The Stages of Designerhood

The MMO industry is not a particularly sane place to work. It drives people hard and soaks up their passion like a sponge, giving very little back in return. I’ve noticed that MMO game designers go through certain stages as they progress through their career. They may hop back and forth between the stages randomly, but I think it’s often a cycle. It goes like this:

Stage 1: The Eager Newbie

The designer has just landed their first design job and is eager to learn the ropes from seasoned pros. They are desperate for knowledge. They read books like Raph Koster’s and find them deep and interesting. They are hungry for feedback — from their peers, from players, from random people on the street. Anything to help them grow, and quickly!

But over time they realize that most of their peers don’t really have any magic secrets to teach them. The more they interact with the player base, the sadder they are, because players are not kind to developers. They soon come to believe that they have learned all the ropes there are to learn.

Stage 2: The Jaded Artisan

The designer has worked for a while now and doesn’t feel like a newbie. They likely have a key belief like “It’s all about deep story!” or “Balance is crucial for long-term game stability!” or “Dungeon flow is the key to fun!” They interact with the players, but they only absorb the gist of what players say, now. (In the past, they implemented some random player’s ideas and realized that most players are terrible designers, so they no longer really even consider player’s detailed requests.)

But over time they find that their work quality isn’t progressing very quickly anymore. Their key belief starts to seem less logical… they may even come to believe the exact opposite of what they once did. The lack of positive feedback starts to take its toll, too, until the designer no longer approaches their craft in an objective manner.

Stage 3: The Player Hater

The designer has worked on several games (or just been on a live team for more than a year — live teams age you very quickly). They’ve seen players mock their hard work every single time they try to do something brilliant. It almost seems as though players LIKE complaining… so maybe the designer should MAKE them complain! Faced with only negative feedback, the designer decides that negative feedback is GOOD. The designer crafts content that’s tougher, and tougher, and tougher still. They create systems that require players to be extremely good min/maxers just to survive.

The designer takes on an adversarial role with players, all the while saying things like, “Oh, players will complain, but they LOVE it when the new content kicks their ass for a few weeks.” This is sometimes true, but the designer doesn’t really care whether it’s true or not. Subconsciously, they now interpret negative feedback as positive, so it doesn’t really matter what’s right anymore.

But over time they grow bored of trying to evoke passion from players. Without any trusted feedback from any source, they find their enthusiasm waning and their skills no longer growing.

Stage 4: The Burnout

The designer doesn’t care anymore. The stupidity of the gaming industry has overcome them. Budget cuts mean QA won’t be testing the content this week? Sigh, what can you do. The producer wants that perfectly-balanced dungeon redone? Okay, whatever. It’s just a job. The designer puts in their eight hours and goes home. They avoid overtime like the plague (and if they are in a job where they can’t, they have to quit at this stage, or else they’ll soon get fired). They just can’t muster the passion to do amazing work anymore.

There are two paths from here, and they’re equally common: designers can leave the MMO industry completely, or they can work through it. In the latter case, they bide their time. Maybe they take a few months off somehow. Maybe they just stop caring but still manage to put out reasonable-quality work for a year or two, puttering along, until one day…

Stage 5: The Zen Master

The designer wakes up one day and realizes that they understand it all. The simple mantras they believed earlier about story or balance or flow or advancement can now be seen for what they really are: just tiny parts of the big picture. They can finally see the forest, instead of just a few trees.

It makes sense now, and the designer can create amazing work. However, they know it’s easy to fall back into burnout, so they doesn’t work too many hours. And the small stuff doesn’t get under their skin anymore — that way leads to madness. If the designer hasn’t developed an incredibly dark sense of humor already, they develop one now. (You can’t spend more than a few years as an MMO designer without cultivating a horrifyingly dark sense of humor.)

Hopefully the designer can maintain this state for a good while, but eventually they fall back to one of the earlier stages, and the cycle repeats.

Fixing the Designer Cycle

I don’t mean to suggest that this is a good cycle. It’s just how things tend to work. It happens because:

  • The work requires long hours for very crappy pay (at least for the first several years).
    • A typical starting designer works an average 60 hour week and gets maybe $30k a year. This works out to about $9.50 an hour, which is about what a teacher makes (teachers are another high-burnout profession). The difference is that teachers don’t have to work 60 hour weeks for prolonged periods of time.
  • There’s almost no positive feedback.
    • Players never say nice things. When a player posts on a game forum, it’s usually to complain. If they compliment the game at all, it’s not in a place where the designer can see it.
    • Since the designer works so many hours, they don’t have time to play MMOs much anymore. They don’t see players having fun. Saddest of all, they often don’t even see their own content being played. They lose track of the reason they’re doing this at all.
    • Designers are so busy with their own work that they rarely have time to do solid critiques of each others’ work.
    • In many companies, designers work by committee — they have no autonomy over any game system. So the feedback they get isn’t personal. It’s hard to become invested in the product. (In the worst cases, designers need to get sign off from the entire 50-person team for their ideas. This is extremely draining.)

A lot of this boils down to being overworked: everybody in the MMO industry is overworked, and there are all sorts of trickle-down effects.

Being an MMO designer doesn’t need to be glamorous. It just needs to be a survivable career path. We need to keep designers from coming to hate players, or worse yet, becoming completely burned out and leaving the industry. Ideally, we should strive to push every designer to the “zen plateau” where they’re creating their best work, and then keep them there.

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18 Responses to The Stages of Designerhood

  1. Good post, Eric. To me, the key way to vary from this path occurs somewhere between step 1 and step 2 — rather than implementing some player idea wholesale, or responding directly to player concerns, it seems to me that the thing to do is step back and ask what the motivation is for that player feedback. If players are upset that you nerfed such and such, or dungeon X should have monster Y, or what have you, they are probably really saying something else. It might be a fairly simple statement, like, “But my adolescent power fantasy isn’t as fulfilling now that I do 25% less damage” or “I’m questing for monster Y at that time because there’s a quest from a nearby hub for that”, or what have you — and of course, these statements then lead to others (“it takes me too long on the treadmill”, which might itself be a statement about content or gameplay variety).

    Players rarely have the wherewithal to speak to their actual motivations (which can at times be said of designers as well!), so it’s critical to be able to read past the surface motivations of any particular feedback, imo.

  2. I suppose the issue is that the majority of a playerbase is made up of armchair developers who generally want things out of selfishness, not for the good of the game. If there were enough money floating around it would be great to streamline the process of the suggestions forums been read, the good stuff been filtered out and then presented to the development team. I’m sure this does happen, but with people been overworked and developers been in phase 2-4, then it doesn’t really matter what the players suggest, atleast the 1 in every 100 that genuinely does have good suggestions.

    If anything, I say this all feeds back nicely with Sandra’s article on the secret lives of a dev team where all of this boils down in alot of ways to decent upper management, keeping your employees happy and not overworked helps to increase productivity, reduces burnout and generally results in a less stressed and more pleasant work environment, which will obviously have effects of the stages a developer falls into. Its juts a shame the industry is so cutthraot with costs and deadlines, its actually one of the reasons I’ve been weary of actually taking the plunge and joining a games development company and instead pursued it as a hobby (which horrably puts me in the armchair developer catagory).

    Playerbase feedback is an interesting subject though, as is how the Community Rep’s deal with the playerbase in general and it is to true that at times, negative feedback can mean a game mechanic is working very well whereas positive feedback can mean that something is broken, because if a players overally happy, it means something may well be ‘too’ easy, for example, a change that makes XP or currency 2x easier to gain which will obviously cause more harm than good in the long run.

    That said, for those developers out there that are fed up and reading this, there are players out there that do appriciate the effort it takes to make a game, let alone an MMO and really do think alot of the work done deserves a hearty pat on the back!

  3. Sounds like Eric is remembering the AC2 forum poster Fear.
    I rarely remember him saying anything positive.

  4. Ellery Jones says:

    Lol, I love it =)

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  6. Mavis says:

    This seems as good a time as any to say – I do love your column. I’m totally an armchair designer but I find it interesting and thought provoking…..

  7. Overworked is the biggest killer. In the seven years I’ve been on and leading live team design and production I can say that the greatest mantra I’ve had is, give guys time off, a lot, and make them take it.

    If you’ve worked 80 hours this week you’ve probably spent 40 of it fixing things you did because you were tired, couldn’t communicate or some other offshoot of just not loving your job.

    Sure there’s crunch. Proper planning and execution should always strive to eliminate it. If you’re working for someone who doesn’t agree that you should have Christmas to New Years off because, hey, you deserve it and, no, it doesn’t count towards your own PTO, then you’re probably not gonna last to make it to Zen anyway.

  8. LadyPao says:

    This reminds me of my former career in advertising as a designer- looks glam from the outside, it’s hell on the inside- and the same stages applied. I left the field after 12 years.
    It’s almost like there’s a missing component or ‘team’ internally, a need that needs to be addressed that goes beyond time off/out…Art, grand ideas, fun ramblings of the mind don’t happen for me when I’m angry or stressed. If the brain is stressed, the heart can’t…dance…for wont of a better word. So somehow, the artist/designer needs to be shielded better from the crap of customer reality. Yes, perhaps they need to be treated like prima donnas, and fed nectar and honey, and get daily massages, etc etc…all that, to keep the creative juices flowing. Unfortunately, capitalism/profit/greed/business is directly opposed to supporting artistic creativity. It’s like yang against the yin.
    I will forever be in awe of the fact I can log onto an MMO – and IT WORKS. Many a time I’ve thought of taking classes on game design, production, coding… then I remember the glam illusion that was advertising, and I’m happy to just stay as a player.

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  10. Mentat says:

    lol

    yes yes I was one of those “stage 1″ mind sets, I completely agree I saw everything you stated and alot of it makes far more sense now. The passion hasn’t left for me, it’s just changed.

  11. Babs says:

    Thankfully I got the first few stages out of my system before there ever was an industry, so my arrival at the current worksite is all about the people involved in the process. I wholeheartedly agree that they work too much, that they aren’t scaling properly, and that the opportunities to “one-up” the competition are woefully lacking because they simply aren’t enjoying the stuff they’ve created.

    Can we get them to Zen? Yep, yep. Eventually. They have to wanna go there themselves, first. Sometimes seeing the forest instead of just the trees is overwhelming. Tips always appreciated from the been-there-done-that set…what are YOU doing to keep your team motivated and rested?

  12. Snipehunter says:

    Heh! This made me laugh. Though, I’ve got to say… I’ve worked with a ton of different designers at this point, and I think I can confidently say that, for many, that your stage 3 isn’t just a stage. Some of us skip it entirely, some of us have it from the moment we start working as designers. I used to call them “beat the player” designers – to me, it always felt like they were trying to win some sort of internal contest between them and the players they’re paid to serve.

    Sadly, that’s a trait that if you’re “born” with, you usually can’t shake – and it ends your career. I’ve watched lots of hopefuls flame out and burn because they never got that they’re not supposed to “win.”

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  14. Kifix says:

    Interesting post. Even it seems to kinda suck at some point, i’s still go for it any day ;-)

    I’d love see have a survey of MMO designers telling us at which stage they currently are.
    Or maybe players should try to guess ? ^^

  15. Ambrose says:

    $30K/year? A Designer?! That’s optimistic. I am aware of game companies that start entry-level programmers at that level. Imagine what they pay designers or QA technicians.

  16. Eric says:

    That’s definitely true, but I think the biggest factor is location. The companies in major downtown areas are forced to pay more. (This is one reason why development companies love Austin… it’s so cheap!)

  17. LichJack says:

    Great article. I’m a solid Stage 2 starting to transition to a Stage 3. Reading forums of player feedback is a sure way to blacken any heart. I’m at least thankful I make more then 30k.

  18. Kirk says:

    I’d like to enter a slight correction. For the first few years a number of teachers will work 60 hour weeks. There are the 40 hours of “regular” work. There’s the hour or two per day of “extra duty”. Many schools require a teacher be involved as sponsor in one of the school’s extracurricular programs. You’ve also got homework to grade and lesson plans to finalize. 20 to 35 assignments per class, and if you’re doing it right you’re thinking about every one of them (and commenting on many) plus making notes for the modification of lesson plans to catch the obvious problems.

    Experienced teachers – those who have polished their lesson plans over the years, who’ve gained seniority that allows them to pick extra duties that aren’t particularly intrusive, etc – will keep it under 50 hours a week.

    The saving grace (sorta) is that most schools still have the summer break. Two months during which the only requirement tends to be extra education to maintain certification. It helps with the burnout.