Early in September, Queensland video game developers Halfbrick fired their last remaining game designers. No, they’re not about to focus on more traditional smart phone apps, nor are they about to go out of business. They still plan on making video games, and they still remain a ‘design-focused studio’. Just, you know, without designers. The move was met with derision among many fellow developers, critics, and players, who saw it as the latest misstep of a fixture in the turbulent Australian video game development scene.
Halfbrick was extremely important to the health of the local industry in a time when it looked almost certain to fail. Before the GFC, Australian developers, including Halfbrick, relied upon the cheap Australian dollar to attract development contracts from overseas. Once the crisis hit, studios began shutting down left and right, but Halfbrick, against the odds, managed to find success with Fruit Ninja, shifting Australian game development towards smaller, more focused smart phone games, and giving hope to countless local developers and games students.
Late last year, however, the cracks began to show. Halfbrick released Bears vs. Art, a fun, yet derivative anti-art game which charged ludicrous amounts of real money for superfluous in-game upgrades. Then, in February 2015, Luke Muscat, Phil Larsen and Hugh Walters, prominent figures in all of Halfbrick’s hits, left the company. And now, the studio’s two remaining designers, with almost eight years at the company between them, have been let go.
In doing this, one of the greatest video game development success stories in recent memory has made an implicit statement about the value they place on a video game designer. One line of the statement provided to Kotaku Australia is particularly problematic: CEO Shainiel Deo states they hope to ‘empower everyone in our teams to contribute to design rather than concentrate design control in the hands of the few.’
Of course, Halfbrick are free to run their business as they see fit. But the implication in this statement, whether intended or not, is a flat-out denial that the work of a video game designer has value. The stigma that designers have to face, from students to industry veterans, is that game design is something that anyone can do; that it is simply coming up with ideas, or playing games all day. One of the fired designers, Ryan Langely himself echoed this sentiment.
Please don’t assume that, as a designer, all I did was throw ideas at people and make others do all the work. It is a team effort.
— Ryan Langley (@Rlan2) September 16, 2015
While most successful designers do have supplementary skills in fields such as programming, project management, or animation, those tasks are seen as complicated and time-consuming, and which only dedicated professionals should perform. Halfbrick’s restructure depicts pure game design as simple ideas-generation, rather than the practiced profession that it is, and it’s this concept that has allowed the craft to be so easily displaced within their studio.
This notion of designers as solely ‘ideas people’ is further propagated by the presumption that ‘great ideas can come from anywhere’. It’s this prevailing notion that causes designers to be over-applauded as the sole creative voice behind a video game created by hundreds of people, while simultaneously undervalued as if they sit around all day spitting out concepts for hapless artists and programmers to make reality. A game designer is part of a team, just like an artist, programmer or producer. Equating design with mere ideas-generation makes it easy to see it as a role which can be eliminated, and its tasks spread around the rest of the studio.
To an extent, they are right – anyone can come up with ideas. But it takes a designer to crystallise vague concepts into an overall project with meticulous research, planning, cooperation, communication, and iteration. In a good development team, everyone contributes, and everyone is respected, including the designer (no one likes a Billy Corgan). So to justify the total removal of dedicated designers from a contemporary game studio by framing it as a design democracy not only portrays designers as uncooperative creative tyrants, but also implies that other production tasks, such as modelling, texturing, animating, and programming, are inherently uncreative labour. Design is just as much a complicated, skilled responsibility as any of those roles, because the simple fact is that not everyone can design a good video game. The App Store, Google Play, Steam and build-your-own titles such as the recent Super Mario Maker, are littered with games which display a fundamental absence of practiced game design elements, principles, and approaches. This isn’t, by its nature, a bad thing. But to devalue the role of the designer, as Halfbrick has done, is to disrespect the craft, the people who dedicate their lives to it, and the hard-working team members who surround them.
Image: JD Hancock / Flickr