Bright Night Games


The Creative Design Process
Written by Paul
October 7, 2007

Where to Begin

By no means do I consider myself an expert at designing games, but I'm willing to share the knowledge I've acquired over the past few years. People often ask me (well, they don't, but I wish they would!) where I begin my design process. I start with a pen and a cleverly labeled notebook, "Game Ideas". From here I try to find a good, quiet spot to sit and brainstorm about what I think would make a fun game. I usually begin by thinking about the games I like playing, and ask myself what makes them so enjoyable. I proceed by thinking about any modifications I would like to have seen in the original game, and start jotting any ideas down. After a few minutes of brainstorming, I eliminate the sour ideas, and try to combine any of the remaining solid ideas into what I think could make a great game, but at the same time I try to be realistic. Don't expect to have the next World of Warcraft on your first try.

It's always nice to have a little innovation in your game ideas, but don't be afraid to stick to the basics, too. When I was designing Toasted I knew a text-based game was going to have major limitations as to what we could represent on the screen, so I went with a safer and much simpler approach. This allowed my team to easily represent the important information that the player needed to see. In the end, Toasted turned out to be a pretty good game.

The Next Step

Once you have a general idea for a game you'd like to make or see made, start organizing your thoughts into a game design document (GDD). The GDD is basically the sole document responsible for all of the information someone would need to know in order to make your game.

  • The High Concept - A 20 (or less) word summary describing what the game is about.

  • Competitive Products - Similarities and differences between your game and others.

  • Target Demographic - The target age range you're trying to attract.

  • Game Overview / Genre - This is a fairly broad section where most of the features unique to your design will go.

  • User Interface - The controls and heads up display (HUD).

  • Game Level Breakdown - A detailed description of each level in the game.

  • Contingency Plan - List anything overly complicated that could be scaled back if necessary.

Don't be afraid of the fairly long list of items. Most of them you will have already completed and others may simply require a little thinking. For example, the high concept should be a very brief description of the game. The high concept for Adventure Kid was:

"Exploration based side scrolling platform game where the player controls a character that is able to pick up and stack blocks."

Rough drafts (sketches) of levels or particular ideas are also a good idea to help get your image of the game across to other people. If you were designing a 2D platformer, it would be nice to have a visual picture for each level in the game. This also helps if you're trying to portray a particular style of game. Remember, the game design document shouldn't be a chore to complete. If it isn't going to be helpful, why even write the thing in the first place? From my experience, a document that is revisable and stays up to date with the project is much more beneficial than a long, twenty page document that sits around collecting dust.

Bringing Your Ideas to Life

Now that you've got a document to detail every nitty-gritty detail in your game, it's time to breathe some life into all of your hard work. This is easily the hardest part of the whole process. Basically, if you don't have the desire to take it upon yourself to program the game, you're stuck trying to get the big wigs to even look at your project. Unfortunately, I don't have any experience there, but if you're willing to program or assemble a small team of programmers, I have some advice.

From my experience, I strongly advise cutting as much content as possible, or at least save most of it until the end. Work on getting your basic idea up and running and go from there. Also, try not to get too caught up if you're stuck drawing your own art. Art can usually be changed or improved at any time along the project. But most importantly, you (and your team) have to be totally excited about the game. If something isn't working out, don't be afraid to change your original design.

Now let's say you're not a programmer, but you'd still like to see something come of your great idea. If your original plan was for a 3D game, Valve's Hammer map editor is a fantastic tool. Even if your game isn't a FPS, the editor is a blast to mess around with, and you can create anything you want (like the pretty picture below).

Screenshot of Highland

Unfortunately, not every grand idea is going to end up a game, but that doesn't mean you have to give up. Maybe someday someone will ask you for an idea, and you'll be plenty prepared to answer.