What the Hell is Game Design?
"Game designer" is one of those job titles that means very little, like producer or director of development, but which everyone has their own ideas about. This is partly because the field of game design is relatively new, and, like producer or program manager, is something that most companies define on the fly. After struggling with this for a while, I've reached the following definition: a game designer directs the user's play experience. It's that simple, but it still encompasses a lot.
Things That Aren't Design
What this means is that a lot of things that are the purview of a designer are not, in fact, designer tasks.
- Level construction: Until a few years ago, traditionally a "level designer" was responsible for all aspects of a level's look and play. However, playability and appearance are orthogonal, and so you had a lot of levels that were awesome to behold but boring to play, and levels that were fun as hell but bland. As such, I don't really believe in the concept of a "level designer" anymore, I believe there should be a game designer, who maps the flow of a level, and an artist responsible for building the level and making it aesthetically pleasing. Thankfully this is how most companies are doing it today.
- Writing: At what point did someone decide that game designers were also authors? Writing should be left up to individuals that are proven to have writing ability -- this may be a designer, but more often than not I'd argue this should be an actual writer. Go figure.
- Scripting: Being able to write scripts is a handy ability, but it's not a first order design skill. Should a designer be expected to write code or make textures? Of course not, yet somehow designers are asked to wire together levels and write complicated AI scripts. As with level design, a designer should be able to define behaviour and hand off the coding to someone like, I dunno, a coder.
Things That Are Design
Pretty much all other elements of the play experience are part of design. What I find is that some people feel that level, monster, weapon, and user interface design are all somehow different. They're not. They're about creating something with a set of constraints and then making sure that something operates within the context of the game and in a fashion acceptable to the player. The rules that Don Norman lays out in his Design of Everyday Things and "Emotional Design" apply universally, from teapots to sewer levels. The concepts of visibility, mappings, affordances, and constraints are just as relevant when designing a sword, an encounter, a refrigerator, or a control panel.
Industrial product designers can make very good game designers. In fact, I'd argue that a good industrial designer would probably make a better game designer than an artist or programmer that just decided to take up design.
The key here isn't having a "vision" or just random ideas, the real value in a game designer is translating a particular high level concept into a set of low level mechanics and implementations that drive that concept and entertain the player. This is all design is about, and it's both simpler and far harder than most realize.