I started a kerfuffle on the subject of designers writing scripts. Since my original post was more about our experience with Lua than about scripting for designers I thought I would collect what I’ve already written in everyone else’s comment thread in one place.
Raph believes that designers should know how to write scripts. I agree completely. Games are more about algorithms than they are about art, sound, or databases, and knowing how to code at some level is going to help any system designer immensely. It will allow them to communicate with programmers more effectively, it will make their designs fit better within existing game or technical systems, and it will improve the quality of their designs overall.
Where I draw the line, however, is at actually shipping those designer-written scripts with the game. They are a fine prototyping mechanism, incredibly useful at creating gobs of data, and a brilliant simulation mechanism. Designer scripts are also often slower, more obtuse, and less maintainable than the equivalent script (or code) written by a professional programmer.
Does that mean I think designers have some mental deficiency that makes them write crappy code? Of course not. While there are some basic concepts of programming that require a certain talent to grok (pointers, branches, order of algorithms) by and large most scripting designers have that talent. What they lack is the experience required to write code that you can keep running for years on end. Programmers spend all day, every day on the subject of how to quickly write maintainable code that runs well. For designers, it’s at best a sideline. We put our programmers though a hard-core technical interview to try to determine if we want to put up with their code. Any designer who can pass that interview is welcome to write production code in my book.
A much better approach is to provide a rich mechanism for driving game logic with data and give designers reasonable tools to manipulate that data. That doesn’t mean designers are reduced to inputting tables of numbers. The data-driven systems we use in Pirates allow designers to add entire new game systems by combining existing building blocks. We also work closely with the designers to implement new blocks for them on a regular basis.
Damion mentioned that schedule constraints often lead to programmers changing their tune when it comes to designers writing scripts. Tight schedules are why we integrated Lua in the first place. I thought it would let us take advantage of the people in the office who were less overloaded to write some of the game. My current position on designer scripting is a direct result of that Lua integration.
One thing I discounted in the “let’s get some designers to write some scripts” approach was how valuable the designer’s time is. In most cases it’s easier to build a new system using our data-driven system than it would have been to implement the same system in Lua. When using data isn’t easier, a day or two of a programmer’s time can usually make it so. Our system design team is even more critically understaffed than our programming team, and by using data instead of code we can save them time.
Just about everyone has said, “It depends on your situation.” It certainly does. If you have a team of 5 and your lead designer is also your junior programmer, you would probably be well served to have that designer writing production code. In a more general case with more specialization among your staff, it’s a bad idea to plan on all your design hires having that level of programming ability. And if you reject all designers who don’t meet some minimum programming skill level you may find it hard to hire designers.
All in all, the Great Designer Script Debate of ’07 has been great. It’s nice to take a break from whining about how many users Second Life doesn’t have or how raid content in WoW is the best/worst thing to ever happen to MMOs. Who’s going to kick off the next kerfuffle?