So you want to amp up your game design documentation (GDD) skills? There’s many ways to organize your ideas on paper. As game complexity and team sizes grow, being able to clarify your game vision and effectively communicate the key concepts becomes more important. Here’s just a few tips that can help streamline that process.
1. Designs should change and grow
By essence the game design document is a living document. It will inevitably grow and change as details are clarified and bad mechanics get ironed out. It should be built in an environment that makes it easy to update and maintain, not some file that is used once and forgotten. Static documents are a thing of the past.
Don’t fall prey to the document-email-tag-revision nightmare. Find an online solution, and share the document solely through the service. Unless you’re building the game solo (my hat off to you), you’ll need an easy way to share and collaborate with your team. Both Google Docs and Dropbox are excellence resources for sharing documents on teams.
2. A clear vision
Most great ideas start from a single, simple vision. While this may be true of the vast majority of games, a good many fall prey to scope creep and inevitably morph into a misfigured zombie love child of Gruul.
You can use any medium to help communicate the vision, it doesn’t have to be a purely written summary. Sometimes the art plays a major role in the design, or there’s an overarching mood and setting that you need to convey. Using images or any other format that help embody the original idea are viable options. Just be sure there’s a description for a newcomer to get context and understand your goal.
With the original core idea written down, it will enable you to point to a simple document for new and existing team members, publishers or just a reference to stay grounded as the project progresses. This document should help keep the eye on the prize!
If you want to learn more, we wrote an article about why using game design vision statement is important.
3. Build your core mechanics, then build everything else
Start by focusing on your core gameplay. This is the main game loop where the player will spend most of their time. Often poorly designed games can be attributed to flaws in the game mechanics. Take care to uncover any holes in the game loop, the important game rules and balance factors. Get as much of these details you can on paper first.
Once you have the core outlined, as soon as you are able to you should start play testing. You don’t need a functional game prototype to do this, even if it only involves pen and paper tests it can be worthwhile. Play testing early can really highlight any of the core flaws and make sure you have a solid fun factor. It might give great early indicators as to whether you have a dud and need to go back to the drawing board, saving you lots of time. Play testing is the only true way to flesh out ideas, and reaffirm that you have a keeper.
Once you have a solid foundation that you feel good about, start adding scope. Add all the features, game items, characters and whatever content that brings depth to the game. With the core mechanics defined, it’ll be a lot easier to add the meat of the game. If you start adding them too early, you’ll have a lot of … and ??? throughout your design that will have to be revised or removed. This way you focus on the fun factor first, before you get stuck in a quagmire of content to build and update.
Be sure to test often as you add new features. If the vision statement still holds up at scale, you’re on the right path.
4. Must haves versus nice to haves
If only Back To The Future was a documentary, and we had unlimited time. Then we could pack every feature we dream of into every game. Alas, I still don’t have a hover board and we still must find a balance of time and our list of features. It’s vital to prioritize so you can still release the game with the important elements included.
Create two buckets. One for the must haves that give legs to the core of the game, and one for the nice to haves – things that are “cool”, but you will still be able to launch without. Don’t get distracted with fun ideas that spinoff of the vision. Knock out the core items first.
Be careful! Don’t let it spoil your creative process. There shouldn’t be a wall in front of the brainstorming sessions, it’s not an effective way to create inspired designs. Just realize the bulk of these items may sit in a backlog for a period of time until you can pay attention to them.
5. Setting the scene
Think of your scenes as a movie set. In an action movie great care is put into every detail, from the props on the street to the music soundtrack and action choreography. You need to pay attention to your details too. A few items to to consider for every scene:
- The mood. What emotions should the scene bring out? Consider what audio or visual props can help set the mood.
- Boundaries. What are the transitions or boundaries for a scene? For puzzle games, it could be a box with a fade out transition to the next level. For a high fantasy RPG, it could be the typical mountain range perimeter with canyons to funnel to the next region.
- Camera angle. While this is often the same for every scene, it’s nevertheless an important detail to consider based on scene restrictions or goals.
- Interactive elements. Consider both the items you plan on allowing the user to interact with, and also what the user would expect to be able to interact with. Setting up some visual cues to illustrate interactive elements is important for the UX.
- In-scene progression. At some point the person will enter a scene, and you will need to consider their starting point and any milestones as they make progress. For example, in large outdoor worlds, it could be important to help guide the user toward their goals and their could be many entry and exit points for that scene.
Everything from puzzle games, to platformers to high fantasy RPG’s; a good scene design can make a huge impact. Take care to find a balance between world immersion and helpful visuals to guide the player along.
6. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration…
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
– Phil Jackson
Don’t live in a silo. Whether you have a team or just a few buddies that can provide feedback, get some eyes on your design. Feedback is virtually as important as play testing. Get it early and get it often.
Get your team using the GDD as a game reference and a communication tool. This will help keep it updated as your game progresses, and keeps everyone informed on the current state of your project. Consider sending out notifications when updates are made.
Hopefully you find these few tips useful in your designs. A simple process can help make your time more efficient and guide you down a successful path. If you have any tips you’ve found useful to building your GDD’s, we’d love to hear them. Post your ideas in the comments below.