Before you start making assets for a game, producing the story line or anything else, you start on the game design. This is a mix of different design elements, such as: gameplay, storyline, environments and characters. This usually starts off as a proposal in the pre production phase, where the game designer has had an idea and its then fleshed out to cover the basics of the concept, gameplay, storyline, features, staff and budget estimates. But as the development goes on certain features from the proposal might not be achievable, this might be because of the budget limitations for example, so these features might have to be axed or changed.
Gameplay is the way you, the player, interacts with the game, be that the characters which populate a town or a wooden bucket on the floor which you can throw around.
Even though games have transformed from basic sprites to fully 3d models, the essence of gameplay has pretty much stayed the same- you have a goal and something is going to get in the way of you reaching that goal. PacMan had 4 ghosts, Fear had one scary little girl. Same concept but these game couldnt be further apart, you could also go on to say that even board games following this concept of reaching a goal and something/someone is stopping you. If we look back to arcade games from the 80's the whole reason you put in your hard earned cash was to get a score high enough to get your name in the top 10 (from my experience most people have the name 'Ass', odd that). But if we look at any modern online FPS shooter we dont have that highscore anymore, its pretty much been replaced with experience points and levels. A numerical number still represents your skill, its just done in a slightly different way.
Some of my personal favourite game designs are Peter Molyneux, famous for Populous, Black&White and Fable. But unfortunately has been known to over hype his games, promising amazing features which never make it into the final game ( ala Black&White with its “ground breaking” creature AI, despite this it still remains a personal favourite of mine).
Will Wright deserves an honourable mention for creating the most addicting game series, The Sims, A game with no story or goals, but somehow ended up being the best selling PC game. Making the player do all the hard work by letting them create their own stories, ingenuous!
While these people are the main designers, its not just them, its a team of designers all specialising in their own field such as level design and game mechanics, they work together to bring the whole game to life. Depending on the type of game a team could have more of specific designers than others. For instance the team behind LA Niore which is a very story driven game would have hired more writers, to make the game a more cinematic experience, which goes hand in hand with their facial capture technology. Whereas on the other hand we have games like Far Cry 1 and 2, where the level and environment design are key to the games open world gameplay, having the ability to explore when and where you want just to take in the scenery is visual bliss, complimented by their cutting edge graphics engine.
When playing a game I love to be engrossed in the world, makes for a much more enjoyable experience. But sadly the last few years ive noticed im not making that emotional connection to games as I used too. Maybe its because iv been doing game art for a good few years so im constantly looking at objects/characters in the world and thinking 'that looks good, I wonder how the artist got the shine just right on that piece of metal' or 'bah, a texture seam in an exposed area, the artist rushed this piece'. I guess its something ive got to live with, and its only going to get worse as I do more and more game art.