Game Dev Tycoon 2
Image: Greenheart Games

To kick off this week in the weird world of social media, you may have seen many opinions shared online on the subject of what makes someone a 'developer' in the world of video games. As with almost any topic on the internet, debate got heated — whodathunkit? — and there was disagreement in some quarters as to whether Quality Assurance, localisation, and other vital departments could rightly call themselves 'game developers'.

We're far too nice and collegiate here at Nintendo Life to actually argue, but we do have a couple of staff members who have worked in game development in recent years. Tom Whitehead worked in Indie publishing with CIRCLE Entertainment and Flyhigh Works, and Kate Gray worked as Narrative Director at KO_OP, notably on Unity Awards nominee Winding Worlds.

Below, Tom and Kate have a chat and try to figure out how to handle the issue of credits and what it means to be a 'developer' in video games...

Tom: I guess a starting point can be, how much does ‘developer’ actually matter as a phrase? A dev team is made of varied and talented ‘creators’, as code is meaningless without vision, a game has less impact without sound and music, and storytelling is more than words on the screen. You must have met an incredible variety of people that work in development in your work as a journalist and as, well, a developer?

Kate: I think there’s a lot of nebulous stuff around credit, and word usage. “Developer” might not matter to some, but it might matter to others, and feeling part of a “development team” is important at a studio. I think it comes down to the precise naming because that’s generally how a team is described, but it potentially leaves out the people like office managers, receptionists, and sometimes even writers/musicians/audio designers, etc.

There’s also the issue of “developer” meaning “programmer” to most people, and I think it can only ever be beneficial to widen the view of what a game developer is, and can do.

Tom: That’s true, though the debate can be about semantics, ultimately it is important that contributions are recognised fairly. A colleague of ours made a good point that when he thinks of the word developer in the web-building space, it does really mean ‘coder’. In gaming though, it’s a word we throw around for what are ultimately teams and companies, so in a sense people are arguing about how to use a word.

What the debate does do from a positive perspective, at least, is highlight that it is important to recognise the team effort of even the smallest games, as you say, to widen that view. For example, you’ve been part of a team like that, it must be very rewarding to work together towards that end goal of a completed game.

Kate: It is rewarding, working together on a vision, but it’s also so incredibly complicated at times, and I think that comes into the argument. How can a lead writer work with a lead artist? Should a writer know how code works? How can a writer do writing for a video game without knowing some basic programming?

I used a software called Ink (by 80 Days studio Inkle) which is a writing tool with some light programming elements. I would imagine most writers are using similar tools. Likewise, artists have to know Unity’s backend, too. Not that I’m saying “everyone on a game is a dev because they have to know some programming”, but the disciplines do cross over a lot.

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Image: Official GDC

Tom: That’s interesting to think about; for example a game composer will no doubt need to at least understand what a game needs, in terms of structure, that a film or TV score would not. I imagine it’s quite unlikely that anyone involved in the creation of a game isn’t at least lightly involved in the technical aspects, maybe that makes game creation quite unique. The whole ‘developer’ term applies widely, as well, because you’d be producing writing that would inform and influence other areas, and likewise I’m sure it would go the other way. Coding is just one part of what must be, as you say, a complicated process.

Kate: It’s pretty hard to be involved in a game without being involved in the technical stuff, yeah! I mean, I tried. I am not great with Unity. But it just made everyone’s work way harder, including my own. You can’t expect the team to take your Google Doc writing and transform it into something that can go in the game — firstly, that’s too much work for them, and secondly, they might need to edit it in ways that compromise the writing, so, yeah. You need to know how the pipeline works.

I think, more generally, that games are having a really difficult time with how credit works. It’s not standardised like movies seem to be, and so you’ll have situations where people who made assets get put under “special thanks”, and studios where everyone just gets credited equally, with no role titles, because oftentimes, people don’t just do one job. At the studio where I worked, I wrote marketing copy, website copy, newsletters, job postings, and so on — should I get credited for all that individually? Or just as “writer”? The nature of games makes it tough to know where the line begins and ends.

Tom: Absolutely, I think it’s probably easier in ‘triple-A’ because of the sheer size and structure of the teams, but once you go into the Indie space it’s far more difficult to have any sort of standard. In my spell away in ‘Indie publishing’ (I mean really small Indie, not Devolver Digital indie) I had a job title, but in that period I felt like I did most publishing-type jobs at different times, some of them surprisingly technical, it’s just the nature of small teams.

Some friction can be about personalities of course, and maybe that’s where there can be problems. Without a corporate structure you rely on everyone working well together and in the right spirit, but that doesn’t always work out.

Disputes over credits no doubt work into that, and sometimes I do wonder whether smaller companies in gaming need to take this stuff more seriously, because the moment a work friendship deteriorates you have problems where people don’t get recognised properly for their work. But maybe that’s me being old and boring!

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Image: Official GDC

Kate: In my experience, a lot of small indies don’t even have in-house marketing, publishing, or general office managerial-type roles. It’s not usually a priority — you want the people who can make the game before you can afford to hire people to make people buy it. But those indie studios almost always end up either hiring an outside publisher/marketing team (etc) or they end up realising that they really should have done.

Those roles are vital to the success of a game, and so that’s one of the reasons I think they should get credited as “part of the development team” at least!

Tom: I certainly encountered some small indies that saw little purpose in anything other than making the game. I think with the ones I have in mind it was just their inherent nature, and it was never hostile as such. They can work on wonderfully moody, stylish games, and would put endless detail into design, artwork and so on. Ask for trailer adjustments or assets, however, and it wouldn't be deemed as particularly important.

I think that’s something maybe a bit unique to gaming; not often will a film or TV show made by a few people get lots of attention, but it can happen in games. Yet they may be people who don’t really seek that attention, just the royalties!

I’ve seen small teams that get it absolutely right, that see the bigger picture and work with everyone in a positive way.

I’ve also seen small teams that get it absolutely right, that see the bigger picture and work with everyone in a positive way, but gaming I think has quite unique challenges in that personalities that aren’t suited to teamwork get thrust into business and numbers. So disputes and arguments about everyone’s work being recognised can crop up as a side-effect.

Kate: Yeah, I think what we’re sort of circling round is that the programmer-dominated games industry tends to crush a lot of people under its wheels by continuing to place programmers on a pedestal, when really they’re just one part of the puzzle. Oh my god that was so many metaphors!

Tom: For sure, and let’s be honest, there are programmers / game leads that absolutely embrace that pedestal, and it can be a problem. I worked with people I loved sharing a pint with, but also a few that I’d probably have a tough time connecting with on a personal level. Maybe that’s why arguments about this end up online, because it can feel like the only avenue at times.

In a perfect world, I like what you said earlier, where some teams just list names without titles. After all, games are complicated beasts, and there are a lot of moving pieces. Or just put Hideo Kojima for everything in the credits!

Kate: Heh, I like how this conversation turned into “Kate and Tom complain about diva devs”. I do think that we’re going to keep having this conversation as games continue to mature, but I would always say: err on the side of kindness / generosity / fairness — whatever you want to call it. That’s more important to me.

Tom: Absolutely, that’s the perfect message, and I think 99% of game creators likely follow that mantra. It’s easy to get distracted by noise online, but we’re in an industry full of amazing and talented people, so they should always be celebrated and feel fulfilled in making games.

Game Dev Tycoon
Image: Greenheart Games

That’s just our take on the subject, after several years between us of working with — and for — indie developers. We've reached out to a number of developers on this topic, so be sure to look out for their thoughts in an upcoming feature.

We’re also interested to hear your take on the situation, and on this new conversational format we're trying out, too. Do you think the title “developers” should apply to everyone involved with a game? Let us know in the comments!