Much in the games industry has changed beyond recognition over the past 40 years. But one specific thing that might be an issue not obvious to non-developers is what co-creator of Fallout Tim Cain calls the “decline of generalists.”

Who are generalists in gamedev and why their decline hurts tool quality, explained by Tim Cain

Who are generalists in game development?

Cain touched on this topic in one of the recent videos on his YouTube channel.

  • “A generalist is someone who is skilled in multiple disciplines,” he explained, adding that this includes, say, artists who can also write, or producers who can code.
  • Cain believes that the number of such professionals has declined sharply over the past 20 years.
  • For example, there used to be just game designers, but now there are level designers, narrative designers, systems designer, etc.
  • The same goes for programmers — now we have specialists focused on specific areas like gameplay, graphics, or UI.

What happened to generalists?

  • The decline of generalists occurred as the industry got bigger in terms of the people involved. Most developers working on video games today are specialists focused on one specific area.
  • “I have met very few narrative designers who do anything but write,” Cain said. “I have met people who work in UX, and that’s all they do.”
  • Modern games take a much longer time to develop, they require way more people compared to the 90s or 80s, and their fidelity (quality of details) is on another level.
  • Companies need people who work only in specific areas to ensure the high quality of certain elements, so the shift from generalists to specialists makes good business sense.
  • And it is also easier for developers to be specialists, as they only need to focus on one discipline (or even a sub-discipline).

The lack of generalists leads to games full of disjointed elements

  • To illustrate the power of such professionals, Cain recalled how some programmer generalists he worked with understood other areas (sound, UI, etc.) and could link different systems together.
  • Having one person on the team who knows all the disciplines makes all the difference. For example, a programmer who knows how the art is put together can speed up the loading of the art or put together the particle effect system.
  • “If a designer or an artist knows code, they can ask for the features they want very specifically. It involves less vague generalizations.” Cain noted, adding that knowing how the code works lets various professionals understand and work around limitations of the game engine.
  • So it is about having people on the team who can speak to other professionals in their language and understand how things work in areas outside of their core expertise.
  • Another huge advantage of generalists is tools. As Cain pointed out, “no one makes tools better than generalists because these are programmers who know what the artist, musician, or level designer is trying to do and they make tools that expose those controls in clear, easy ways to use.”
  • The decline in tool quality is a direct consequence of the decline in the number of generalists.
  • There are also so-called “force multipliers,” people who can improve the productivity of everyone just by their very existence on the team. Cain believes that only generalists can fill this role, and this is what modern game development is lacking.
  • This leads to games where individual elements are made in a vacuum, with players then never using certain features. As Cain explained, this is because those features were made by “someone who was very passionate and knew how to put it in, but there was no one who connected it to other things.”

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