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Who needs a design document anyways?

Posted by Dan Mayor, 08 November 2011 · 1,314 views

Hello fellow designers,
It's been a couple months and as such I felt it time to post another journal entry. This time around I wanted to take a moment and discuss some concepts and ideas behind game design documents, who needs them and how important they may be. As with all of my entries this posting is meant to be informative and get you to ask the questions that will lead you to better results in your ventures. All of the ideas and concepts I mention in here are personal observations and experiences I have encountered over the years of design and development work I have done.

So to the point, who needs a design document?
A simple question with an even simpler answer in my opinion. YOU! Yes I'll say it and believe me it matters, all potential works be it video games, board games, computer software and or web sites all start from one vital asset known as the design document. We've all seen the abundance of people who like to come up with ideas on how they can make a better game or a better service then the last guy, we've all seen the next guy step up with his additions and modifications so forth and so on. But what really gets these projects going? What is it that actually draws interest to you and your project? In today's world where many designers are looking for partners and profit sharing members how do we even get started? The answer to these and many more critical start up questions is the design document my friends.

But my idea is simple, I think people get it...
False! This is a common misconception for many people that try to get their game project started. A lot of times people feel that their game is small and simple and they don't need a design document for other people to know exactly what the project is supposed to be. Although this may be true for you and your friend it's not always that simple. Most of the time the idea seems brutally simple to you because it's your idea, and the friends that you talked to for the past 3 months about this idea seem to completely understand you because you unknowingly have pitched the idea to them so many times. I'll try not to go into one of my long winded rants here, just basically trying to make the point yes you need a design document no matter how simple your project seems.

Ok, I get it I'll make a design document
Well it's a good start to understand you need the document and to begin working on it, but some more consideration is needed. Do not start writing the design document as a chore that needs to be done in order to post a request for partners and or help. Write your game on paper (or in office for today's age), the entire thing, front to back. A design document should never be less then 3 pages and should never generalize ideas and concepts. The design document is what your potential help will read to get the complete feel for your game, make it interesting, explain things, make it call out to other designers and most importantly make it scream "You MUST be a part of this".

An old saying goes "You get what you pay for", and this really does hold true. However it's not always "money" that you need to pay in order to get quality and results. In this world there are many game designers, and even quite a few that are of top notch professional quality that are either out of work or looking to pursue hobbyist projects. Your design document is the first and most important thing that these people will see when they consider you and your project. Not having a design document immediately kills any chances you have for getting a professional grade developer to join you. Having a weak or incomplete design document shows that you yourself don't really have the dedication to continue working on your own project. Keep this in mind when you are writing, try if you can to read back what you write and think "How would someone else feel about this? Does this document show that I am dedicated to the project? Do I show that I have a clear cut idea of what I am looking for in both a team and in a game?". Whenever possible have an impartial person real through the document and have them give you feedback. A lot of times this impartial person will give you new ideas and help you to complete concepts that you are struggling on. In the long run this not only helps your chances of finding quality help but also gives your project that little extra boost in the direction of success.

So how do I do it?
Design documents, like the games themselves come in many different shapes, sizes and templates. It's normally best to simply start writing, tell your reader who the characters of your game are, what the characters are doing and why someone may want to play your game. Extend on this, add some brief dialog ideas you have, explain what you have in mind for some cinematic's, give ideas of how many levels their may be and how the player progresses through them. As with any writing you will always have a rough first draft but that's ok! You don't need perfection in your first go, your basically trying to get that massive jumble of ideas our of your head and into writing. You will notice as you go that it seems like a never ending task as the more you write the more you need to write. This in itself is the main reason why you NEED that document in the first place.

So trying not to get to far off subject I will go back to some of the key components I mentioned in the paragraph above. I do not intend this list to be the definitive answer as to what all design documents MUST have or how they should be layed out but I will give you a quick example of some of the things I myself do when writing up design documents for my clients. It is my recommendation that you always try to address each of these points in every design document you create but by all means please go with the flow and write your document as best fit to your project.

  • Characters:
    Believe it or not Characters of a game are one of the most important aspects. The characters are who your player will fall in love with, learn to hate, connect with and so on. As such I believe it's a major part of the design to develop a core set of "Lead Characters". I always strive to give a little background story for each character, a bio, a description of what I think they should look like and so on. Most importantly connecting the characters to the story is a must in my design process. I highly recommend giving a reason why this particular character is involved in this story, why they are doing what they are doing and so on.
  • Cinematic's:
    I can almost feel the proverbial heat coming already for saying that cinematic's should be defined inside of the basic design document but I do feel it adds ambiance and makes the design more appealing. I will admit this is not a very crucial part of early design it does show that you have a complete idea going and that your not in the early rough draft pitching stages of a project. I normally try to give a generic yet fairly good definition of what I am thinking of when it comes to some of the games cut scenes, intros and other cinematic (movie) scenes. These also help to show intended plot progression and get the reader to truly understand the mechanics of the story. Whenever possible I would try to include descriptions of the cinematic's of a game, however try to avoid step by step scripting as it will inevitably change throughout development.
  • Story Line:
    Story line is paramount to a design document. I know there are probably people already that are reading this and want to point out "I'm just making a puzzle game there is no story". However if this is the case you normally don't need to recruit help, puzzle games are normally designed in their entirety by one or two people. If this is the type of game you are going for I must admit I have wasted your time with this entire article. However, for everyone else your story is VERY important. This should really be the bulk of your design document, you should explain why the game is taking place, why characters are drawn into the game, what the goals are, how the plot progresses and so on. Be very very wordy with this portion, if you don't know the answers or can not fully define / describe this portion get back to the drawing board. Simply put writers who have these great ideas and can write the entire story and plot for you are probably selling their stories to publishers and other development studios. As the proposer of a project this portion of design falls to you... period. This does not mean that you need it to be perfect, you can leave a lot open for other people to chime in on in order to create the perfect work, but the fundamental ideas of who's in it, what are they doing, how do they win and so on MUST be answered before you move into further stages of design and development.
  • Levels:
    Location, ambiance, surroundings, where, these are also very important. Star Wars didn't take place on middle earth, nor did Lord of the rings take place in space. Your reader wants to know, where is this game taking place? What time frame, what are the surroundings like, what kind of technologies exist, what are the people like and so on. Level's may not be the best heading for this particular part of the design but the message stays the same. You should know where your game takes place before you try to tell other people about it. Although references are a good starting point no one wants to copy pixel for pixel another games style. You should explain in as much detail as possible what the your games world looks like, what the levels or areas are, how the player will interact with those levels and how to progress onto the next ones. In many cases you will not have all of these levels designed but you should at least have a starting and ending point clearly defined before you start developing and adding in filler.
  • Items:
    Ok, not as important but does add to the readers understanding of your game and it's mechanics. You could probably get away with ignoring this section but I promise you that adding in these details will greatly increase your chances of landing the help your looking for. Be simple but concise here, give ideas of the important types of items and how they would work. This matters mainly to writers and programmers but everyone likes to have a good read of the equipment and supporting items that they can gain throughout the game.
  • Skills:
    Skills, abilities, attributes... They all seem to fall somewhere in the middle ground of importance for a design document. Not having them may not ruin your project but having them is definitely a major plus. Programmers and graphics people especially both like to know and need to know before they get started what kind of special's they will be responsible for creating. Whenever possible try to explain what these are, how they work, what they do and maybe even pitch some ideas as to what the animations and particle effects that might go into them. Exact statistical numbers are not the most important part of this so don't waste your time trying to get everything balanced and perfected just yet, that can come much later in the development stages of your project.

When all else fails
When all else fails and you simply can not seem to get a good design document going, seek help... Professional help if needed. However there are many writers out there that can offer tips, pointers and maybe even help with a little proof reading. Many times this comes free of charge as there is an abundance of talent out there and we live in a world where people just want to be heard. Throw away your NDA, get over your insecurities and ask other people to criticize your work. Once the heart heals from the brutal lashing you will inevitably get from opening yourself to it you will have a lot of good advise to work with. As people ask questions about your design or criticize and even insult it, use that! Take the words they give you and apply them to your work, make it better, improve it so they can not pass along that insult any more, and in the process of appeasing the haters our there you will find yourself gaining ground.

Research, study, read.... Very important to game designers. Many times people play a game see it and want to do something better. But before you jump in and write out your ideas do some research. Study why it is that the game that spawned your creativity did so well (or so poorly in some cases). Find out what other people thought of the game, join the forums and collect more ideas. Not only will this give you more to work with but you will find yourself getting more and more creative with every additional article or forum posting you read. This will reflect into your design document and help your project get going.

Final Thoughts (Yes, just like Springer)
I would imagine after reading this article people will have strong feelings both ways. As you see personally I believe that no project will succeed without a good, strong and well thought out design document. Even with the masses that may disagree with me on this it is my experience and observations that have lead me to these conclusions. I personally have seen and even been a part of many failed projects, I've seen what happens when there is little guidance and poor design details. As such if you believe me or not I implore of you to at least do your homework on this matter before you move another step with your project. Ask successful teams and teams who have failed alike, ask if they had a design document, ask to see it. Compare the responses you get from both and make your own decisions as to how important a good design document truly is.

I'll end on that note and I welcome other peoples responses to this, yes even from those of you who think I'm full of it. If you have any more questions or would like to run some ideas by me I'm always willing to help as my schedule permits. My contact information is in my profile I do not get back to this site much in order to monitor my messages here but I do read my emails every chance I get. The most immediate way to get to me is through my instant messengers that you find on my profile or you can try to email me. I'm Dan and I'm AT my website Digivance.com, I'm sure you can put those together and get the address from it ;).




very good read... but I will note my own opinion... even puzzle games whether it be tic-tac-toe or bejeweled 501. Stating your end goal, will atleast keep you on track. I can't count the amount of little puzzle games I've started, only to have them constantly branch off into using them as test beds for tech demos. Never actually finishing the game play.

Even tic-tac-toe can have a doc that explains how the app should flow, how the player will interact with it and how the game should end. That way you don't loose interest while adding a multiplayer feature that you never planned on in the first place.
Good reading! I found this very interesting as I am writing my own design document.. not to find people but for my own selfish needs ;-) I agree that a document keeps you better motivated and on track with a project.
#1 reason for me to have a design doc is to use it as The Book -- whenever a confusion arises in terms of "what feature ya say?" or "but Timmy said we were going with this!" I just point to the design doc. Sure, communications should be clearer than this, but sometimes things just leak through the cracks and it's good to have a standard reference to point to instead of bugging the producer about which feature goes where.

Of course, mostly it's the big things that need to be communicated and a design doc does that pretty well. Only thing I'd add is that it should grow organically - no god damn waterfall design!

It's also good to have a place to "dump ideas". You need a clear picture to keep going and a GDD provides that at all times. When you reach a crossroads, well, decide and put it in the GDD!
Shouldn't dynamics also be included in the GDD? Movement, jumping, and whatever else the player needs to guide their character? Also, what about the interface's layout and specific windows' designs? At least a vague idea of what these things are supposed to look like would help artists a lot, right?
Thanks for the feedback everyone, I'm glad to hear that people actually enjoy one of my rants. GHMP Brings up a good point that I seem to have neglected that mechanics and dynamics are also very important. Seems that with every entry I post more and more people seem to read them, for this and for those of you who may be interested I will try to post submissions more often. Feel free to follow my journals and keep the comments coming, we can all learn from each other and I believe that's the true spirit of this site!

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