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  • 02/03/19 12:03 PM

    A Simple Format to Archive Design Decisions

    Game Design

    FishingCactus

    Before starting production on Nanotale, we took some time to prototype various typing gameplay ideas. When prototyping, you have to focus on the things you want to test, and iterate on them as fast as possible. There is no time to document everything. But the prototypes do not always speak by themselves. (Sometimes there is no playable build to keep, like the time I tested interactive dialogs by acting as the NPC and talking through Slack with a colleague. We will get back to that.) So we needed a way to archive what we learned from each iteration, in a format that would be quick to write and read.

     

    The Problem

    This is a common problem of design documentation. How to keep an account of the decisions that led to a design as it is? It is interesting to keep a trace of previous iterations, to look back at the evolution of a design. But more importantly, it is a waste of time if another designer (or your forgetful self) makes changes that recreate a problem that has already been solved, just because they have no knowledge of the history behind that decision.

    For all those reasons, I was looking for a practical way to link each feature to the decision path that led to it. It needed to be quick to write and to read because if we have to go back and read multiple paragraphs of history, we all know no one will do it. Surely, someone already came up with a solution, right?

     

    A Solution

    Sadly, I could not find anything related to game design. The results I found were tools to keep track of programming design decisions in code, as it seems programmers need a similar solution for similar reasons. Eventually, I found a research paper about an experimental tool made to present design decision-making in a simple way. It gathers “decision elements” from different sources (code annotations, designers’ UML diagrams…) and organizes them visually in a hierarchy, like bullet points. If you want to know more about the technical details of their tool, it is called “DecDoc: A Tool for Documenting Design Decisions Collaboratively and Incrementally” (Hesse, Tom-Michael & Kuehlwein, Arthur & Roehm, Tobias 30-37. 10.1109/MARCH.2016.9)

    I took inspiration from their bullet points presentation. It is brief, the icons convey a meaning that does not have to go through text. When taking notes, only a few words are necessary. It is great for what we want. Here is a made up example of what it can look like for game design:

    •  ☝️ We need X to give game experience Y
      •  ✔️ There are no other games doing X
      •  ⚠️ An aspect of X can be too costly
        • 🔑 can be limited to a few occurrences
        • 🔑 We can try the different way Z instead
        • ⇒ Give Z a test to decide
      •   How does this affect W?

    And here is a real example form the prototype of the dialogue system I was alluding to in the introduction. To give a bit of context, it was a test for a typing based branching dialog. Typing highlighted keywords would make the conversation go forward on the topic of the chosen keyword. The playtest challenged the idea of having secret keywords the player could type by himself, that they would have learned from another NPC.

    NT_proto_example2.png?resize=671%2C452

     

    Our Version

    We took a few generic icon types from the original source and added others as they were needed. Here is the full list of the icons we have:

      

    ☝️ Postulate

    Let's admit that…

      

    👉 Assessment

    We already know that…

      

     Question

    Uncertainty to be resolved or define

      

    🛑 Problem

    This is / creates a problem / inconsistency

      

    ⚠️ Risk

    This seems risky and may not be fun/doable

      

    🚩 Flag

    This problem will probably come up later on

      

    ⊕ Intention

    The motive behind a decision or design

      

     Opportunity

    A good thing that can be developed

      

    🔑 Solution

    Proposition of a solution

      

    💡 Idea

    Proposition of an additional feature

      

    ✔️ Argument for

    Argument in favor of

      

     Argument against

    Argument against

      

    ✏️ Note

    Additional information

      ⇒

    Decision

    Final decision of what we are doing

    All the icons are basic Unicode emojis and not images to gain time and ensure full compatibility. The bullet point notes of each prototype where copy pasted into Slack for the whole studio, and you can now see an example in this article, without extra work. They can also all be drawn quickly, at least in broad strokes, to be used when taking notes with pen and paper.

     

    Extended Use

    When we entered into production and decided to use a wiki as our design document, we ported the icon system to it. The wiki tool that is made to convert => into ⇒ was modified to also change :idea: into 💡. Here is another example, taken from the wiki page about the consumption of “mana” to cast spells.

    NT_wiki_example2.jpg?resize=671%2C293

    We ended up using those icons to add quick “work in progress” notes in our design documents. The most common is the idea icon (💡), used whenever we want to add an idea to an existing page for later review. The couple problem (🛑) - solution (🔑 ) identifies problems and solutions to evaluate whenever we can take the time to redesign the feature. The intention icon (⊕) has been added later, specifically for the wiki, to justify the purpose of a feature.

    Game design documents are in a constant work in progress state, evolving during development. They are often out-of-date from the latest changes if you do not have someone dedicated to that (which, on our small team, we don’t). The tool and format we use to write them should support that. With our system, whenever we see a bullet point with an icon, we know that the information is still part of an ongoing discussion. Other team members can trust what is written because what is unknown or unsure is also documented. The design process is transparent in the documents.

     

    In the future, that system will evolve a bit like a new language. On one hand by adding the icons we need, and in the other hand by removing the ones that are not used to avoid cluttering. The list as it is now is probably a bit too long. Now that I have told you everything, I would love to know if that system can be useful to others, or if other solutions exist.

    Thank you for reading. 



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    Thanks for sharing, seems like a good approach, and very easy to work with! :)

    Have you also read Daniel Cook's description of "Game Design Logs"?

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    I like to use Freemind for such stuff. It has the advantage that is dynamic so nodes can be folded/unfolded to keep the information clear. If something new comes around for a specific topic you can just add a child node for this specific topic node to add detail information (for example problems, thoughts, decisions and more). Detail info is then folded away to not clutter the main information. If somebody comes around he can look at the child nodes to see if there is something important. I also attach icons to the nodes if they are of specific importance. Last but not least you can link nodes. Allows to create node groups about a specific topic leading straight to the actual text nodes with the in-detail explanations. I've seen no better tool so far to organize simple to complex project information without turning into a clutter-festival.

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    @jbadams No, I didn't. Thank you very much for sharing. 

    @RPTD That's another way to do it. Doesn't it become too messy at some point using a mindmap? 

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    8 hours ago, FishingCactus said:

    @jbadams No, I didn't. Thank you very much for sharing. 

    @RPTD That's another way to do it. Doesn't it become too messy at some point using a mindmap? 

    Personally I don't think so. It depends on how you organize it.

    The strength of Freemind is that you can keep all the detail stuff collapsed until you really need it. So if new info comes by you can really attach it to the place where it belongs (adding detail info). It's there while not cluttering which I find a great help.

    Furthermore the linking helps a lot to keep information tidy while finding it which I find very difficult with linear design docs. It does not matter where somebody thinks a certain detail info is attached to best (often more than one place) because at the other places you can just add a link to it. In my case for example I use to have detail info on character abilities underneath the character. If there is for example a scene/task/plot-point where I want to focus on such an ability I can plop in a node pointing to the root node describing the ability in detail. So if somebody comes by this scene/task/plot-point and sees this link and wants to read the additional info (or add important info himself) he can just straight jump to it without needing to know where the info is located nor having debates about where it should be.

    I think important with Freemind and Co. is also to have a "links" node which contains child nodes linking to important places. This way you can keep the majority of nodes collapsed, keep the important parts visible, and still quickly locate and update the info you need.

    As with all tools people need to apply a certain level of discipline. For example to not make more than 10-20 child nodes and grouping them if they get too numerous. If used the right way I think it's a great help especially in contrary to linear design documents.

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      You can't tell an early professional from an amateur purely by looking at a one-time snapshot of their results. The key differences are internal. Professionals and amateurs who start from scratch may begin on the same footing. After the first year their initial results may appear similar. But fast forward ten years.... Most likely the amateur will have given up and left the business or is still barely eeking out a living. Meanwhile the professional has become an established leader with a strong, sustainable income.
      So what is the essential difference between the shareware amateur and the shareware professional? It can be summarized in just one word: fear. The amateur feels vulnerable, believing that certain things might happen which s/he will be unable to handle. The amateur doesn't want to deal with products that aren't selling well, avoids facing his/her deepest inadequacies, and seeks to manage fear by clinging to the familiar and the comfortable. Instead of pursuing the greatest opportunities, the amateur pursues the safest and most comfortable paths. For instance, an amateur who feels more comfortable programming than marketing will heavily favor programming projects, whether or not that's what the business needs most. The amateur ties much of his/her sense of self-worth to external factors, and when those factors are threatened, the amateur feels a strong urge to return to the safety of the comfort zone.
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      These models of the amateur and the professional are abstractions of course. Between them lies a continuum where real people can be found. Hopefully you'll find the contrasts between these two poles helpful in continuing your own professional development.
       
      Steve Pavlina is the CEO and founder of Dexterity Software and writes and speaks on software and computer gaming industry topics regularly. This article is Copyright © 2002 by Steve Pavlina.
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      Can programmers art? How far can creativity and programming take you?
      I have summarized what I learned in several months into 7 key techniques to improve the visual quality of your game.
       
      "Programmer art" is something of a running joke. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the "placeholder" or "throw-together" art that programmers tend to use while developing games.
      Some of us don't have the necessary artistic skills, however, sometimes we just can't be bothered to put in the effort. We're concerned about the technical side of things working - art can come later.
      Here's what this usually means -

       
      I worked on a game jam with some new people a few months ago. I just wanted to make sure that my gameplay and AI code was doing what it was supposed to do. This would have to interface with code from other teammates as well, so it was important to test and check for bugs. This was the result.
      That's not what I'm going to talk about today though.
       
      I'm going to take a different angle on "programmer art" - not the joke art that programmers often use, but the fact that there's a LOT that a programmer can do to improve the visual appeal of a game. I believe some of this falls under "technical art" as well.
       
      My current job kind of forced me to think in this capacity.
      I was tasked with visualizing some scientific data. Though this data was the result of years of hard work on the part of scientists, the result was unimpressive to the untrained eye - a heap of excel files with some words and numbers.
      There are very few people in the world who can get excited by seeing a few excel files.
      My job? To make this data exciting to everyone else.
      My task was to visualize connectome data for a famous worm known as C. Elegans, made available by the wonderful people working on the OpenWorm project.
      Part of the data parsing to read and display the data as a worm's body with neurons on it was done by my teammate. My main task was to improve the visuals and the overall graphical quality.

       
      The first thing that comes to mind is using HD textures, PBR materials and high-poly models. Add in a 3D terrain using a height map, some post-processing and HDR lighting, and BOOM! Gorgeous 3D scene. I'm sure you've all seen loads of those by now.
      Except, almost none of that would really help me.
      The idea was very abstract - neurons and connections visible in a zoomed-in, x-ray-like view of a worm. I don't think rolling hills would have helped me much.
      I had no 3D modelling skills or access to an artist - even if I did, I'm not sure what kind of 3D models would have helped.
       
      As a result, what I've made isn't a gorgeous 3D environment with foliage and god-rays and lens flares. So it's not applicable in every case or the perfect example of how a programmer can make a gorgeous game.
      But, it does provide a distinct viewpoint and result. The special sets of constraints in the problem I had to solve led to this.
      So here's what I actually did:
       
      The 7 things I did to improve the visuals of my Unity game
      1. Conceptualizing the look
      This could be considered a pre-production step for art or any visual project. Ideally, what should it look like? What's the goal? What are your references?
      In this case, the viewer had a hologram-like feel to it (also there were plans to port it to a HoloLens eventually). I liked the idea of a futuristic hologram. And the metaphor of "AI bringing us towards a better future".
      So what were my references? Sci-fi of course!
      My first pick was one of my favourite franchises - Star Wars. I love how the holo-comms look in the movies.

       
      Holograms became a key component of my design.
      This is a HUD design from Prometheus that I found on Google -

       
      In this case, the colours appealed to me more than the design itself. I ended up basing the UI design on this concept.
       
      Key takeaway - Your imagination is the very first tool that helps you create impressive art. Use references! It's not cheating - it's inspiration. Your references will guide you as you create the look that you want.
       
      2. Shaders can help you achieve that look 
      I had some shader programming experience from University - D3D11 and HLSL. But that work had been about building a basic graphics engine with features like lighting, shadows, and some light post-processing. I had done some light Shader programming in Unity before as well.
      What I really needed now was impressive visual effects, not basic lighting and shadows.
      I was really lucky that this was about the time Unity made Shader Graph available, which made everything much easier. I can write Shader code, but being able to see in real time what each node (Which can be considered a line of code) does makes it so much easier to produce the effects you want.
      I familiarized myself with all the samples Unity had included with this new tool. That wouldn't have been enough though. Thankfully due to my previous experience with Shaders, I was able to make some adjustments and improvements to make them suit my needs.
      Some tweaking with speed, scaling, colours, and textures led to a nice hologram effect for the UI panels.

       
      I wanted the viewer to feel good to interact with as well, and some work implementing a glow effect (alongside the dissolve effects) led to this -
       
      Key takeaway - Shaders are an extremely powerful tool in a Game Programmer's repertoire. Tools like Unity's Shader Graph, the old Shader Forge asset, and Unreal's material editor make Shaders more accessible and easier to tune to get the exact look you want.
      PS - Step 5 below is also really important for getting a nice glow effect.
       
      3. Visual Effects and Animations using Shaders
      I was able to extend the dissolve and hologram shaders to fake some animation-like visual effects.
      And a combination of some timed Sine curves let me create an animation using the dissolve effect -
       
      The work here was to move the animation smoothly across individual neuron objects. The animation makes it look like they're a single connected object, but they're actually individual Sphere meshes with the Shader applied to them. This is made possible by applying the dissolve texture in World Space instead of Object Space.
      A single shader graph for the neurons had functionality for colour blending, glow, and dissolve animation.
      All of this made the graphs really large and difficult to work with though. Unity was constantly updating the Shader Graph tools, and the new updates include sub-graphs which make it much easier to manage.
      Key takeaway - There is more to shaders than meets the eye. As you gain familiarity with them, there are very few limits to the effects you can create. You can create animations and visual effects using Shaders too.
       
      4. Particle systems - more than just trails and sparks
      I have no idea why I put off working with the particle systems for so long!
      The "neurons" in the viewer were just spheres, which was pretty boring.
      Once I started to understand the basics of the particle system, I could see how powerful it was. I worked on some samples from great YouTube tutorials - I'm sharing a great one by Gabriel Aguiar in the comments below.
      After that, I opened up Photoshop and experimented with different brushes to create Particle textures.
      Once again, I referred to my sources of what neurons should look like. I wanted a similar look of "hair-like" connections coming out of the neurons, and the core being bright and dense.
      This is what it looked like finished, and the particle system even let me create a nice pulsating effect.
       
      Part of my work was also parsing a ton of "playback data" of neurons firing. I wanted this to look like bright beams of light, travelling from neuron to neuron. This involved some pathfinding and multi-threading work as well.
       
      Lastly, I decided to add a sort of feedback effect of neurons firing. This way, you can see where a signal is originating and where it's ending.
       
      Key takeaway - Particle systems can be used in many ways, not just for sparks and trails. Here, I used them to represent a rather abstract object, a neuron. They can be applied wherever a visual effect or a form of visual "feedback" seems relevant.
       
      5. Post-processing to tie the graphics and art together
      Post-processing makes a HUGE difference in the look of a game scene. It's not just about colours and tone, there's much more to it than that. You can easily adjust colours, brightness, contrast, and add effects such as bloom, motion blur, vignette, and screen-space reflections.
      First of all, Linear colour space with HDR enabled makes a huge difference - make sure you try this out.
      Next, Unity's new post-processing stack makes a lot of options available without impacting performance much.
      The glow around the edges of the sphere only appears with an HDR colour selected for the shader, HDR enabled, and Linear colour space. Post-processing helps bump this up too - bloom is one of the most important settings for this.
      Colour grading can be used to provide a warm or cool look to your entire scene. It's like applying a filter on top of the scene, as you would to an image in Photoshop. You can completely override the colours, desaturate to black and white, bump up the contrast, or apply a single colour to the whole scene.

       
      There is a great tutorial from Unity for getting that HD look in your scenes - if you want a visible glow you normally associate with beautiful games, you need to check this out.
       
      Key takeaway - Post processing ties everything together, and helps certain effects like glows stand out.
       
      6. Timing and animation curves for better "feel" 
      This is a core concept of animation. I have some training in graphic design and animation, which is where I picked this up. I'm not sure about the proper term for it - timing, animation curves, tween, etc.
      Basically, if you're animating something, it's rarely best to do it with linear timing. Instead, you want curves like this -

       
      Or more crazy ones for more "bouncy" or cartoon-ish effects.
      I applied this to the glow effects on the neurons, as I showed earlier.
      And you can use this sparingly when working with particle systems as well - for speed, size, and similar effects. I used this for the effect of neurons firing, which is like a green "explosion" outwards. The particles move outwards fast and then slow down.
      Unity has Animation Curve components you can attach to objects. You can set the curve using a GUI and then query it in your C# scripts. Definitely worth learning about.
      Key takeaway - Curves or tweens are an animation concept that is easy to pick up and apply. It can be a key differentiator for whether your animations and overall game look polished or not.
       
      7. Colour Palettes and Colour Theory - Often overlooked
      Colour is something that I tend to experiment with and work with based on my instincts. I like being creative, however, I really underestimated the benefits of applying colour theory and using palettes.
      Here's the before -
       
      Here are some of the afters -
       
      I implemented multiple themes because they all looked so good.
      I used a tool from Adobe for palettes, called Adobe Colour - link in the comments.
      I basically messed around with different types of "Colour harmony" - Monochrome, triad, complementary, and more. I also borrowed some colours from my references and built around that.
      Key takeaway - Don't underestimate the importance of colour and colour theory. Keep your initial concept and references in mind when choosing colours. This adds to that final, polished look you want.
       
      Bonus - consider procedural art
      Procedural Generation is just an amazing technique. I didn't apply it on this project, but I learned the basics of it such as generating Value and Perlin noise, generating and using Height maps for terrains, and generating mazes.

       
      Procedural art is definitely something I want to explore more.
      A couple of interesting things (Links in the "extra resources" section below) -
      Google deepdream has been used to generate art. There's an open-source AI project that can colour lineart. Kate Compton has a lot of interesting projects and resources about PCG and generative art. I hope this leads to tools that can be directly applied to Game Development. To support the creation of art for games. I hope I get the opportunity to create something like that myself too.
      Conclusion
      These 7 techniques were at the core of what I did to improve the visual quality of my project.
      This was mostly the result of the unique set of constraints that I had. But I'm pretty sure some famous person said: "true creativity is born of constraints". Or something along those lines. It basically means that constraints and problems help channel your creativity.
      I'm sure there is more that I could have done, but I was happy with the stark difference between the "before" and "after" states of my project.
      I've also realized that this project has made me more of an artist. If you work on visual quality even as a programmer, you practice and sharpen your artistic abilities, and end up becoming something of an artist yourself. 
       
      Thanks for reading! Please like, share, and comment if you enjoyed this article.
      Did I miss something obvious? Let me know in the comments!
       
       
       
       
       
      Extra Resources
      OpenWorm project
      Great tutorial by Gabriel Aguiar
      Unity breaks down how to improve the look of a game using Post processing
      Another resource on post-processing by Dilmer Valecillos
      Brackey's tutorial on post-processing
      Adobe Colour wheel, great for colour theory and palettes
      An open-source AI project that can colour lineart
      A demo of generative art by Kate Compton
       
      Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn. If you like it, please click through, get in contact, and consider connecting.
    • By invent71
      Hi GameDevs,
      We have been busy working on a new Retro Shoot em up called "IRIDIUM", A frantic new 2D shoot 'em up with huge levels and truly massive enemy ships. Mixing game styles from Uridium, Xenon 2 and Nemesis.
      We do have a demo to play for PC  https://nebula-design.itch.io/iridium
      If you love shootemups as much as us, please let us know your thoughts. Some example images below  We'd love to get this on NintendoSwitch if we can reach our goal.
       
       

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