Unreal in the Australian Design Desert
When Halfbrick announced that it had laid off its last two designers, with no intention of replacing them, I feared that the gesture would serve as the final nails in Australia's game design coffin. The debate that followed the announcement exposed the stark difference between Australian Game Development scene and the way many other industry microcosms see the role of the designer on the team.
Designers are a curious beast here, it seems that most people are quick to wear the title of designer and quicker to abandon it depending on the company. To be a game designer is to have game ideas and know how to persuade others to invest in those ideas. By this definition, I agree with Halfbrick. Ideas are cheap. When I introduce myself as a game designer at parties, people introduce themselves with the game idea they had with a mate a few weeks ago.
What do GOOD artists, programmers, and designers have in common?
They meaningfully contribute content to the game, they re-iterate throughout the development cycle, and they can find innovative solutions to problems.
This is where the current tools most adopted in the Australian game scene have difficulty keeping up with. While there is a lot of diversity, most development I've seen done in Sydney is with Unity.
When I speak to artist and designers about the indie development cycle they often mention that programmers are the gatekeepers of sorts. Everything ultimately has to be implemented by programmers. Artists can make animation or shading prefabs, which can often plug and play fine but designers have a bit more difficulty integrating prototyped mechanics/AI, UI, XML, or content with master builds.
Epic Games came to Sydney today to kickstart an understanding of Unreal 4. I originally attended so that I could pass on some first-hand insight to my students. However, I was quickly swooned by the development flexibility that the program promised for designers. I was unaware that Blueprints were now compatible with C++ code and could be integrated with minimal difficulty.
Blueprints help artists and designers do more prototyping, content development, and implementation. This could be the cure for the designer crisis in Australia. 'Designer' could then become a title for someone with a sense of mechanics, user experience, and technical skill instead of simply idea generation. The big difficulty now is convincing local programmers to pick up a new engine instead of sticking with the one they currently know and love.
I know I personally intend to push Unreal 4 exploration as a teacher and at jams to see what a difference it makes during development.