It is often joked that design documents are not read, they are weighed. This is not surprising given the heft of many design documents and the lack of desire among team members to read them. Shockingly, this statement is often true. I once heard an exproducer from a major gaming publisher talk about her experience with design documents and the project approval process. She said that the decision- makers would bring a scale to their green-light meetings. When it came down to two similar projects that were both relatively worthy of funding, they would take the design document for each project and place it on the scale. Whichever one weighed more would get accepted, the other rejected. Much as it pains me to tell you, if you are in the commercial gaming business and groveling for dollars at publishers, you need to make your document hefty. You need it to be impressive to pick up and flip through. Many will never read it at all.
Others will read only the Overview and Table of Contents at the beginning. But everyone will pick it up and remark on its weight.
Of course, many of these super-thick documents contain a lot of information of negligible value toward the actual development of the project. They may be stellar examples of one of the failed types of documents I discussed earlier, such as a Back-Story Tome or an Overkill Document. It is your challenge as the game designer to make the document as practical as possible by providing only useful information in the document, while making it hefty enough to impress the suits . One might want to include a large number of flowcharts or concept sketches or choose to use a bigger font, all while not being too obvious. Indeed, a great game (though a simplistic one) can have a perfect design document only ten pages long. One wonders how many great, simple games have been cast aside by publishers who were unimpressed with the mass of their design documents.
Thankfully, over the last few years many publishers and developers seem to be wising up to the unwieldiness of massive design documents. Design consultant Mark Cerny has been preaching the concept of starting development with only a simple macro design document of perhaps ten pages in length that can be expanded on as needed over the course of development. As I have discussed, others are starting to use Wiki as a means of organizing and interlinking a lot of design information contained in many smaller documents. And fewer and fewer publishers are funding development based on a phone book-like design document alone, with prototypes and high-level, graphical pitch documents becoming increasingly important. The days of padding out the design document just for the sake of it seem to be thankfully drawing to a close.
Once your design document is written, one of your biggest challenges may be getting anyone on the development team to read it. Often, many programmers, artists , or even other designers will not want to put the time into a careful reading of your document. Others may have been burned by bad design documents in the past and will jump to the conclusion that yours is of similarly poor quality. Keeping your document up to date, including only useful information, providing a detailed table of contents, and limiting yourself to practical, accomplishable gameplay elements will help. Including numerous short, high-level summaries before each section of the document can also help team members get high-level information for aspects of the game they don t need to know so much about. At the same time, such summaries can give readers a big-picture vision before they dive into the gritty details of the document. If your team members sample your document and find it to be of superior quality, they are more likely to return to it for reference when they are actually implementing a given system or working on a particular piece of art. As with any written document, you need to earn the trust of your readers if you hope to keep them reading.
Another key method of getting your design document read is to make it easily available to anyone who wants to read it. Keep it in the same source-control system that your team uses for asset management. You want your team members to be able to get the latest version of the design document as easily as they get the latest build of the game. Since you will be constantly revising and updating your document to keep it up to date with the project (and to prevent it from becoming a Fossilized Document), source control will be a valuable tool for keeping track of the previous revisions. Not to beat a dead horse, but aWiki system run over a company intranet can also be great for distributing the document to the team, with developers at any time being able to easily read the very latest version of the document through their web browsers.
When you check in the latest version of the document, send your team an e-mail telling them that it is available and explaining what has changed. That way, people can easily skim over the changes. If one of the changes is relevant to their work, then they can get the latest version of the document off the network and read over the relevant updates. Updating your document does not do any good if no one knows you have updated it or if people are still reading old revisions. It is probably a good idea to use a version number with your document, such as 1.3 or 2.7. Include this version number, along with the date, in a header on every page. Often people will print out a design document and not realize how old or fossilized it is. If they can quickly compare a date and a version number, they will know which version of the document they have and whether they need to get a new one.