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A good design document is like a sound blueprint for a building. Everyone can refer to it while they do their separate tasks and understand how their work fits into the game as a whole. Without a design document to direct their efforts, the individuals on a team may interpret what they know about the game in their own unique ways, working hard, but not necessarily towards the same ends. When it comes time to integrate that work, art may have been made to unusable specs, technology may reflect out-of-date features, or the essence of the gameplay may have been lost in the level designs.
In order to create an effective design document, the game designer needs to work with every other member of the team to make sure that the areas of the document affecting their work are accurate and achievable. In this way, the writing of the document itself becomes a process for communication. By conferring on the details of the document, team members have to think through the entire game, from the highest-level vision concepts, to the lowest-level art specifications, the file types, and the font sizes.
Because the design document is so important, and because games are so complex, there is a trend in writing these documents to make them very, very long. It's not unusual to see design documents that are 400 or 600 pages. We certainly can't criticize the zeal that has gone into documents of this size; however, it's important to remember the audience and objective of the document when you write something of this size. You are writing for very busy people, and you want them to read it, not use it for a doorstop. If you can get your point across in fewer pages, you will probably have more success in actually communicating to your team.
A good design document can be created in 50 to 100 succinctly written pages, well-organized and labeled, so that a busy executive or programmer can find the areas that affect them quickly and easily. If there are areas that need to be expanded on as production moves forward, one strategy is to create sub-documents that delve into these areas more deeply. These can be referenced in the main document, but only distributed to the team members they actually affect.
Always keep in mind that you're not writing the design document for the sake of writing it-your objective is communication, do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal. Documents are also not a substitute for talking to your team-just because you've written it down, don't assume that everyone has read and understood your vision. Writing the document provides a process for establishing communication and serves as a touchstone for the entire team in terms of creative and technical designs, but it is not a substitute for team meetings and in-person communication.
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