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Play & Design Wednesday: Creating a Design Document

So, you want to make a video game.

You have an idea already in mind with the art style, mechanics, sounds, and everything else. All you need now is a team of people to get the project moving forward, right? Here is the best advice I have: slow down.

You are not going anywhere until you write down these huge ideas 1) for you to evaluate, and 2) for someone else to see.

What you need is a game design document.

What is a game design document?

A game design document is a “living document” that contains every aspect of a game and presents the vision to the production team and future publishers. A few of the details included in a game design document are story, art style, mechanics, platforms, levels, and any other important characteristic of the game that artists and programmers may need to understand to produce the game’s components. The document is called a “living document” because the process for good game design is one of constant revision as the game is first conceived, iterated on, and then implemented.

Why is the design document important?

Many times a designer comes to the table jazzed about a new idea so grand that it is unrealistic or impossible to produce the game by deadline. Using a game design document helps to clarify what is realistic and necessary. Instead of focusing on creating the next entirely realistic fantasy game, with a completely randomized open-world that spans four countries in entirety, a design document can show the creator the reality of the difficulty of creating that kind of game, and can clarify the realistic costs of implementation. So instead of realistic art, the designer may realize that stylized art is more manageable, timely to produce, and cost effective. In this situation, the designer might also recognize that some amount of linear scripting is more helpful to the story than randomizing every interaction.

Game design documents also help keep the entire production team on the same page. On the one hand, it is nice to have artists and programmers look to the designer for help in their work, but after several weeks it becomes time consuming and less than desirable. If production is taking time trying to find the designer to ask questions, that is less time spent on the work itself. A game design document helps give vision to the artists and programmers so that their time is spent on the work for the designer’s approval. It streamlines everyone’s jobs, meaning deadlines are easier to meet.

What goes into a game design document?

While game design documents are central to the creation of a game, there is not one overarching or correct template for creating one. The content of the document depends a lot on the game and the designer’s vision for it. Some games may be mechanic heavy while others are mainly artistic and still others may be entirely driven by story. Even though there is not one way to make a design document, it is important to remember to keep these subjects in mind when creating one.

Overview: The people reading the document, whether they are publishers or teammates, need to know, at the core, what the game is about. The overview should be to the point without sacrificing necessary details to understand the game, and it should not describe a game in terms of other games without further description. It is ok to use other games to give an idea, but if it is not backed up by other specifics that make the game its own entity then the idea will not be clear to others reading it.

Technicalities: It’s nice to think about what a game will look like, but ultimately the player is the one playing the game, not the creators. This means that every aspect of the game’s controls needs to be explained. If there are skill trees, they need to be portrayed. If the game has a combat system, then how does that system work? If there are lives or health then what affects that system? What buttons can the player push to perform an action? Every small detail needs to be outlined as intimately as possible so that the programmers know what to program and the publishers understand the gameplay. It also helps the designer have a better idea of the function of the game as a whole and how every system and subsystem works together.

Story: This comprises of everything from the main characters to the culture of the world. A breakdown of levels may also be important to the game document if the game is level heavy. By defining the characters (playable and nonplayable) as well as the world’s culture and build, the artists will have a better idea about the direction the designer wants to focus on. Even sidescrollers cannot be created without some idea of the progression of each level and what the ultimate goal is.

Target Audience: This not only helps the document writer, but it also helps the others involved in the process know who to appeal to. If the game targets children between the ages of 5 to 8, then it’s not a good idea to write character scripts that are above a certain reading level. It may also be a good idea to focus on an art style that appeals more to children than adults. However the target audience is not just defined by age, it is also defined by gender and even personality. Games like Borderlands thrive on people who love morbid humor, and it is obvious that humor is part of their target audience. Describing the target audience is one of the most important parts of a design document because it affects how the story should be written and how the game should be played. If the game does not cater to a certain person, then the message is lost and the game becomes bland.

Below are some examples of design documents and the many ways that they can be conceived:

What’s next?

Now you have a general idea of the importance, utility and components of a game design document and you have realized that writing it takes a lot of effort. The only thing left to do is to start. Draft a game idea into a design document of your own. Have others read through it and give you feedback it takes a lot of practice to create a design document that is understandable and realistic.

The good news is, game design documents are edited constantly through the game creation process to match the ever-changing vision and reality of the game. Just as your game will change through iteration, so will the document. Do not worry about getting the perfect design document together, just get started and know that just as every game has failed concepts that have to be scrapped or redone, so might your game design document. Embrace this mentality and it will benefit your game, and you as a designer in the long run.