At our studio, the lead game designers are also the ones that decide workflows and design tools for the rest of the design team. However, there’s nothing that says good game designers are good tools designers (I’ll talk about this in a future post, and it may be that good game designers are necessarily poor tools designers- not sure yet).
I started my first user story for the tools team this week (a fundamental task I can’t believe we’ve gone 4 years without having the ability to do) and started out by soliciting ideas from the design team- the senior designers especially and ones who I’ve worked with as a technical artist. I got lots of good ideas and feedback, but invariably the conversion veered into ‘You should really ask [Lead Designer X] or [Lead Designer Y].’ To which I always replied, ‘If [Lead Designer X] or [Lead Designer Y] had good ideas, I wouldn’t be asking you because we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place!’
After that, the designers usually let loose a torrent of complaints at our tools and ideas for how they should work. It is quite sad that approaching the design team directly- you know, the ones using the tools- is considered revolutionary and potentially disruptive. But it is the only way you’re going to get news ideas and find the range of opinions and use cases you need to create great tools or improve crappy ones.
There are times when very talented people are in charge of designing tools, and you can trust their vision. But it must yield positive results in the long term (and you may need to trust their vision when experiencing disruption in the short term). If the same people have been in charge, and the ideas are stale and the results are poor, you need to be the one to break their tyranny, by seeking out the people with new and fresh ideas, using them to inform your own, and believing in your vision.