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  • On Game Design: The Designer

    - Jason Weesner

  •  Documentation

    How do you document an idea? There are many methods and several different tools available for documentation. I'll present some examples here along with some information on what tools I used. In the next article, we'll start an actual design document with more specifics.

    Pencil / Pen & Paper: For me, pen and paper goes back to my days as a fledgling dungeon master. I would spend days exhaustively mapping out dungeons and castles and towns and wilderness expanses. Some people may look at this sort of experience as being a little primitive by today's standards, but through this process, I started to learn about the flow; how the player moves through a level and how to gate (introduce) game play elements. Flow is one of the most important things about game design and good old pen & paper are actually some of the most flexible tools a designer has to communicate this flow. Why? Because they don't require electricity, they're malleable, they're portable, and they're easily understood by just about everybody. Ideas can be written down or sketched out very quickly when you're not dependent on a host of file operations and mouse clicks.

    Pen and Paper Sketch

    This is a quick sketch from Vectorman 2 (Sega, Sega Genesis, 1996), which shows some of the ideas that went into the second level of the game. This sketch is fairly simplistic, but the ideas are organized to show various elements of game play as well as some general level flow. I've tried to approximate scale by placing the character in a representative chunk of level layout. I've indicated a minimal amount of art direction which is necessary only to get some game play elements across (petrified concrete trees create barriers and an underground passage plunges the level into darkness). I've provided the basis for a type of enemy that would be found in this environment. Lastly, I've made mention of some effects and technical issues that contribute to the overall game play. If you want to see how effective this means of documentation is, just take a look at the finished product and see just how closely this sketch matches the game.

    Word Processor: Programs like Word and Notepad offer varying degrees of functionality in relation to documenting and organizing ideas. Microsoft Word is a fantastic tool for documentation since it supports a robust list of design-friendly features: bullet points, tables, image manipulation, hyperlinks, etc.

    Level Design

    This page, from a level design for Apocalypse (Activision, Playstation, 1996), outlines some ideas for an office building level. This document is approaching the complexity of an actual spec document, but goes to show how a word processor can be used to flesh out an idea in a more formal format. In this example, I've taken a single floor from the overall map layout and indicated areas of game play as well as some notes on technical issues (like triggers, cameras, and objects). The map image was composed in 3D Studio Max (from rough level geometry) and then rendered as a wireframe to a bitmap image format. The breakdown of technical issues are organized into bullet points (a designer's best means of presentation) with different type emphasis (bold and italic) put on key elements to draw the reader's attention. This document was later used to pitch the ideas in order to get approval from the creative director.

    Photoshop: Photoshop is what's known as a graphics editor. It's not the only graphics editor out there, but it's definitely the best known and also the most widely accepted in the video game industry. For game design purposes, Photoshop can be just as flexible as pen & paper. Additionally, Photoshop is terrific for iteration since layers of detail can be added to any image without damaging the original picture.

    Map Layout

    This proposed map layout was done for Project Snowblind (Eidos / Crystal Dynamics, Playstation 2, 2004). One of the advantages to using Photoshop for the map was the ability to put various game play elements on different layers. In this case, the numbers (representing specific locations) were on one layer while the different line of sight areas are represented by green outlines on another layer. Using this method, the different layers could easily be modified or turned on or off without disturbing the basic map layout. If you actually played Project Snowblind, you'll recognize parts of this layout as being the Republic Base that's visited at several times during the game (an unfortunate creative decision that proved to be very difficult from a design perspective later in production).

    HTML / TWIKI: I'm grouping these two together because they're both web-based formats. HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) is generally used for websites, but the ease of visually linking elements (text to pictures for example) makes it a versatile form of documentation for design. TWIKI is a more collaborative web-based format where multiple users can easily contribute to a document or modify it.


    This example is just a simple welcome page, but it clearly shows the format for TWIKI as well as some of the nifty features: quick paragraph formatting, easy bullet pointing (a blessing for anybody who has to deal with the fussiness of Microsoft Word), and versatile links that can hook up to everything from local images to Perforce (file archiving software) files. Most of the documentation at my current company has moved over to TWIKI which includes everything from technical specs to concept art and various tutorials. All the members of the team are encouraged to modify the TWIKI pages to reflect changes to the project and procedures which effectively creates a living document (as opposed to traditional static documentation that has to be reprinted with any updates).


    We've covered a lot of ground in this article and some of it may seem a little abstract, but inspiration, formulation, and documentation are the three pillars that form the foundation for good game design and successful implementation and execution. In the next article, we'll start the process of documenting a game design and start introducing some of the other processes that are necessary for game development.

    Jason Weesner,
    Crystal Dynamics, is a senior game designer which means that he's old
    enough to remember D-Paint, knows his way around a Galaga machine, and
    occasionally requires a hearing aid to take directions.


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