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  • 5 Ways Game Designers Communicate

    [10.28.08]
    - Tim Lang

  •  One writing tool for game designers that's getting attention these days is the wiki. Wiki design documents have a few advantages over their paper brethren: they're searchable; you can parse relevant information into smaller and easier-to-read documents; and they're online, which means they are accessible from any connected device. On the downside, they can be hard to maintain. Furthermore, they can be very difficult to compile into a single GDD if you needed one.

    3. Pictures.
    The old cliché of pictures being worth a thousand words definitely holds true in game design. With pictures, you can do rough mockups of user interface designs that will explain exactly what you want. When using text, there's a lot of room for errors, and mockups eliminate them.

    In my experience, a lot of people in game development are visual learners, so being able to see an idea on paper, rather than trying to visualize it from words, works much better, especially if it's presented in a storyboard.

    Since games are not static, as images are, one of the best ways to use pictures in game development is to create a series of storyboards that describe the game mechanics. Because storyboards are a step-by-step description of how a game mechanic should work, they leave almost nothing out. As I said before, simple text leaves a lot to interpretation. Interpretation has its good points, but it also can be a disaster waiting to happen.

    The downsides to using pictures to explain game design ideas, is that they can be very time consuming to create. That's time that could have been spent creating other designs. As a designer, it's your job to always stay at least one step ahead of production, and sometimes speed is more important than pretty pictures.

    Another downside to pictures is that some game designers (myself included) aren't particularly gifted artistically. Because of that, some visual learners may not understand the ugly "designer art" that you present to them.

    4. Design Animatics. Design animatics are storyboards that move. Usually created in Flash or another simple animating tool, animatics are an outstanding method for conveying design ideas.

    Games are a form of media that are generally more easily understood through showing rather than telling. Also, because video games are still fairly young, there does not yet exist a fully developed, specialized vocabulary -- a common language comprising terminology that always means the same thing to people within the community. Games have some specialized language, and some that's borrowed from film, but nothing so universal as to eliminate the need to show rather than tell.

    The good news for game designers is that design animatics are now finally within our reach. Years ago, a designer would have to know a tool like 3ds Max, Maya, of Softimage XSI -- complicated tools that weren't exactly suited for creating simple animations to represent game design documents -- to create design animatics. These days, Flash and its ilk are becoming cheaper, more common, and simple enough that anyone can learn to use them. After I learned to use Flash, I realized how powerful a design tool it can be. I use it regularly to create animatics, mockup art, and figure out game balance.

    For example, I recently had to work with a third party to create a simple mini-game for a product. I first sent them a written design document that explained all the features, a simple primary game mechanic, and the rewards and penalties in the game. In other words, they got a traditional GDD. They came back and told me they didn't get the idea. At first I blamed them. How could they not get it? It was a simple concept centered around a single game mechanic!

    I teamed up with a producer, and together we sent them some flowcharts and some other step-by-step visual instructions. It was better, but they still didn't quite get the concept of the game. After suffering a little more frustration, I finally put together a Flash animatic that showed exactly how the gameplay was supposed to work, starting with the basic game concept, and increasing the complexity until it encompassed the entire game idea.

    Success! They finally got it. A few days later they sent me back their treatment of the design that basically reiterated everything I had told them in the first hardcopy GDD. Since they clearly weren't the type of people who were fond of reading, I had to choose a better, more appropriate method to teach them how the game was supposed to behave. If I had to rely on a paper GDD, dozens of hours would have been lost trying to explain to them how the game was supposed to behave.

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