One of the most common requests I’ve received is for an overview of what the typical roles at a game studio are, and how this changes in studios of different sizes.
Here’s are my 3 goals for what you should learn by the end of this article:
I’m going to walk you through the growth of a fictional company, ‘Arrow Knee Games‘. Keep in mind game studios come in all shapes and sizes, and the amount and types of employee can vary drastically. While this particular company is completely made up, it is based on a composite of some of the studios I’ve worked at before – from tiny 5 man indie teams, to mid-sized studios like Relic, and all the way up to giants like EA and Ubisoft.
Before we get started, I want to give three quick caveats:
So with warnings out of the way, gather round, for I am about to tell…
Suzy B. has worked in the industry for a few years now, and after a few too many overtime pizzas and cancelled projects, she has decided to strike off on her own. Suzy is a Generalist Programmer, which is very common of one-person operations, as it is very difficult to make a game without at least one programmer. Suzy designs the game herself, and spends the majority of her time programming, but as needs arise she has to hobble together some art assets, sound and anything else to get her game finished. After a lot of hard work, Suzy completes her first game, ‘Kitten Kombat‘.
Arrow Knee Dev Team, Year One:
Kitten Kombat was a success and some money is rolling in, but a lot of the reviews mention the lackluster art and animation in the game. Suzy wants to build on the success, so she decides to hire a few more people to help out. First she brings on a couple of 3D Artists, and a 3D Animator so she can address the most critical feedback. Getting all of this animation and art integrated takes a lot of additional programming though, so Suzy also hires another Generalist Programmer, as well as a specialized Network Programmer to add a Multiplayer mode to the game. Towards the end of production, the game is really coming together, but has a lot of bugs, so they all decide it would be a good idea to add a Game Tester to the team.
Kitten Kombat II is released to rave reviews, and now Arrow Knee Games is finally starting to get some attention from the rest of the industry.
Arrow Knee Dev Team, Year Two:
Thanks to the attention they were getting from the Kitten Kombat franchise, Arrow Knee games has been contacted by a major publisher, who is taking bids from indie studios to help make a new budget title for the recently released Family Friendly Console 2000. The team has a great idea for the pitch, and work around the clock to secure the contract. Suzy struggles to figure out a bid, but really wants the contract so she undercuts her competitors, though she realizes it will probably hurt her team in the long run. In the end, they secure the contract, and start development on the new game Happy Happy Party Time.
Money starts coming in from the publisher, and Suzy needs to ramp up her team. Since none of their earlier titles were on console, they hire an Engine Programmer to help make the transition. H.H.P.T. is way bigger than the Kitten Kombat games, so they add more 3D Artists, another Animator, and a few more Generalist Programmers to handle the different game modes. Additionally, Arrow Knee games hires their first UI Artist to help make the menus and HUD for all the game modes.
The first couple of months of development are rough. The Programmers and Artists are complaining that there is no documentation and designs are changing on the fly, and Suzy is torn between helping out on programming, trying to make sense of the game design and organizing everyone’s work. She realizes that she has missed a couple of key roles from the team. The first thing that she does is hire a Producer to help organize things, and deal with communication and negotiation with the publisher. Then, she hires three Game Designers, to work with the team on improving the game-play systems for each of three main game modes, and to formalize the designs in documentation so the Publisher, Programmers, and Artists are all on the same page and working towards a common goal.
Things start going better. Towards the end of production, the team decides to bring on a dedicated Sound Designer and a VFX artist to help spruce things up.
Though the team has to work through some excruciating overtime due to poor up-front negotiations, they are able to finish the game, the publisher is happy, and Happy Happy Party Time goes on to become a hit.
Arrow Knee Dev Team, Year Four:
After completing a couple more successful contracts for some big publishers, the team at Arrow Knee Games has finally saved up enough money to try to make their own property from the ground up. There’s been an incredible idea for a RTSFPSRPG bouncing around the studio for the past couple of years, and now they can afford to build the élite team that will make Kitten Kombat Universe of Honor a reality.
Building a brand new universe requires some new specialized talent. The Art Director scouts out some promising Concept Artists to help visualize the world, and the team hires a Narrative Designer to help write the dialogue and flesh out the characters. Additionally, since this is a shooter, they hire some experienced Level Designers to make interesting spaces to play in. Suzy decides to flesh out her programming team with the addition of a couple Gameplay Programmers, a dedicated AI programmer, and a 3D programmer to make sure the game will be competitive visually.
In order to stretch their money as far as it will go, they decide to do some work up front to make the rest of the production more straightforward. To help with this, they bring on a Technical Artist and a Tools Programmer to help create efficient pipelines and tools for the rest of the developers to use.
The team rallies behind a common purpose and dream, and Kitten Kombat Universe of Honor is a big success, single-handedly revitalizing the RTSFPSRPG genre.
After the smash-hit success of Kitten Kombat Universe of Honor, Actisoft Arts, a major publisher who has tried to break into the RTSFPSRPG genre for years, decides to acquire Arrow Knee Games for a reasonably big pile of money. There is much rejoicing. The team agrees that their studio name was a bit played out, so they all agree to change the name of the studio to Actisoft Arts Seattle.
Suzy B. is promoted to a vague executive role, and the studio grows to handle multiple projects, while learning to work under the umbrella of a larger parent company. With Suzy not able to oversee production on each project as much, they decide to add a Playtest Coordinator to make sure they are getting external validation on their games and features, and to help iterate on the experience and improve player understanding, they also add a UX Designer to the team.
To stay competitive visually, the studio builds a top of the line Motion Capture Facility, and hires a Cinematics Director, and some Mocap Technicians.
Actisoft Arts Seattle releases their first game under new ownership, the newly marketing-team-ified ‘Kombat‘, as well as a new entry into one of Actisoft Arts‘ long running franchises, the puzzle combat game God of Gears.
Thus ends the story of Suzy B, Arrow Knee Studios and the epic Kitten Kombat franchise. While this example may have been a bit silly, I hope it was helpful in breaking down the types of game development roles, and how those roles are added as studios grow in size.
Please leave a comment letting me know which role you are most interested in pursuing, or which roles I’ve missed from the list!