"I've worked in games for 7 or 8 years," says Jez Harris, a lead designer at Relentless Software, "and am a run-of-the-mill designer."
Though employed at Relentless now, and previously with Hothouse Creations, Jez Harris earned the bulk of his experience in game development at Electronic Arts working on the Harry Potter franchise. He spoke at the Game Career Fair in London recently about what it actually means to be a video game designer. The jobs a designer is asked to do, he says, are often completely different from what the general public probably assumes they are.
"I had no real notion as such of what being a designer at EA would mean," he says. "It is very different and it changes from project to project. You have to be very adaptable." He cites as an example of having to work on cut scenes, which may be a skill that a designer isn't necessarily strong in -- or might not have at all. But it's the designer's job to fill in whatever gaps exist on the project, he says.
The Unmarked Path
Harris' list of game credits at EA includes Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup (2003), Catwoman (2004), Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Azkaban (2004), and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat (2005). While working on all these games, his business card said "designer." But Harris says the job title often did not match the tasks he performed.
For example, on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harris spent a good deal of his day-to-day time placing objects and enemies in the game world. On the sequel game, Quidditch World Cup, his role was more inclined toward business. "A lot of my job at that point was to look after the vibe of Harry Potter," taking care of the intellectual property in a way that would respect author J.K. Rowling's vision, stay true to what she wrote in the books, and at the same time ensure that the game was fun and would profit EA.
Then, while working on the "appalling" Catwoman game -- which ranked ninth on Gametrailer's Worst Movie Tie-ins of All Time -- Harris says his job was to take the script and adapt it to become a video game. So in one sense he was a writer, but in another sense, he wasn't writing anything because he had to work with the given source material (which he admits was abominable) and somehow make it fun and interactive. The production of Catwoman was actually outsourced, leaving Harris to look after the script, the IP, and an outside team who might not have had much confidence in the game -- and rightly so. That the game was going to be "crappy" despite whatever hard work anyone put into the game is a fact that Harris finds both frustrating and par for the course. That's just part of what it means to be a game designer.