You’re at a rock concert. Thousands of fans are cheering.
Who are they cheering for? The lead singer? The hot guitarist? Maybe they’re just there for the music.
Video games are a lot like a rock band. I’m not saying video games are like the game Rock Band, although there are some games like Rock Band, like Rock Band 2. I’m also not saying video game developers are like a rock band, although clearly they are in more ways than the video game itself is.
If all the components that make up a video game (graphics, audio, programming, design, production) were in a band, what roles would they play? How would they appear in the eyes of the casual observer? When they put on a concert, who stands out? Slap on your wristbands and find out.
Graphics – The Lead Singer
Their microphone is turned up the loudest. They stand front and center on stage. They are always in the spotlight.
For someone who knows nothing about music, they can at the very least comment on a song’s vocals. “That’s a nice voice”. Similarly, someone who knows nothing about video games will first comment on a game’s visuals. “It looks realistic!”
Sight is humans’ primary sense, so it is natural that graphics are the easiest video game component to respond to. Long before the first line of code is written, concept art is used to convey what the game might look like. It comprises the “video” part of the term “video game”.
Lead vocals are often the most defining aspect of a band. Without hearing any instruments, you can tell which band it is from the vocals. By the same principle you can identify a particular game from a simple screenshot. They often receive the most attention, much to the chagrin of their band mates…
Audio – The Lead Guitarist
I realize it’s weird to use audio in an analogy with something that produces audio, so bear with me. Next to the lead vocalist, the lead guitarist is usually the flashiest, most lauded member of the band. They might not be prominent throughout most songs, but when it comes time for a solo, they really leave an impression.
Back in the old days, video games were known for their “bleep, bloop” sound effects. Hell, whenever video games are portrayed in movies or on television, you never see exactly what game they’re playing; all you knew was that they were sitting in front of a screen of some sort wiggling a joystick and bleeps and bloops were coming out of the speakers.
If you don’t remember what a certain game looked like, chances are you’ll remember how it sounded. From Pac-Man‘s iconic “wakka wakka” sound to Metal Gear Solid‘s codec alert, sound is one of the most identifiable aspects of a video game. In addition to sound effects, music is also an artifact that can carry on a game’s legacy long after the last quarter was inserted into its coin slot.
Programming – The Drummer
Often called the “heartbeat” of a band, the drummer lays down the foundation of a song, allowing a rhythmic structure for the other musicians to follow. Sure, there are a lot of flashy drummers out there, but often the best drummers are those who are consistent and know how to maintain the “groove” of a song. You rarely remember a specific beat, but you do remember that a song had a good rhythm or a good flow.
Programming is the unsung hero of the video game band. They sit furthest back on stage and never get to crowd-surf. Without programming, a game is just a bunch of assets without a home. Programming is the glue that holds it all together. Even when seemingly nothing is happening (such as during a loading screen), programming is there behind the scenes making everything work the way it’s supposed to.
When all instruments have stopped and the audience engages in a sing-along, the drummer is there to make sure they don’t fuck it up. Likewise, a programmer will do their best to make sure the player doesn’t break the game. Just don’t expect them to perform miracles.
Design – The Bassist
Of all the band members, the bassist is most often on the butt-end of jokes. While in some bands they appear to be the lazy guy along for the ride, it’s not rare to find the bassist to be the architect of the band’s sound. Like the drummer, the bassist is integral to the rhythmic foundation of a song, but they have the added distinction of also providing a harmonic foundation, thus acting as a bridge between the drummer and melody-makers.
Game design is not about creating wacky characters and inserting Internet memes wherever possible. It encapsulates everything from the look and feel to the story and level progression of a game. All technical aspects of a game are influenced by the design; it is the alpha and omega of game development. Programmers may provide the tools necessary to create levels, but it’s the designer who uses those tools to chisel out a masterpiece.
Don’t underestimate the importance of bass; its low-frequency waves reverberate throughout the room and is the one feature you can physically feel in your heart. In terms of video games, people may be first attracted to a game by the graphics, but the reason they’ll keep coming back is because of good design.
Production – The Keyboardist
Tucked away even further out of view than the drummer, the keyboardist provides flourishes and extra instrumentation where needed. During breaks between songs, they might play a subtle interlude while the singer monologues about how the band got to where they are today. When money gets too tight to bring out a symphony orchestra, the keyboardist can synthesize one at the push of a button. Even before a song is written, basic chord progressions are often prototyped on a keyboard.
Production is a fairly broad term in game development. Generally, it encompasses scheduling, marketing, and distribution of a game, but also involves creative direction, securing licensed properties such as music and likenesses of personalities, and managing quality assurance. Many of these aspects go unnoticed while playing through a game, but there’s no denying their importance in actually getting the game out to the public eye.
The keyboardist has the most varied role out of all the band members. They provide all the little things that round out a song and make it a complete package. The same can be said for video games and then some.