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What Those Credits Mean

by Greg Costikyan

Most adventure games have a constellation of credits. There's the designer, of course, but there are also developers, editors, graphic designers, illustrators, production managers, playtesters and blindtesters -- what do all these people do? And why are their names in the credits?

It's important to realize that game design is a collaborative artform. Even a book involves more than one person: the author may do the writing, but someone edits it, someone typesets it, someone designs the jacket, someone paints the cover art. Nonetheless, a book is 90% one person's work, and so only the author gets credited.

A movie, by comparison, is the work of hundreds of people, and some movie credits roll on for minutes on end.

Games fall in between these two extremes. The designer hold the primary responsibility for his game -- but others contribute so much that they cannot be ignored.

Game credits fall into three classes: Design, Graphics, and Production.

Design Credits

The first credit is usually for Design, and the second is usually for Development. What's the difference?

That's a good question, because the roles are often blurred. A historical digression is in order.

The first adventure gaming company was Avalon Hill; but it only published one game a year and did not give game credit. So it was up to SPI, the industry's second major company, to establish many of the procedures and traditions which remain in force today. SPI created the design/development system.

It did so out of necessity. When SPI first started, its only designer was Jim Dunnigan, who had previously worked for Avalon Hill. SPI's strategy was to grab a portion of Avalon Hill's audience by publishing far more games than Avalon Hill. Where A-H published one game a year, SPI would publish many...

Many more games than Jim Dunnigan could design alone. But SPI had no one else with the experience and talent to do the job...

So Dunnigan hired developers. The idea was twofold. First, the developers would help Dunnigan produce more game by taking off some of the load. Second, by working with Dunnigan, they'd learn the trade and eventually become designers in their own right. And that, of course, is precisely what happened.

In principle, the designer is the creator of the game. He does the research, establishes the basic system and, usually, writes the first draft of the rules. The developer then takes the game and polishes it, playtesting it repeatedly, solving rules problems, adding or deleting systems as required, and rewriting the rules continually.

But the roles frequently overlap. When the designer is arrogant or the developer inexperienced, the designer may do almost all of the work, with some assistance from the developer. At the other end of the spectrum, the designer may do little more than hand a few pages of scribbled notes to the developer. Sometimes, in truth, the developer deserves far more credit than the designer for the finished product.

Increasingly, games are designed out-of-house by freelance designers and developed in-house by company employees. In part, this is an admirable idea. In book publishing, part of an editor's job is to shepherd books through the production process. She, unlike the author, knows what the copy-editor is doing, when proofreading is necessary, where galleys need to be sent, and what the schedule looks like. In the same fashion, an in-house developer coordinates a game's production with other in-house employees -- graphic designers, production managers, salesmen and the like -- in a way that an out-of-house designer could never hope to do. In addition, the developer can make decisions on-site when necessary -- when the salesman wants to change the back-cover copy, or the graphic designer asks if it's all right to use brown for the aliens instead of green.

But the use of in-house developers for out-of-house designs is also fraught with peril. The easiest way to show why is to provide two scenarios.

Scenario A: An experienced, professional game designer exhaustively playtests his game and polishes its rules with meticulous care. He sends it to the in-house developer, who is either inexperienced, inattentive, or incompetent. The developer rewrites the rules, rendering them ungrammatical and incomprehensible, and makes major changes that completely unbalance the game. The out-of-house designer is faced with a dilemma. He may either complain, in which case he runs the risk that his publisher will decide that he's an arrogant schmuck; or he may say nothing, in which case his name will appear on the cover of a piece of trash.

Scenario B: A lazy, inexperienced, or arrogant out-of-house designer submits a design that is either complete garbage, or a basically good idea that will require major development work. The company accepts the game, because it thinks the game could sell very well, or because it wants good relations with the designer, or because the company's managers can't tell the difference between a good design and a bad one (a common problem). The experienced, dedicated in-house developer is forced to put in long hours turning this barely-salvageable mess into a polished, publishable game. He is bitter when it finally appears, because the designer is the one who gets all the credit -- and earns royalties on the game to boot. The developer merely draws his salary -- and is reprimanded by management for taking too long on the project.

Despite the problems of the design/development model, it remains a useful one. Designers are frequently too emotionally and intellectually involved in their games to see the flaws; the involvement of an experienced outsider is often greatly beneficial. Too, the development role is still used for training -- and since there is no other mechanism for training game designers, it is likely to continue to serve this function.

Enough about developers. Editors are the next step in the design process. Editing sometimes overlaps with development; sometimes, if the editor is particularly experienced, he will write the final draft of the rules, and may even make suggestions for changes in the game. At other times (and in different companies), the editor merely copy-edits and proofreads. In general, however, game editors do not serve the same project-oversight and author-management roles as editors in book publishing.

Playtesters are people who play a game in the course of development. They are not paid; the only compensation they receive is a mention in the rules and a free copy of the game. All good designers make a real effort to search out and retain good playtesters; they provide an invaluable service, and frequently offer suggestions that the designer (or developer) incorporates into the game.

Personally, I am always suspicious of a game that does not credit playtesters. This either means that the company does not care enough for its playtesters to give them credit -- or did not bother to playtest the game. In either case, this says bad things about the product.

Blindtesters are off-site playtesters. When a game is playtested in the presence of its designer, he is likely to skew the results. For example, if he explains the rules to his players, he may never realize that the rules are incomprehensible as written. It is always valuable to have people half-way across the country try to figure out how the game is played by themselves. Every good game company has its favorite blindtest groups, and cultivates them assiduously.

Graphics Credits

Most games have a credit for Graphic Design or Art Direction. This usually goes to the company's art director, though an art director will sometimes assign the credit to one of his subordinates. Just as the game designer determine's a game's feel, the graphic designer determines its look. He commissions the cover and interior art, designs the package, chooses the typestyle and lay-out, and designs and executes the game-maps, counters, and other components.

The best graphic designers do more; they suggest ways of organizing charts better, of recording information better, of using graphical representations to make the game play more smoothly. The best graphic designer with whom I have ever worked was Redmond Simonsen, at SPI; all of the games I did with him were genuinely collaborations, even though his name was listed under Graphic and not Game Design. For instance, I designed a little solitaire dungeon-crawling game in which one drew a map of the dungeon on graph paper. Redmond suggested instead that we print little room and corridor illustrations on cardboard counters, then draw the counters out of a cup to generate the dungeon. The suggestion was simple, graphically appealing -- and brilliant. It, more than my contribution, made the game successful.

Often, several names are listed below the graphic designer's, under Graphics. These are people who assisted the graphic designer, doing lay-out, paste-up, and perhaps some additional design work. Infrequently, you will see a credit for Typesetting.

Most games use original art for the cover. Thus, most games list a Cover Illustrator. It's important to realize the difference between graphic design and illustration. An illustrator paints the picture used in the cover. The graphic designer decides how the picture is framed, what type is to be superimposed on it and where, and so on. Frequently, graphic designers supply illustrators with a rough pencil sketch of the illustration they want to see; sometimes, especially with illustrators they trust and have worked with before, they'll provide a brief verbal description, or even leave the illustration entirely up to the artist's discretion. Nonetheless, though illustration is "art" and graphic design is merely "commercial art," the graphic designer is very much in control of the relationship.

Many games credit Interior Illustrators separately.

Production Credits

Often, a single person is credited under Production. This is usually the company's production manager. He finds printers, die-cutters, and other manufacturers to make the game. He coordinates between the art department and the manufacturers, to make sure that, e.g., the mechanicals get to the printers on time, and that the printers use exactly the colors the art department wants. He also coordinates between the manufacturers, the warehouse, and the sales department. He makes sure the manufacturers deliver the game components to the warehouse on time. He makes sure that the warehouse knows a new game is about to show up. And he makes sure that the sales department knows when the game is going to ship, so it can alert the distributors.

The job of production manager is key to any game publisher, but the production manager does not contribute directly to the game. Hence, I do not believe this credit ought to exist. But you will find it in many games.

You will also often see credits for Printing or Die-Cutting. These credits usually list companies instead of individuals (e.g., "Printing by Reflex Offset, Die-Cutting by Modern Album"). Companies like to see these credits, but they do not, as far as I can see, serve any purpose, save perhaps to cement the game company's relationship with a valued supplier.


What does this all mean to you? If you like the way a game plays, you now know you should credit the designer. If you think the rules are hard to read, you should blame the developer, though the designer and the editor come in for their share of disapprobation. If you like the way the game looks, and think its components worth together smoothly, the graphic designer is to be congratulated. If you like the cover, look for other work by the illustrator. If your counters are badly die-cut, or you're missing page 17, blame the production manager.

But remember, always, that people make games.

Game companies?

They just sell 'em.

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© Copyright 1996 by Greg Costikyan.