Do Game Developers Need to be Gamers?

Do Game Developers Need to be Gamers?

Does a video game developer also need to be a game player in order to ply his or her trade? If you enjoy games yourself, the immediate answer that jumps to mind is probably, “Of course he/she does. What kind of a stupid question is that?” But Kareem Ettouney (of LittleBigPlanet) and David Braben (of Kinectimals) have a different outlook. In a recent Gamasutra interview, both argued that while it’s important to have dedicated gamers on a dev team, game designers don’t necessarily have to be gamers themselves in order to produce a worthwhile title.

“There are people who are great musicians and great writers and great storytellers who don’t necessarily play much,” said Ettouney. “I think that things that feed into development do not have to be direct. You don’t have to make games and then play games — you can make games and do kung fu and that will help your animation, or if you’re a dancer, you understand elegance. It doesn’t have to be literal.”

Though you might disagree with Ettouney and Braben’s philosophy on game development, it does bring up a vital reminder that gets overlooked all too often: most games are the work of a team, a diverse cluster of ladies and gentlemen who all have very different tastes, likes, and dislikes. If a team lacks a few gamers, we imagine the fallout won’t poison the final product in any way. But at the same time, it’s hard to dismiss the idea that developers who boast some kind of gaming background have a huge advantage that will ultimately shine through in the completed title.

There’s the small matter of inspiration, for one thing, and that doesn’t mean the desire to directly copy another team’s idea. Say, for instance, a game’s art director really liked the shadowy departure from the norm that occurred with Limbo. He or she might want to recapture that lonely, haunted feeling, and will find a way to do so via his or her own ideas. Alternatively, recall the side-scrolling action game Cave Story by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya. Pixel was inspired by the simple sprite work that went into old Famicom games like Metroid, Mario and Rockman, and he recaptured that nostalgia and improved immensely on it in his own game.

There’s also the matter of drive. No matter how much you enjoy games, game development is still brutal, demanding work. If you love what you do, that love will see you through the rough spots of your game’s birth. If you’re showing up and programming lines of code for the sake of a paycheck, however, then it’s questionable how much of your own personal vision will seep into the game itself. While it’s wholly possible for a non-gamer to put together a solid game, it’s questionable how inspired the game will actually be.

To be completely fair, people who work in the games industry in any capacity–and that includes development and journalism–are so wrapped up in their jobs, they rarely have much time to play games themselves. But there is always that interest in how the industry works, as well as that keen desire to see what companies are doing. A game developer can be indirectly inspired by games that have come and gone–but again, that underlying interest needs to be there before inspiration can take a real hand-hold.

The debate over games as art has yet to reach anything close to a satisfying conclusion, but no-one can argue that putting a game together is a tremendous act of creativity. Even though game development is a business and a profit is almost always the end goal of any creator, the pastime of gaming would become drab and colorless if development was strictly a code-by-numbers process executed by men and women with no real love for the industry’s heart and soul.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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