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  • 5 Ways Game Designers Communicate

    - Tim Lang

  •  5. Prototypes. Prototyping is probably the best method for communicating a game idea that exists. A prototype is a simple working example of the game mechanic. Recently, rapid prototyping, or creating prototypes quickly and revising them frequently, has become all the rage, as it fits well with agile development methodologies, which have gained a huge following among game developers.

    The benefit of prototyping is clear. It takes all the communication conflict and guesswork out of explaining a game mechanic. When you as a designer say you want your idea, whatever it is to work like this, and show your audience (a publisher, executives, the development team) an exact and functioning example of your idea, it's hard for anyone to say, "I don't understand how it works."

    Tools that enable hobbyists and amateurs to prototype game ideas have become more widely available; these are the same tools game designers are adopting to prototype their ideas. The Torque line of game engines, Raph Koster's Multiverse, Unity, and others are all bringing one-man game development back into the reach of game designers.
     Designers would be crazy not to take advantage of these new tools for designing their games.

    Using these tools, of course, takes a broad spectrum of skills. Count on having to learn a
    little programming or scripting, some modeling, some animation -- a little bit of everything required to build a game. The good news for designers is that nothing has to look or act perfectly. It just has to behave well enough for others to understand the game mechanics. Plus, a lot of these tools have pre-built assets and content packs that you can take full advantage of to reduce your workload.

    don't have to be highly polished and often use placeholder art.
    purposes is to communicate the idea, not show off final artwork.

    Another great benefit to prototyping is that it allows designers to tweak their ideas over and over before anyone else has a chance to look at them. Not only does this save the designer time because he doesn't have to wait for other people to make tweaks he requests, but it also saves the company a lot of money that it won't have to spend in rework.

    I just read an article on ("New Tricks: Scott Blackwood Talks Skate and Skate 2," by Christian Nutt, October 17, 2008) that explains a great implementation of this idea. The development team of EA's Skate designed a groundbreaking method of doing skateboarding tricks. Before they even had a game engine, they got their "flick-it" controls up and running with a simple text-based output. Even though there wasn't a skater, an environment, or even a skateboard, they could still work out the kinks in their control concept.

    Of course, this method is not without its pitfalls. First off, it's still very complicated, especially for a single designer. There are very few game designers who have experience in both programming and art. More likely, as in the Skate example, it took a small team of developers to get the prototype up and running.

    Compared to the other methods of communication, prototyping is astoundingly time consuming to get off the ground. If I'm describing a game mechanic in straight text, I can usually rip that out in a couple of hours. Images take me longer. Flash-based storyboards take longer still. If I'm prototyping a single game mechanic, even with help, my time estimates would probably be in the weeks, not days. Is it time well spent, though? You bet!

    Working Outside Your Comfort Zone
    When it comes down to it, unless you're a one-man shop, you're going to need to communicate your game designs to a group of people who will be tasked with implementing the design. The better you communicate that idea, the better the implementation of that idea is going to be. Remember that while ideas in game development are important, it's the execution of those ideas that makes a game great. There are plenty of examples of great ideas that were poorly executed. Many of us game designers have first-hand experience of that. Poor communication is often to blame for poor execution.

    These ideas shouldn't be taken by themselves. Most often, you'll get the best results if you mix them. I've had great success combining pictures and animatics with text. Usually, I'll start with a text description of a game mechanic, and move on to images or animatics from there. That's a personal preference because I'm a terrible artist, and most comfortable designing in words. But it doesn't stop me from exploring other methods of design. I'm always interested in giving my team the information they need in the way they want to receive it.

    As a game designer, your goal is simple: make the best game you possibly can. To that end, you should be willing to do whatever it takes.

    Tim Lang is a game designer currently at Spin Master Studios in southern California. Previously, he was a game designer at Electronic Arts, where we worked on the Medal of Honor series. He started his career in game development as a level designer on several Might and Magic titles.

    Related Articles
    "Sharing the Design," Brandon van Slyke, April 3, 2008
    "Types of Game Designers," Brenda Brathwaite, January 1, 2008
    "Documents of newly Published Xbox Live Game Made Public," Jill Duffy, September 3, 2008
    "Game Design: An Introduction," Getting Started material


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