Documenting your design

Documenting your design

By Billy Thomson

June 30th 2009 at 11:57AM

The importance of high-level paper design

Right now the Ruffian design team are diligently working away on the design of our current project.

Aside from the final balance and tweaking stage, we’re right in the middle of what I believe is one of the most important stages of game production. Get this part wrong and you’ll likely spend the rest of the project struggling to keep your team motivated and your publisher happy – which is a marriage destined for divorce.

So, while it’s obviously a huge responsibility, it’s also that golden time at the start of a project. You can discuss incredibly ambitious features without fear of your producer telling you to go sit on the naughty step and you genuinely feel like there are no bad ideas – which I should point out is total bollocks. There’s usually an abundance of truly awful ideas, but we put them forward all the same, as a bad idea can occasionally coax a good one from a creative mind.

This month I’ll discuss how well thought out, well presented design documentation is essential to properly manage publisher expectations, plan the production of the project, and generate that crucial buzz within the development and publishing teams.

Managing Expectations
Ensuring that your own plans as a developer match those of the publisher is vital if your working relationship is going to be a successful one. At Ruffian we strive to include the publisher at every stage of development of the game, especially the early high-level paper design.

While you’re looking for a contribution from the publisher, it is still advisable to go into this stage armed with a solid paper design that explains the core game and the feature set. Trust me, it will help make this entire process run far more smoothly. This early inclusion of the publisher in the design process can cause tension at times but I can testify that it’s definitely worth the stress, as it creates a unity between the developer and publisher, allowing you to begin the production planning stage with everyone fully behind the design and 100 per cent focused on the same set of goals.

Production Planning
When the high level paper design has publisher approval, you can then begin the process of fleshing out the requirement documents for the game. Everything must be documented – features, mechanics, story, visuals – and for each of these you need detailed requirements for each discipline: code, art, audio, design. It’s a huge task, but it must be done properly. These documents are then reviewed by the developers responsible for the work to ensure everything is as it should be and that there are no obvious issues with the design.

Only when you have gone through this process are you really ready to start planning the production of the game, which allows you to know whether the team you have can make the game you have envisaged within the defined timeframe.

Generating Excitement

This may seem like an odd one, but keeping the development team excited about the game can sometimes be a tough job. Yes, they may be working on a great game, but it’s also likely that they’re working on a small feature in a game with hundreds of features which can make it difficult for them to realise its significance or importance in the game.

Thankfully we have talented designers at Ruffian who can create design documentation that has solid, easily understood content that is also easy on the eye. This kind of high quality design documentation allows our team to understand the game design and see how their own work fits into the bigger picture and benefits the game.

Ensuring that the development team believe in the game is important for morale, but keeping the publisher excited is absolutely vital. If your game design is well presented and excites your publisher early on, they will back you all the way: big marketing budgets, coverage at the best press events, everything your game needs to be a commercial success. If the excitement isn’t there they will put their weight behind another game in their catalogue, leaving your potentially great game with very little marketing spend. If this happens, the best you can expect is critical rather than commercial success, and while praise is fantastic it can’t buy you a pint in the pub.

Documenting a game design can be an exhilarating, freeing experience as well as an incredibly daunting time for a designer. One day you can feel like the gaming world is your bump mapped oyster, then the next you feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of content you’re ultimately responsible for. In the end, the process of defining a game on paper is ultimately the most important task a designer is responsible for during the development of any game.