tick; it also gives a very useful insight as to what a game economy actually encompasses.
If You’re an Economy Designer. You’re a Game Designer.
Sadly, economy design still has a stigma around it. I was once booed on stage at a past educational talk when I introduced myself as an economy designer. Thankfully by the end of the presentation they realized that economy is actually everything!
A game economy is not simply a means of trying to deceive players for money as its often perceived. It’s the pacing of the game. It’s the score. It’s weapons and upgrades. We can class a game reward as the shotgun noise for example, because it’s a rewarding action and everything links to it, everything is a balance. Using a shotgun as an in-game weapon for example, we as economy and systems designers have to consider; how much damage will a shotgun do to an enemy? How many shells will cause that damage and therefore how many shells do we have to make available to the player to do that damage?
I’ve always thought the terms ‘systems designer’ and ‘game designer’ are almost interchangeable. A game designer may tend to be more associated with a particular area whereas a systems designer tends to consider the meta layer, which is like the glue that holds the game together. You don’t go to the same level of depth that a designer might go to tune a camera system, for example, you tend not to be dealing in degrees of pixel offsets and FOV offsets. As a systems designer your focus is ‘if I give 25 XP for killing this monster, how does that affect the game? How much does that shorten the game, or how much does that lengthen the grind?’
Systems designers need to be able to take a step back and take a technical or abstract look at the bigger picture. It’s a really interesting skill, to be able to identify ‘if that value there is wrong, it’ll mean this connected system is wrong, and it’ll mean that level up is wrong, and it’ll mean this won’t work.’
My Advice for Aspiring Lead Systems Designers
I’d become comfortable with leading a team of designers already by the time I got to my current role, because I was given the opportunity to do so during my time with GRID™, Dirt 5™ and Gang Nations™, but to be honest, initially I found it to be a steep personal learning curve. In the end, I found it helpful to just put myself in the player’s shoes. That’s the best advice I’d offer to any designer, ask yourself ‘as a player, would I really care about this feature?’ If the answer is yes, you learn to fight for it. If the answer is no, you know it’s droppable, and if the answer is maybe, you can explore the route further. It’s always about just putting the player first. That’s easy to say for your own ideas, but of course, when dealing with other people’s ideas in a position of leadership that can be intimidating at first!
One of the hardest things to deal with as a lead is the first time you have to give feedback on someone else’s design. Impostor syndrome is so widespread in the industry, and you really can get in your head about it, asking yourself ‘what gives me the right to critique someone else’s work?’ But I’d just like to assure any new or aspiring leads just to try your best to build the confidence in your own opinions and thoughts and remember that everyone is working together as one to make a great game.
Another challenge you tend to find as a lead is that you may come across an instance when a designer is married quite heavily to the work they produce, so it’s important to encourage your team to be able to listen to feedback or evolve their ideas. Sometimes saying no is really tough, especially if someone has poured over a creative work and they’ve gone through the whole process of feature design, so what I always tell my team, is whether you’re designing on paper, on Confluence, or on whatever software you use, that’s the cheapest time to get it wrong! If you get it wrong on paper, you can get it wrong 100 times and that’s fine - but if it goes in the game and doesn’t fit, that’s a problem that requires rework and can cause delay. I like to really encourage that early iteration and evolution with everyone, to go through all the potential knots and issues together first before taking an idea forward when everyone is happy.
Another key skill is the ability to interpret the vision of the game director into something tangible for your team and developing the confidence and ability to evangelise that to all the individual people who have to make all the individual systems work. That, and being comfortable that as a Lead your work is probably never really seen because it’s all just invisible scores and gubbins!