There is a job in the videogame industry. A very important job, that has been critical to some of the greatest games in videogame history. But it has no name. It gets no repect. People don’t even imagine it exists.
I was listening to…a podcast by Soren Johnson. His guest was Bruce Shelley, a videogame veteran who "is best known for his work on Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and the Age of Empires series".
In the podcast, Mr. Shelley details his working relationship to Sid Meier, during the time Sid was making Railroad Tycoon, Covert Action, and Civilization. Sid would offer him new builds of game prototypes almost every day; Bruce would play them and provide detailed feedback. Bruce came from a deep background in historical wargaming, but was also a natural, seat-of-the-pants gamer. His idea of a good game was "whatever I enjoy playing".
While listening, I was reminded of another podcast I’d heard a year ago.
The interview was with a member of an indie dev team. The member discussed how he played the various builds of the game obsessively, and how he provided detailed, timely analysis to the other members of the team. At the time, I didn’t understand quite what I was listening to, but I knew I wanted someone like that to work with me.
I am also dimly aware of other dev teams that had such members, and I bet you know of some too.
So I’ve had a revelation.
What Bruce Shelley (and the indie game member) were doing was filling a critical role that is not filled by testers, designers, or producers. The job they did is different, and needs a name.
I will call this job description a "Bruce".
A Bruce’s job is to test and provide feedback in a very tight loop, throughout the dev cycle. While a Bruce will find bugs to fix, her main job is to help the designer find the fun.
A "Bruce" needs a good grounding in games and videogames, an eagerness to educate herself about the subject matter, a willingness to play the HELL out of unfinished games, and the good communication skills to quickly and concisely tell the rest of the team what they think. Like any other team member, a Bruce is a full-time job.
A Bruce needs that near-OCD ability to play and replay a game long past the point that others grow tired of the game and move on. A Bruce WANTS to replay an entire game just to see how a small feature works.
A Bruce is not a programmer, but the designer she supports often is. A Bruce doesn’t need to be paired with a designer/programmer, though. The really critical aspect of a Bruce is iterative design. A Bruce has nothing to do, if you’re not doing iterative game design. If you’ve already got a clear idea of your perfect game, you need an AP, not a Bruce. But good game design IS iterative, so if you want to design a game from scratch, a Bruce is very useful.
Why is a Bruce not just a designer, tester, or producer?
In AAA development, testers aren’t used for design. Hired at the end of the development cycle, paid little, working long hours, they’re told to find bugs, not offer suggestions. After the testing cycle is done, they are usually fired.
In indie development, testers are simply fans. As a group, they can provide lots of feedback, some of it great, but not in a focused or timely way.
Producers are also different from a Bruce. In my time in the AAA industry, I found that producers were responsible for getting the project done on time and on budget. They want the game to be good, but that’s not their first job. Bruce Shelley himself was an Assistant Producer at MicroProse before he became Meier’s "Bruce". He made maps, did research, produced game data, and kept his head down.
Finally, Bruces aren’t designers. I say that because a Bruce’s job is to SUPPORT the designer, but also because I’ve worked with too many designers who didn’t do the job of a "Bruce".
I believe you can find examples of testers , designers, or APs doing the work of a Bruce, which only reinforces my point; the Bruce is a unique job that needs respect and a job description.
I’ve always wanted a Bruce, but didn’t exactly know what it was or how to get one. I envied the game devs who had gathered a small and effective team around them, and recognized that (as a videogame developer) needed art, sound, and bizdev, BUT I also needed the support of a Bruce.
If you have a Bruce on your team, shower them with love and respect, because they deserve it.