How I Design Games

I’ve been working on many game designs lately. Only few of them ever reach the prototype stage and even fewer will ever get turned into final products. Since game design is not an exact science, everyone doing it has its own ways and techniques and this makes it more or less the “black art” of game development process.

I’ve done more than a dozen game designs during the last year, up to various degrees of completion, and I’m starting to recognize a process here, my own way of doing game design, so I thought of sharing it with you, get some feedback on it and maybe you can share back some of your own techniques regarding game design.

I will start by enumerating the tools I use: a pen and a notebook. Why a notebook and not a bunch of paper sheets? Well paper sheets tend to get lost and I like to keep my ideas archived for posterity, who knows when I’ll get to revise them and come up with something new based on them. I even number the notebook’s pages and keep a sort of a document map/table of contents on the first couple of pages to help me find the information I’m looking for in a quick manner.

The general process has its roots in my background as a software developer, therefor I tend to work in iterations, or revisions as I call them. Each revision consists of multiple stages.

The first stage consists of brainstorming ideas. I have a main idea in my mind about what the game should be and how it should feel when I’m starting the process, but all this is very fuzzy and needs to be refined. Every idea which comes into my mind gets written on paper, whether it is a game mechanic, a story idea, a concept, etc. The whole process can take up a couple of hours and that is because it takes a bit to get into the creative thinking mindset, therefor it is best done late at night or very early in the morning, when I have nothing scheduled to distract me from my work.

The next stage is to “sleep on my ideas”. I know it may sound funny and few people do it because they feel like they are losing precious time, but I strongly believe a human being cannot objectively evaluate his own ideas or concepts immediately after emitting them. So I just wait a day or maybe two before moving up to the next stage. If I don’t want to waste so much time waiting, I can work on multiple game designs at once, but I always take care to leave myself some time before writing down and idea and judging its value.

The next stage is a revision in which I read up my previous ideas and decide which ones are junk and which one should be taken to the next iteration.

The last stage is actually the beginning stage of a new iteration, during which I also repeat the brainstorming process, but also develop and expand on the ideas I kept from the previous revision.

I keep repeating this process as long as it is necessary until I get to an acceptable version which is both close enough to my initial vision about the game and also detailed enough to be turned into a prototype game. Some of these designs get abandoned because I reached the conclusion they can’t be turned into something fun, some make are turned into a prototype right away or just archived for future use.

Hope this was helpful, I’ll write about my way of prototyping games in a next article.

Cheers!

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  • Cristi

    nice article man. I agree with most of the stuff you wrote. I do have a couple of questions:
    1. how much of the process is brainstorming and how much is actually coding?
    2. do you ever start work on a feature that is not fully documented?

    also, I assume you are developing the games alone. if that is the case, do you get outside people to bounce ideas off them? or are you doing 100% percent of the brainstorming/documentation/R&D/coding yourself?

    • http://twitter.com/mcozma Mihai Cozma

      1. During the game design process I don’t do any coding, its just writing ideas on paper. After enough iterations if I consider the game looks fun enough, I’ll start coding and make a prototype out of it (the subject of my next article).

      2. I work alone on most of the things, except some art stuff or music and sound, and that is why I don’t get too formal about documenting stuff.

      I write just enough to remind myself what is everything about. After I start coding things on the other side, I take each idea up to the whiteboard and break it up into small pieces until I figure out how to code it (sometimes I just write up some smaller pieces, other times I draw schematics or even algorithms in pseudo-code).

      On the art assets side, if I am to outsource something to a third party, I usually do some basic concept design and document it so the artist can have a better picture of what I expect from him.

      3. I do have some friends that test my prototypes pretty often and help me to find bugs and such, and I also gather a lot of gameplay ideas and feedback from them, so this is my way of getting new ideas and feedback from other people. I do this up until the final art assets for the game are in production, a stage in which major changes would delay the game release a lot.

  • Tudor Tihan

    About brainstorming, just about the only thing I learned from Uni. In order to maximize creativity you need to put down any crazy idea, especially crazy ideas first, whatever comes into your mind, and keep the analysis for later. This switches your brain into creativity mode and out of the pile of ideas some will prove to be gold. This works better though with multiple people brainstorming as their (crazy) ideas will spark stuff in your brain. Just keep the judgment for later, focus entirely on creating ideas, gently pushing them back towards the subject of the brainstorming.

    Otherwise, keep it up!

    • http://twitter.com/mcozma Mihai Cozma

      That is a good point, never be afraid to have a playful attitude when brainstorming and write everything down, no matter how crazy it seems.

      • Tudor Tihan

        It’s mandatory for a great brainstorming, you absolutely have to leave all critique for the second part. Not a shadow of critique during the first phase, hence accept anything. Clown costumes on bicycles with balloons over and trumpet sounds as a Counter Strike character. Sure. Sounds good. Keep the ideas coming…

        • http://elefantopia.com/ Laurent Lavigne

          Yeah Right brain don’t judge. Some times it’s hard to curb that tendency so you can try running a sweat before your creative sessions, sports will bring you into your body and shut down that bitch-inner-voice.

          • http://twitter.com/mcozma Mihai Cozma

            Interesting tip the sports one, I’m going to try it, thanks!