Think of one of your favorite video games. What made it special for you? Was it the graphics? The audio production? The game design? You can probably list many exceptional features, yet my guess is what truly made it special is hard to quantify. While many games are enjoyed for their amazing production values, the ones people love are more than just the sum of their parts.
My favorite games like Limbo, The Walking Dead, Portal 2, and Bioshock Infinite created worlds with characters and locations that felt consistent and real. They had what felt like an invisible guiding hand that unified, informed, and connected every aspect of the game. That “invisible hand” is typically the creative director, who strives to maintain a clear and cohesive vision throughout the game.
The creative director’s role is not easy to define. It varies with each studio and there are not a lot of resources on the art of game direction. I’ve directed games for over 10 years and still marvel at the magical process. Creative directors navigate between “top-down” leadership and “bottom-up” discoveries that emerge from creative collaboration. They work within the limits of the technology and schedule to focus the team and deliver amazing results.
I recently wrote a book on directing video games and below is the first in a series of excerpts from the book. Read on to learn the 5 qualities I believe every creative director needs to embrace.
What does a Video Game Director do?
That’s a question I’ve often heard upon meeting people outside of the games business. After saying a director’s role is to supervise the creative process, I’d see raised eyebrows and hear, “So you’re not a programmer?” Many people imagine that games are made by a few programmers in a garage rather than as multimillion-dollar projects with teams ranging from ten to more than four hundred people. Plus, the notion of someone focusing solely on the creative process in a primarily technical industry could seem absurd.
That said, when I first started working in games, the concept of a few programmers in a garage wasn’t too far off the mark. Back in 1992, the role of a dedicated creative director was unheard of. Even within big companies, the teams that developed each game were tiny, and the project leader wore other “hats” as a programmer, designer, or artist. Developing games was more about creating new interactive “mechanics” and less about cohesive experiences with compelling stories.
In the early twenty-first century, advancements in technology led to more ambitious projects, with visual graphics, audio, and stories that achieved a stylistic, cinematic flair. Games matured and were recognized as a medium of creative expression. They were more than just a collection of fun mechanics; they offered immersive worlds with dimensional characters and emotionally driven story lines. Team sizes grew, and there were new leadership positions for programming, art, and design. Like film or television productions, games needed someone to lead both the team and the creative process.
5 Essential Qualities
- Hold the Vision. The number one trait of being a director is having a vision. Successful games have a unified and singular voice—all elements working in concert as a cohesive whole.
- Provide Structure. A project depends on the director’s ability to communicate the vision and give it a design and story structure, for both the interactive and emotional aspects of a player’s journey.
- Keep a Creative Toolbox. Having established the structure, the director draws from their creative toolbox of experience, developing each moment of the game. Directors apply timeless principles, found in all forms of entertainment, to craft emotional beats, guiding the player through an immersive and captivating experience.
- Lead Effectively. So much of developing a strong game means having a dedicated team made up of people who believe in the vision and are passionate about what they are making. Everyone needs to feel ownership; the director is leading the team yet supporting a voice and vision that arises from the talents of the collective group.
- Know Production. The director needs to account for all the challenges of game development, in terms of schedule, technical constraints, and the demands of a publisher and audience.
These traits are necessary regardless of team size—whether you are leading a large team or a small indie project. Understanding your vision, knowing how to implement it, and cultivating creative leadership are essential qualities for directing great games.
Next post: Holding the Vision.
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