A lot of things have to be done at the start of every new project. There are loads of tasks at hand, and it is hard to tackle them in the right order. As a game designer, our job involves quite a lot of writing.
The large, almighty Game Design Document is a myth. I am talking here of a hypothetical file that contains all information there is to know about a game. For larger teams, they are too many elements to record and keep track of these elements in a single document. And sections of a GDD are relevant but to a small portion of the development team.
Documents are less than ideal when it comes to assembling coherent networks of information. But we still have to write a lot in the pre-production phase of a game. However, there are ways to limit the amount of writing we need to do and to facilitate our teammates’ jobs at the same time. If you are working in a studio already, you’ll have a lead designer to tell you how to work. In this article, though, I’d like to give you a list of general tips to design as efficiently as possible at the start of a project. It should be of use for your personal projects, as a freelancer, and it should work nicely with most studios’ guidelines.
1. Prototype – More than Words
A design document made of the raw text leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Any amount of words can’t portray accurately the expected feel of a game. On the other hand, the essential mechanics of most game concepts can be coded and tested in little time. Often, it takes about as much time to develop a prototype it takes to write a corresponding detailed design description.
A prototype both describes and provides means to assess the quality of a game concept. To me, this is an ideal starting point for the preproduction process. Documents or discussions are too remote from the actual game. However, they are useful in the long run. A playable sample gives every team member a concrete sense of what the game could be. It gives everyone an experience to give feedback on. It is also both fun and motivating to have a working prototype.
A lot of time does not need to be spent on the initial implementation. Fancy visuals are a BIG NO. Pretty drawings tend to mask the pitfalls of our design choices.
The Ludum Dare gave us quite a few examples of full-blown game series born of a very efficient prototype.
2. Lean Documents
Everyone is busy in a game development team. One can only process and retain so much of information at a time. An efficient design document should focus on conveying the key information that teammates are meant to use.
An Example of Screenwriters: The script of a movie is always written in a simple, descriptive language. The font is big and the document as light as possible. Everything is arranged so the reader’s experience stays fluid all along. Movie scripts are designed for busy producers and co-workers to get the author’s point.
Writing efficient and lean documents does not only clarifies your thoughts for everyone: it shows your mastery of the topic at hand, your understanding of the studio’s needs. Simple is also extremely fast to write, as it stays close to a spoken language. It gives you more time to focus on other exciting design tasks.
3. Empathize with Your Readers
As designers, we write design documents for others. It may be a client, a manager, developers, etc. They all have different needs and expectations. A client may not care about the details of your chosen technology for implementation. On the other hand, your developer teammates will likely need some details to estimate the technical constraints that will arise from your choices. In other words, you should adopt both your tone and content to your readers.
If you want to do your peers a favor and improve your writing skills, ask your readers for feedback. Your coworkers will be glad to tell you what they’d like to see changed. Or if anything could help them work faster. Ideally, you would want to know how each profession in the studio works. What does everyone’s job entail? That is the best way to get into the mind of others: share their craft. But well, getting feedback should be enough to satisfy everybody.
4. Run Tests to Prevent Unnecessary Chatter
This point relates to the first one on this list. Your ideas leave room for interpretation and for discussion. This is especially true for clients who don’t work in the game industry. They might dislike a coherent and efficient design if they have no opportunity to see the resulting game first. It is often easier to show, controller in hand, that a design choice does or does not work, rather than to explain it. It is common to disagree with a given mechanic and get bogged down arguing over the advantages of some choices.
When you are unable to take a decision over 2 options, a set of reference games can help. The advantage is that everyone in the team can experience the variation between 2 mechanics. Everyone can get a good sense of which one works best and why. Often, a prototype will help to unlock the discussion.
5. Do Your Research at the Start of the Day
Looking for new ideas is a brain-intensive task and can exhaust you within a few hours. Bouncing back and forth between concept research, programming, drawing, and writing will suck your juice in no time. This is a general productivity tip: if you want to stay efficient for a whole 8 hours a day, you need a short-term work plan. You should gather all the raw material, the ideas you need when you arrive at the office or even the day before.
Always plan and structure your work. It permits you to focus on the big picture, on arranging ideas all. Planning and structuring relieve’s your mind from heavy-duty for the rest of the day.
Propositional concept artist starts their work with thumbnails. Animators with rough animations. Composers with the chord progression or a thematic structure. And writers with an outline. This way we keep working at a satisfying pace over the course of a whole project.
6. Learn How to Code
To me, gameplay programming is part of the fundamental skillset any game designer should have. For one, we have to communicate with developers often. Because of that alone, it’s useful to understand what coding entails. At least to some extent. But more importantly, this permits you to test your ideas by yourself. It makes you more autonomous, knowledgeable and efficient overall.
A game designer who codes is also an ideal match for most game studios. You just need to know your basics and to have a few samples of your work to prove your skills. With that, you will have no problem finding work. If you can code, other developers won’t need to translate your documents and iterate based on your input anymore. Instead, you will be able to provide them with a playable example showcasing the basic healing balance you are aiming for. You will be able to stay productive throughout the whole game development cycle.
Strong programming skills are extremely useful if you are looking to progress professionally. A good lead not only needs to be skillful but also versatile to some extent. Game designers with strong programming skills are most wanted in the industry. Kudos if you have artistic skills on top of that.
7. Use pictures
“An image is worth a thousand words”, or so they say. You can illustrate a level’s layout and challenges well with a plan. There is nothing like a concept painting to give a good sense of your future game’s ambiance. You can also describe systems with easy to read diagrams better than with plain text.
Coming up with good figures for your documents may take a while. But they can both clearly convey your ideas and greatly enhance the reader’s experience. A lovely picture will even help to sell your writing. This is a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless: the overall visuals and feel of your documents will affect your peer’s perception of your work. It is not enough to come up with a great concept. You also have to know how to properly present it.
8. Short Iterative Loop
Don’t wait to have a whole slice of gameplay to put your game in the hands of testers. By then, you could have wasted time polishing poor controls, focused on a technical aspect that doesn’t matter to your players, or worked on the system so big that you can only backtrack at an unpleasant cost. In any design related job, it is critical to iterate and to do so fast.
An iterative workflow means that you should tackle a limited set of rough features at a time and get feedback before you polish them. It takes hours of focused work to code or design a small set of mechanics. But only a few minutes for your peers to ensure that your work is going in the right direction. So if you haven’t already, shorten the interactive loop.
9. Use Analytics Early On
Regardless of how many testers you have at hand, including yourself, you can track all sorts of useful data with an analytics API. How many times did any tester fail on a given level? How many got through a given challenge? Those simple pieces of information give you a sense of the balance of your game. They are hard to track by hand. Yet, they are useful in the early stages of a project as well. They stay relevant during your beta test sessions and even after the release of your game.
A tool like GameAnalytics will track and plot all of that data for you. If you’re using unity, the SDK is even available as a convenient package to load into your favorite IDE.
10. Use Efficient Tools
Some IDEs are more efficient than others when it comes to prototyping. Until now, for 2d prototypes, my tool of choice has been the Playmaker for Unity. The actual developers of the game can pick any other engine to code the final product. Obviously, within a fixed team, it is ideal for all to work using a common set of tools. As you certainly know, a tool like Unity is great for both prototyping and long-term work. A perfect fit if you are going to native games. If you’re a lone game designer or a freelancer like me, technologies like HTML 5 are great for rapid prototyping.
11. Placeholder Content
The early pre-production phase is no time to fiddle with unnecessary details. It is unlikely that the early prototypes will be kept as they are. They are often dumped because they are proof of concepts more so than solid bases for a product. At that stage of a project, you shouldn’t hesitate to use dirty tricks and other placeholder assets and snippets of code. The only thing that matters as far as a game concept is concerned is that you find the right design direction. It does take some trial and error to get there.
Overall, the list can be summed up in 3 general points:
- Use and abuse prototypes
- Write and code with your teammates in mind
- And don’t neglect the clarity of your presentation
Lastly, here is an awesome video of the secrets of designing fun in games by wired: