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What do game developers actually do?

What happens in meetings, why are there so many meetings, what’s going on in places I don’t interact with on the daily? I’ve been in the industry a little while now, yet there’s so much I’ve yet to explore – even within the studio I call home. So come with me on a grand and winding tour of the Glowmade savanna, where we spend a full day tailing developers of all kinds to find out, once and for all – what the heck do they get up to in their natural habitat?!

Picture it, intrepid reader. Wednesday, cool, for once not raining, as I scramble my way through the bramble of wires and PC cables that is the deepest heart of the Glowmade veldt. I’ve already refreshed myself with the never-ending caffeine stream of the watering hole, and have settled (nicely camouflaged in neon pink) to await my quarry.

Game designers, a common but lesser-spotted breed, have been my fascination for some time. There are few distinguishing features to form any one picture of them, but the tell-tale determination and drive for creation makes them easy to spot in any biome. And, just as I complete composition of this internal monologue, I spot him…

My tall, gangling creature, clad in yellow knit as to put Batesian mimicry to shame. In one hand a smoothie – acai, I believe – and the other is poised to wave. A social beast, with pep in his long step, whom I follow with his peer toward their much frequented grazing circle. It should be noted that the other designer, though more muted in palette, also bears both knit and smoothie of his own. A favoured drink of the beasties?

We settle, the sticky wall of leaves around us now multi-coloured – veins resembling scribbled notes, and I almost seem to make out words like “objective” “cross-functional” or “swordplay.” It is here, under the great and gnarled skylltree, that first the herd assembles.

They do this every morning, by my observation. Except Tuesdays. Strange behaviour, a sort of mini-migration. Today, I find that these particular game designers like to loiter before making the first move. Perhaps overcoming the Tuesday shlump? But, ah – yes, I see now! The Elder arrives last, and speaks first, distinguished by his greyer coat and chunkier knit – a lot of knit seems customary, are game designers always cold?? Interesting evolutionary patterns here…


Their time together paints a picture of cerebral, elegant creatures – never overstepping, no need for horns to lock, taking turns on patrol of the environment. Little hierarchy, lots of knit. Good. Good!

My yellow-clad quarry copies words to paper – it seems I am to study the studious one! Twenty-four minutes is spent between the five beasts and myself in conversation, and in this time both smoothies are depleted. Alack. I am able to ask a few questions – with many umms and ahhs toward technical jargon like engine… feedback loop… play conditioning… Though I don’t want to overstep. This is, of course, their realm, and not mine.

Now, a downward turn in mood, hooves lightly champing at the tabletop: frets and fears over mechanics arise, their usefulness and quality, though quickly quelled with the promise of experimentation. Sadly, no promise of more acai.

With the glint of new ideas brimming, several designers depart for the higher ground, but our yellow steed remains to welcome the newly arrived horde of other creatures. I’d expected an interval, but no – the siege was immediate. And what a fascinating bunch! Birds of a QA feather, lushly coated level designers, up to the great prowling producer. It seems to me that, like whales and their underbelly fish, this team of gameplay designers truly are the protective heart of these environs. A symbiotic leadership, paving the way for better games, together.

This second gathering is less formal. Perhaps it is the social atmosphere that means they spot me. I am invited to share in their oral histories, each telling “what they did yesterday” and how that will shape today. I say: “I’m writing a nature documentary on Tristan.” Bewilderment, but also immediate acceptance. Because of course I am. We continue round the circle, somehow sneaking in plans to play squash. Athletic creatures, I note. There is laughter, and I think, “what a fine way to start the day.”

The creatures dissipate, and I slink to my hideaway (and second coffee). Our designer also retreats, tackling his first feature problem of the morning. I sip and type a while, counting down till the next inevitable meeting in thirty minutes. Audio, this time, and how the sweet sounds of swings may harmonise with the way they whallop and… Oh. Cancelled. Oh, well. Just in time for the Wednesday Pastries to sprout near the watering hole – aaaand, yes, there he goes! Our dear designer, squirrelling away this week’s mini tarts and melon slices, headphones trailing the floor as he returns again to his nook.

An hour or two pass. It is lunchtime, and Glowmade is abuzz with eating. But not our game designers. Diligent creatures, he and his fellows are back to discussion. I observe while crunching my salad, but keep my distance. They’ve earned their respite by now, and I’ve earned my katsu dressing.

It is in fact he who eventually approaches me, delightfully intrigued with progress on his own study. I say to give me an hour, and we’ll sit down to discuss the deeper questions I may have. He bows his great antlered head, grinning, and departs for a jaunt around the Guildford wildlands. When he returns, it is clear the rain finally set in.

The hour again passes, and I’ve collected my thoughts enough to know what to ask. It is now that I corner the creature, tempting it closer with a fine array of charcuterie and a book on South African theatre. We find plush knolls to ensconce upon, and the real hunt begins…




“So, what have you actually been up to today?”


He laughs.

“As I often do, I have to cartwheel back and forth – and those are the good days, because those are the most fun as a designer. It’s being able to quickly change tact, and jump from one thing to another. I’ve done some animation set refactoring–”

“Whatever that means!”

His voice quavers with laughter again: “For me, it means listening to an animator who’s changed animation sets, and then speaking to a coder and saying, ‘Now that they’ve changed that, we need to change something in the code to match,’ so that the animations still work.”

“Ah, so you’re like the glue.”

“I’m like the glue! And, in part, it’s about moving things toward completion so they don’t break. When it’s simple enough for me to do, I do it myself, but turns out this time it required code from a coder.”

“Very glue-y of you.”

“Indeed. There was another meeting about that-which-we-do-not-name, and the brunt of that was getting design direction… uh, from the design director.”

“Like how you said that one. Dye-wreck-tour.”

A little hoof flourish.

“Yis, ze dyewrecktour. I now have a week to refine a design. And that means, again, speaking to a lot of different departments and confirming, ‘what would this work mean?’” His pace quickens, turning a hand over and over as if to cycle out the words in even keel. “If we wanted to do X – this is the grand idea we have, the direction, the vision! – what does that mean for code? What does that mean for backend? What does that mean for art, UI, meta, balancing?”

“There’s really a lot of intricacies built up between even the smaller design directions, let alone the large ones like this – which impact so much of the game feel, right?”

“Absolutely. So I have to go away and acquire information and present it in an…” His voice trills, singsong, “…easily digestible document… that we can use as a reference point to then plan the work with producers, a week later. So that was good! There’s a load of other tasks with many spoilers attached, but then there was the work on future plans too. So, more documentation shared around with different stakeholders to say, ‘Right, is this okay? Can you sign this off so we can then do that process of planning everything for after the game launches.’ And that’s what I did today.”

“So… a lot.”

“Yeah, HA! But I love it.”


“What, to you, are the cornerstones of gameplay that feels good?”


“In a game, any game… ooh…” He cocks his head to one side, stares ponderously at the rather fetching ceiling lamp. “You’re gonna have to figure out how to write this, because this will never be a structured response.”

We both laugh. I say, “So fine,” already knowing I’m in this far, why stop now? His legs cross, arms folding, in the very picture of Art Critic.

“So, Oliver and I, in our podcast, are looking at Super Mario Sunshine. I bounced off that game so much because I found the controls really frustrating. For me, intuitive controls that are easily clockable, that map to your expectations, are the core building block. For example, a heavy hit where you have to hold the button feels more of a thing, so that’s what usually excites me in a game. If a designer or dev team can also find ways to mess with that, I find that really inspiring.”

I nod, leaning closer as I snowball: “For sure, I love when even fundamentals of what makes a game a game – like, y’know, buttons – are used to mess with you. I wish more games did that, because they’re more… cerebral, I guess? Emotional? Because it’s like they understand you, because they have to to make you think in another way about using them.”


“Do you have any favourite examples of where controls Make SenseTM, or are just the complete opposite on purpose?”


“Oh, Tale of Two Sons?

“That’s the one!”

“Yeah. Gorgeous game. Soundtrack’s to die for.”

“Y’know, the brothers have buttons, right? They’re on separate ends of the controller, or keyboard, and you control them both in tandem. And then towards the end of the game, you lose one, and you literally lose those buttons. And you have to control the whole game with just this one side, I love that.”

“Same. It’s made into such a tangible heartbreak, just because of buttons. Beyond the expected pain of losing a loved one, you literally cannot do anything about it when you’ve been relying on those controls the whole game.”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah… Another for me is God of War, where you have this designated… uh, what’s it called? Son Button.”


A sputter of sudden laughter. He continues:

“And the Son Button exists to say, ‘Do thing, child!’ And that button works throughout the game, until in the story the son’s being a little shit.”


“He just won’t listen to you, and no matter what you do, he will not respond – I love that!I remember I was screaming, ‘He’s so annoying!!! Why won’t he listen?!’ I love that sort of stuff, so finding ways for me to interact with the world through the controller that enhance and amplify the experience? That’s most exciting to me; that’s what I think grounds gameplay, and makes it feel most alive.”

I’m struggling to keep up with dictation, fingers whizzing across the keys – I do have a voice note going, but I’m worried the ambient jungle will deafen the best bits. “Enhance, and… what was the other word?”



More laughter, and he offers to repeat bits for me. I decline, just repeating ‘amplify’ over and over out loud as I finish typing, and he continues chuckling as I do. It’s easy to feel comfortable with a creature such as this – very aptly existing to make sure you have a good time. Thank god for game designers…



“How would you describe game design to someone who’s never heard of it?”


Silence. We lock eyes. Do that little giggle where it’s just air escaping your nose. I always ask the easy questions.

“Hm. My personal experience is…” Long pause. “…come up with the worst ideas so that everyone around you can give better ones. And then make them manifest…?” This seems to inspire more confidence in him. “That’s the core of the game; you’re not the Ideas Guy, you’re the Ideas Realisation… Person. You’re the games industry equivalent of those engineers who say ‘don’t put a pull handle on a push door.’”

“What gameplay mechanic are you dying to see in a game?”


I’ve never seen a creature’s eyes bulge so instantly, as he blurts out a visceral, “Oh my GOSH!!” I can’t help but laugh. He’s still incredulous. “Have I even thought about the answer to that before? Hmmm… hmmmm…” He murmurs some indistinct mutterings, and I worry for a moment I’ve broken him. His arms are folded so tight I can only assume the constriction helps him think, but he’s smiling wide when he answers.

“I don’t know! What even–” He breaks up laughing. “I keep spinning around in my head. Like, gameplay combat mechanics are in there, something to make you feel cool. I love immersive sims, being able to engage in a world that listens to you…” He trails off. Looks at me. Laughs again.

“Mechanically, I’d be interested in… more peripheral-based mechanics that’re driven by how we interface with the game. We’ve gotten really used to having a gamepad, a controller, things that are easy to hold and have obvious buttons that do obvious things. That convention works to give input, but I’m always fascinated by a future where those aren’t necessary. We’ve got VR at the moment, and AR, but I remember once coming across a controller that was a cactus.”

“Nice. Nice.”

“It was a little model puppet thing, and you moved its little arms and face and that made it control a character in-game. So that was really weird. But I don’t know if there are ways for that to work in future games: are you literally puppeteering a thing, and the puppeteer is a character? I think that kind of interface most fascinates me, and however that mechanically is made real? I don’t know! I really don’t, but it’d be cool! That’s what dreams are for.”



“Lastly, what’s your favourite piece of game design ever – enemy, lore, mechanic, etc.?”


The familiar nonplussed expression threatens to creep back onto his face. I clarify, somewhat deadpan: “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in a game?” Another grand cackle as he tosses his head back. Almost a knee-slapper – I’ll have to try harder next time.

“This makes me wonder, what’re the moments I’ve gasped, and gone, ‘Ohh, that’s great – oohhh that’s really cool!’ I love those moments that make me lean in, and there’s a couple of examples, but one that sticks out, and I come to very often is… Ghost of Tsushima. It’s just an excellent game, and there’s two parts to this.

There’s a GDC talk that explains this better, but there’s a moment in the game where they realised: to feel like a samurai (because it’s really driving that power-fantasy), when an enemy attacks and you block, instead of necessarily just having the attack bounce off you, they move the enemy past you. There’s a very Akira Kurosawa-style BADUUEEGGHHHH!! going past you, and you feel that at all times during combat.

And this is also paired to a really successful mechanic, in my eyes, which is that the different stances you can take are paired to the Playstation controller. I was like, ‘Yes, the circle button is for shields. That makes sense! The X button is for crossed swords!’” He demonstrates with great vigour.

“Oh, very nice.”

“I’m a simple man, I like simple things.”

“Okay, putting that in the quotes, don’t mind meee….”

He’s back to cackling, shaking his head. “But I mean, you just get it! It’s so intuitive, but not so numbingly easy you stop feeling this epic weight of the samurai at your fingertips. It’s awesome.”




Awesome, indeed. I ask if he’s any questions for me in return, before we scuttle back to our nooks and close out the final hour of the day. He assures me he’s completely satisfied: “Whatever your intentions are for this piece, I’m sure it’ll be spectacular!” Little does he know just how nefarious my intentions are. Well, they’re not – not yet – and I’ve a whole almanac of developers and departments to get through!

Though what a marvellous beginning it has been, and one of the most fun days I’ve yet had at Glowmade. So here ends our ineffable first volume of Wild Bugs, and the last page on our fine game designers (for now). Who shall be next to fall under the microscope, I wonder? Depends what sweet treats I’m able to leave in a line up to my desk. For now, I lay down my quill, and look forward to a new day of discovery.

~ Sir R.T. Vark, Explorer Extraordinaire