The Design Process

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Having a good solid process for developing an idea from the initial concept into a playable and satisfying game experience is another key to thinking like a game designer. The approach we will show you in this book focuses on involving the player in your design process from conception through completion. By that we mean continually testing the gameplay with target players through every phase of development. The sooner you can bring the player into the equation, the better. Immediately after brainstorming, we encourage designers to construct a playable version of their game. By this we mean starting with a physical prototype of the game mechanics.

A physical prototype can use paper and pen, index cards, or even acting out. It is meant to be played by the designer and her friends. The goal is to play and perfect this simplistic model before a single programmer, producer, or graphic artists is ever brought onto the project. This way, the game designer receives instant feedback on what players think of the game and comes to understand the core game structures.

This may sound like common sense, but in the industry today, much of the design of the core gaming system comes later in the production cycle, which can result in huge amounts of frustration. People in the industry are realizing that this lack of testing means that many games don't reach their full potential, and the process of developing games needs to change if that problem is to be solved.

There's a reason for this. Because most games are not thoroughly prototyped or tested early on in the process, many of the flaws come out later-in some cases, too late to fix. For a developer, this can become a nightmare. Veteran game developer and former Xbox evangelist Seamus Blackley gave an eloquent speech on this topic at the 2003 D.I.C.E. Summit. 'The problem right now is that we're designing for publishers and not the audience.' In Blackley's view, playtests 'should be used early enough so that the developers can make use of them. Testing can help you to delight the customer and should empower design. And yet today, testing is a scary process that developers are scared of.'[2]

Our solution to this problem is never to begin the production, or even the software prototype, without a deep understanding of the game's foundation. This is critical because once the production process commences, it becomes increasingly difficult to alter the design. As you will see, the production process often runs counter to the design process, and therefore, the further along the design is before the production begins, the greater the likelihood of costly mistakes. How can you avoid this paradox? The best way is to take an iterative approach to the design and development process.

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Figure 1.7: Iterative process diagram

Iterative design

By 'iterative' we simply means that you design, test, and evaluate the results over and over again throughout the development of your game, each time improving upon the gameplay or features, until the experience meets your criteria. Here is a detailed flow of the iterative process that you should go through when designing a game:

  • Idea or system is conceived.

  • Idea or system is formalized (i.e., written down or prototyped).

  • Idea or system is tested (i.e., playtested or exhibited for feedback).

  • Results are evaluated, categorized, and prioritized.

  • If results are negative and idea or system appears to be fundamentally flawed, go back to the first step.

  • If results point to improvements, modify and test again.

  • If results are positive and idea or system appears successful, the iterative process has been completed.

As you will see, we will apply this process during almost every aspect of game design, from the initial conception through to the final quality assurance testing.

Step 1: Brainstorming

  • Come up with as many game concepts as you can.

  • Narrow down the list to the top three.

  • Write up a short, one-page outline describing each of these ideas.

Step 2: Physical prototype

  • Create a playable prototype using pen and paper or other craft materials.

  • Playtest the physical prototype using the iterative process described starting on page 11.

  • Once the physical prototype is perfected, write up a three- to six-page gameplay treatment, describing how the game functions.

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Designers You Should Know

The following is a list of designers who have had monumental impact on digital games. The list was hard to finalize because so many great individuals have contributed to the craft in so many important ways. The goal was not to be comprehensive but rather to give a taste of some designers who've created seminal works and who it would be good for you, as an aspiring designer yourself, to be familiar with. We're pleased that many designers on the list contributed interviews and sidebars to this book.

Shigeru Miyamoto

Miyamoto was hired out of industrial design school by Nintendo in 1977. He was the first staff artist at the company. Early in his career he was assigned to a submarine game called Radarscope was like most of the games of the day-simple twitch-game play mechanic, no story, and no characters. He wondered why digital games couldn't be more like the epic stories and fairy tales that he knew and loved from childhood. He wanted to make adventure stories and he wanted to add emotion to games. Instead of focusing on Radarscope, he made up his own beauty and the beast-like story where an ape steals his keeper's girlfriend and runs away. The result was Donkey Kong character that you played was Mario (originally named Jumpman). Mario is perhaps the most enduring character in games and one of the most recognized characters in the world. Each time a new console is introduced by Nintendo-starting with the original NES machine-Miyamoto designs a Mario game as its flagship title. He is famous for the wild creativity and imagination in his games. Aside from all the Mario and Luigi games, Miyamoto's list of credits is long. It includes the Zelda, Starfox, and Pikmin games.

Will Wright

Early in his career, in 1987, Wright created a game called Raid on Bungling Bay. It was a helicopter game where you attacked islands. He had so much fun programming the little cities on the islands that he decided that making cities was the premise for a fun game. This was the inspiration for City. When he first developed SimCity, publishers were not interested because they didn't believe anyone would buy it. But Wright persisted on his own, and the game became an instant hit. was a break out in terms of design in that it was based on creating rather than destroying. Also it didn't have set goals. These things added some new facets to games. Wright was always interested in simulated reality and has done more than anyone in bringing simulation to the masses. spawned a whole series of titles including SimEarth, SimAnt, SimCopter, and many others. His game, The Sims, is his most ambitious creation yet. And it is currently the best selling game of all time. See 'A Conversation with Will Wright by Celia Pearce' on page 133.

Sid Meier

Legend has it that Sid Meier bet his buddy, Bill Stealey, that he could program a better flying combat game than the one they playing were playing, in two weeks. Stealey took him up on the offer, and together they founded the company Micro Prose. It took more than two weeks, but the company released the title Solo Flight in 1984. Considered by many to be the father of PC gaming, Meier went on to create groundbreaking title after groundbreaking title. His Civilization series has had fundamental influence on the genre of PC strategy games since. His game Sid Meier's Pirates! was an innovative mix of genres-action, adventure, and roleplaying-that also blended real time and turn-based gaming. His gameplay ideas have been adopted in countless PC games. Meier's other titles include the Coloni- Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, Alpha Centauri, Silent Serv.

Warren Spector

Warren Spector started his career working for boardgame maker Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas. He went from there to the paper-based roleplaying game company TSR where he developed boardgames and wrote RPG supplements and several novels. In 1989 he was ready to add digital games to his portfolio and moved to the developer, ORIGIN Systems. There he worked on the Ultima series with Richard Garriott. Spector had an intense interest in integrating characters and stories into games. He pioneered 'freeform' gameplay with a series of innovative titles including Underworld, System Shock,. His title Deus Ex took the concepts of flexible play and drama in games to new heights and is considered one of the finest PC games of all time. See his 'Designer Perspective' interview on page 39.

Richard Garfield

In 1990 Richard Garfield was an unknown mathematician and part-time game designer. He had been trying unsuccessfully to sell a boardgame prototype called RoboRally to publishers for seven years. When yet another publisher rejected his concept he was not surprised. However, this time the publisher, a man named Peter Adkison doing business as 'Wizards of the Coast,' asked for a portable card game that was playable in under an hour. Garfield took the challenge and developed a dueling game system where each card in the system could affect the rules in different ways. It was a breakthrough in game design because the system was infinitely expandable. The game was Magic: The Gathering, and it single-handedly spawned the industry of collectible card games. Magic has been released in digital format in multiple titles. When Hasbro bought Wizards in 1995 for $325 million, Garfield owned a significant portion of the company. See his article 'The Development of Magic: The Gathering' on page 182.

Peter Molyneux

The story goes that it all started with an anthill. Peter Molyneux as a child toyed with one-tearing it down in parts and watching the ants fight to rebuild, dropping food into the world and watching the ants appropriate it, etc. He was fascinated by the power he had over the tiny, unpredictable creatures. Molyneux went on to become a programmer and game designer and eventually the pioneer of digital 'god games.' In his breakout title Populous you act as a deity lording over tiny settlers. The game was revolutionary in that it was a strategy game that took place in real time, as opposed to in turns, and you had indirect control over your units. The units had minds of their own. This game and other Molyneux hits had profound influence on the real-time strategy (RTS) games to come. Other titles he has created include Syndicate, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, and Black & White. See Molyneux's 'Designer Perspective' interview on page 18.

Gary Gygax

In the early 1970s Gary Gygax was an insurance underwriter in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He loved all kinds of games, including tabletop wargames. In these games players controlled large armies of miniatures, acting like generals. Gygax and his friends had fun acting out the personas of different pieces on the battlefield such as commanders, heroes, etc. He followed his inclination of what was fun and created a system for battling small parties of miniatures in a game he called Chainmail players wanted even more control of and more character information about the individual units. They wanted to play the role of single characters. Gygax, in conjunction with game designer Dave Arneson, developed an elaborate system for role-playing characters that was eventually named Dungeons & Dragons. The D&D game system is the direct ancestor of every paper-based and digital role- playing game since. The system is directly evident in all of today's RPGs including Diablo, Baldur's Gate, and EverQuest.

Richard Garriott

Richard Garriott-a.k.a.'Lord British'-programmed his first game right out of high school in 1979. It was an RPG called Akalabeth. He sold it on his own through a local computer store in Austin, Texas. The packaging for this first version was a Ziploc bag. Akalabeth later got picked up by a publisher and sold well. Garriott used what he'd learned to create Ultima, and thus one of the most famous game series of all time began. The Ultima titles evolved over the years-each successive one pushing the envelope in terms of both technology and gameplay-eventually bringing the world of the game online. Ultima Online, released in 1997, was a pioneering title in massively multiplayer online worlds. Garriott continues to push the boundaries of online gaming with work on the much-anticipated title Tabula Rasa.

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Step 3: Presentation (optional)

  • A presentation is often made in order to secure funds to hire the prototyping team. Even if you do not require funding, going through the exercise of creating a full presentation is a good way to think through your game and introduce it to the team members and the upper management for feedback.

  • Your presentation should include demo artwork and a solid gameplay treatment.

  • If you do not secure funding, you can either return to Step 1 and start over again on a new concept or gain feedback from your funding sources and work on modifying the game to fit their needs. Because you have not yet invested in extensive artwork or programming, your costs so far should be pretty reasonable, and you should have a great deal of flexibility to make any changes.

Step 4: Software prototype

  • Once you have your prototyping team in place, you can begin creating a rough computer program which models the core gameplay.

  • If possible, try to do this entirely without graphics, or use temp graphics that cost very little to make. This will save time and money and make the process go faster.

  • Playtest the software prototype using the iterative process described earlier.

  • Once the software prototype is perfected, move on to the documentation step.

Step 5: Design document

  • While you have been prototyping and working on your gameplay, you have probably been compiling notes and ideas for the 'real' game. Use the knowledge you've gained during this prototyping state to write the first draft of a document that outlines every aspect of the game and how it functions.

Step 6: Production

  • Work with all of the team members to make sure each aspect of the design is achievable and correctly described in the document.

  • Once a draft of the design document is completed, move on to production.

  • Production is the time to staff up and begin the creation of the real artwork and programming.

  • Don't lose sight of the iterative process during production-test your artwork, gameplay, characters, etc., as you move along. As you continue to perform iterative cycles throughout the production phase, the problems you find and the changes you make should get smaller and smaller. This is because you solved your major issues during the prototyping phases.

  • Unfortunately, this is the time when most game designers actually wind up designing their games, and this can lead to numerous problems of time, money, and frustration.

Step 7: QA

  • By the time the project is ready for Quality Assurance testing, you should be very sure that your gameplay is solid. There may still be some issues, so continue playtesting, with an eye to usability. Now is the time to make sure your game is accessible to your entire target audience.

As you can see, iterative design comes into play throughout the production process, which means you'll be doing lots of prototyping and playtesting at every stage of your game's development. You can't be the advocate for the player if you don't know what the player is thinking, and playtesting is the best mechanism by which you can elicit feedback and gain insight into your game. We cannot emphasize this fact enough, and we encourage any designer to rigorously build into any production schedule the means to continually isolate and playtest all aspects of their game as thoroughly as possible.

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Designer Perspective: Sandy Petersen

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Designer, Ensemble Studios

Project list (five to eight top projects)

  • Call of Cthulhu (paper game)

  • Lightspeed

  • DOOM

  • Quake

  • Rise of Rome

  • Age of Empires: The Age of Kings

  • The Conquerors

How did you get into the game industry?

I backed into it by accident. Took up a job typesetting for a game company to fund my college years and ended up turning an avocation into a vocation.

What are your five favorite games and why?

  • Contract Bridge: Best card game ever, bar none. It features many different ways to excel, which means not all good players are good in the same way, so games become clashes of different styles.

  • Cosmic Encounter: The first game to instigate the concept of different players having different abilities. This has become a mainstay of computer games (such as Civilization), but Cosmic Encounter's simple autobalancing system still rules supreme as the finest use of this concept.

  • World in Flames 5th Edition: Something deep within my soul forces me to replay all of World War II every year or two by using this huge retro-style wargame. There's no excuse for it, really.

  • Civilization (the boardgame): Brings the economy to the forefront in a way that few games have done successfully. Every decision you make in Civilization affects your economy for better or worse, and the card-trading is a blast.

  • Runequest: My favorite role-playing game.

An astute reader will notice that none of my five favorites are computer games. I myself didn't realize this until after I'd written them down, but it's probably not a coincidence.

What games have inspired you the most as a designer and why?

  • Wolfenstein 3-D: At its time, it was amazing for the use of 3D. It still has great strengths in that each separate group of rooms or hallways presents a different tactical puzzle.

  • Command HQ: First really good use of multiplayer in a game.

  • M.U.L.E.: Best ever economic-based computer game, and maybe the only one ever that was any fun.

  • Zelda: The whole series is one of my favorite role-playing games. I look forward to the next installment eagerly.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Being voted into the Gamers Hall of Fame in 1990-an award given to only a single person a year, and voted on by game fans, rather than game companies.

What words of advice would you give to an aspiring designer today?

Be familiar with all types of games, not just computer games.

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Prototypes and playtesting in the industry

In the game industry today, many designers take a shortcut, skipping the creation of a physical prototype altogether and jumping straight from dreaming up a concept to writing the design document. Seldom is time taken up front to develop original gameplay and test it with players. The problem with this method is that the design document is completed and the software coding has commenced before anyone has a true sense for the game mechanics. How can someone design a game without understanding the core game structure? Surprisingly, it happens all the time. In fact, it's the norm in the industry today, and this is the reason so many games wind up looking and feeling like carbon copies of one another.

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Designer Perspective: Peter Molyneux

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Managing Director, Lionhead Studios

Project list (five to eight top projects)

  • 1989: Populous: Game Design/Lead Programmer

  • 1990: Powermonger: Game Design/Lead Programmer

  • 1991: Populous 2: Game Design/ Lead programmer

  • 1993: Syndicate: Producer/Game Design

  • 1994: Theme Park: Producer/ Lead Programmer, Game Design*

  • 1994: Magic Carpet: Producer/ Game Design

  • 1997: Dungeon Keeper: Producer/ Game Design/Programming

How did you get into the game industry?

Hmm. This is quite a long story. I set up a company with my then partner Les Edgar programming databases on the PC. We called our company Taurus because we were both Taureans. One day we had a call inviting us to meet with [computer company] Commodore-they gave us the red carpet treatment and were very keen for us to work on the Amiga, asking us how long it would take for us to get 'the program' on the Amiga-even giving us several free machines. It was only at the end of the meeting it dawned on me that they had the wrong Taurus-they thought we were a company called Torus. But we kept quiet, took the free machines, and it soon became very apparent that the Amiga was going to be a games machine-we were offered a conversion of Druid 2 from the ST to Amiga and [our company] Bullfrog was born.

What are your five favorite games and why?

  • Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Just because it's one of the most complete games ever.

  • Advance Wars: It's taken me over-I spent my whole holiday playing on the beach and nearly caused a car crash playing it while driving.

  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert: Because it really brought the RTS genre together and was absolutely one of the most playable games of its time-I love the RTS genre.

  • Half-Life: Because it proved that the first-person shooter could be more then just a test of reflexes and could be as entertaining as a film with a great story and plot.

What games have inspired you the most as a designer and why?

My inspiration from games started from the earliest games, in particular Wizardry on the Apple IIe which, in terms of game design, for me was the equivalent of the invention of the wheel. The ability to explore dungeons, create your own characters and take part in heroic quests had never been seen in a game before. I'd also have to mention Dungeon Master, not because it was a great role-playing game, but because it had such an intuitive interface. It certainly was responsible for my belief that interfaces are paramount. I‘d also admit to being influenced by the high production values in games such as Half- Life.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Building up a team of people whom I have now worked with for over a decade.

What words of advice would you give to an aspiring designer today?

Designing a game is not thinking up a storyline but about what the player does and sees while playing your idea. If you can crack that, then that game's design stands a much higher chance of being a hit.

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It's difficult to design an original game if you skip the physical prototyping process. What happens is that you are forced to reference existing games in the design document. This means your game is doomed from the outset to be derivative. Breaking away from your design document becomes even more difficult as the production heats up. Once your team is in place, with programmers coding and artists cranking out graphics, the idea of going back and changing the core gameplay becomes unthinkable. The gears are in motion, and everyone is working off the design document. It becomes the set path that you must follow, and any changes to it are met with stiff resistance.

By using the iterative design approach outlined previously, you have the opportunity to lay out the structure and design of the game before anyone else is involved. This gives you, the designer, full control to manipulate the gameplay and test it without the production process constricting your creativity. If you think about it, it's much easier to make a change to a pen and paper model than to ask several programmers, who have spent a week or more coding the gameplay, to alter something. Sure, they may accommodate the first few times, but designing solid gameplay is an iterative process, which requires continual tweaking. How many times can you ask the programmers to recode the engine before they become disgruntled? After all, from their perspective, you should have perfected the gameplay after the tenth try-but as any experienced game designer knows, ten tries is only the beginning.

The same holds true for the artwork. If you make changes in the gameplay, it affects everything from the user interface design down to the graphics and database objects. Every member of the team has to alter what they're doing every time a change is implemented, and people tend not to like to throw out something they've worked hard to create. So as a designer, you're in an awkward position when you start restructuring the core game mechanics while the wheels are in motion.

There's also a lag time between iterations, and time is money. Programmers and artists aren't cheap, and the further down the path you go and the larger your team grows, the more it costs to make each change. That is why doing the prototyping yourself or within a small group is critical. You will be able to try out dozens of different permutations of your game in the same time it takes you to try out one variation with a larger team.

[2]Seamus Blackley, D.I.C.E. Conference 2003.

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Game Design Workshop. Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games
Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, & Playtesting Games (Gama Network Series)
ISBN: 1578202221
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 162

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