On Game Design: The Designer

By Jason Weesner [05.29.07]

 Welcome back! In the first article, we dealt largely with the history of video games. In this installment we'll explore game design inspiration, hit the high level points of what a video game designer is, and start down the road of practical design. First off, let's come up with a working definition of a video game designer. There are two parts to the definition. The first part is "video game" and that term has already been defined to a great degree with the previous article's history lesson. What's left to do with the definition is to actually apply it to the second part of the definition--designer.

There are many types of designers: set designers, fashion designers, graphic designers, etc., etc. All of these professions are linked by a common concept of creative "design" which is the ability not only to conceive of an idea, but also to conceive of its implementation, execution, and application in a collaborative manner. We'll come back to each of these elements in greater detail, but, for now, we'll just concentrate on a larger, more fundamental concept which is "communication". In short, a designer's job is to effectively communicate the elements of an idea. In relation to video game designer, here's a quick example of the various communication processes:

Let's say the designer came up with a jump mechanic for the game's main character. The first step of communication is to get it through the creative approval process by answering some basic questions like: Why does the game need it? How does it add to the gameplay? What makes the mechanic interesting?

Once the idea for the game mechanic is approved on a creative basis, the designer next has to communicate the idea to the code and art departments. A programmer will need to know how the jump works (interaction/controls, physics, distances, modifiers, etc.) and what tools the designer might need for tuning and implementation. Art will need to roughly know what the visual expectations are for the jump (variations on the jump, specific animations, interactions resulting from the jump, etc.).

The culmination of the communication process is communicating the original idea to the end user. Is the jump mechanic intuitive? Does it require a tutorial? Is the jump mechanic responsive? If, at the end of the day, the player can't use the jump effectively, then all the previous processes have failed at some level.

I know that last part sounds a little doom and gloom, but once you have some understanding of the elements of video game design, you'll be able to clearly see how most failures in bad games are due in large part to poor design. There's a lot more to the process of communication, but you should be able to see from these examples that implementation, execution, and application are all dependent on good communication.

In the days of old (let's put that some time in the late 1970's), there was no such thing as a video game designer by our definition. Older computers and home consoles lacked the hardware to display fancy graphics or the storage capacity to handle complex game types so usually, a single programmer would handle all aspects of a game's development. One of these early programmer / designers, Howard Scott Warshaw, is best known for his work on Atari 2600 classics like Yar's Revenge and E.T. In the context of our exploration of the origins of game design, he's also a fantastic example of the early "proto-designer" whose role encompassed all facets of game's development.

Howard took some time to answer some questions about his experiences in the industry.

 Interview with Warshaw

GCG: How did you get started in video game development?

Warshaw: In college, I worked on some of the first microprocessors. From there I went directly to large scale software development at HP and I was really bored. I was also kind of a zoo case at HP since I was much more vocal and expressive than most of the other programmers there. One day a coworker explained to me how he would occasionally tell his wife "Howard stories," and how she'd always say that sounds just like the wild and crazy people where she worked, a small company in Sunnyvale called Atari. I interviewed there and they didn't want to hire me because they thought I was too straight. But I knew that I needed to work there. I needed to get back to microprocessors, I loved the idea of making games and I also knew I was right for that environment. So I literally begged and pleaded with them to give me a try. Ultimately they relented and the rest (as cliche as it sounds) is history.

GCG: In the early days of video game development, many games were developed solely by one person as opposed to today where hundreds of people may be involved with a single game's development. Can you talk a little bit about the development of Yar's Revenge and the process of taking the game from idea to finished product?

Warshaw: Yar's was originally assigned to me as a conversion of the coin-op game Star Castle. After investigating this for a little while I came to the conclusion that this conversion would suck on the VCS system. So I did something no one else had ever done, I went to my boss and said that I had an idea for an original game that would use the same basic play principles of Star Castle but was designed to fit the VCS hardware so it wouldn't suck. And to their credit, they let me go with it. Think about that. They blew off a license to let me pursue an original concept with the promise of making a better game for the system. That would never happen today.

Yar's Revenge

So I started working on the play and the controls, and honestly I got it to a point where it really sucked. It sucked because the controller scheme I chose was too close to the coin-op version. I did that because there were too many control functions I needed to accomplish with the primitive VCS joystick. When I realized I needed a better control scheme I relaxed my assumptions that the controller had to do everything, and that's when I hit upon a very fundamental game design concept. When you replace a controller action with a play action the game gets better. In Yar's Revenge, I needed a way to call up the Zorlon cannon. So instead of using the controller to activate it, I made the rule that you had to eat a brick or touch the Qotile to activate the Zorlon canon. By converting the controller action to a play action the game was massively improved. The more you let a player earn the things they need rather than just button for them the deeper the game gets. At least that's my opinion.

Also, the game still wasn't Yar's at that point. It was just an abstract game play. It became Yar's when I found out marketing was looking for a name for the game and the ones they were looking at sounded pretty lame to me. So I made up the name "Yar's" and wrote a whole back story to support it. That was the first back story ever written for a video game and Yar's was the first game published with a comic book detailing the back story. In fact all the events that went into naming Yar's Revenge and the implications thereof is a whole other story. It's a tale of marketing intrigue and adventure, which I can share another time if you like.

But it wasn't just the comic book and the back story. There were a lot of firsts in Yar's Revenge that became industry standards. Reset from the joystick, pause mode, full screen explosion, marketing approved Easter eggs, elaborate cues and a death sequence are among the industry firsts established in Yar's. Of course it was easier to do new things back then because so much hadn't been done yet. Back then the focus of development was innovation. We were trying to set standards rather than maintain them.

And once the game was done, then came the testing. Yar's had more testing than any other game, ever. This was mainly because there was a manager there who thought the game was critically flawed. So they kept commissioning tests. And each time Yar's would do great in the test and then they would commission another test. Finally, after Yar's beat Missile Command in a play test they released the game and it went on to become Atari's biggest selling original game. I learned a lot about making games and the games industry during Yar's Revenge and the fact that so many people enjoyed it has always made me very happy. Even more so than E.T.

GCG: What do you think of the team development process? Is it harder to innovate as a single member of a larger team?

Warshaw: Back in the day a video game development was a work of authorship, now it is a collaborative effort. Neither is better or worse, they each have plusses and minuses. All other factors being equal, the team development process can get a lot more done than an individual. Obviously any project can be ruined by a bad team or a lame individual, but if you compare good team games to good individual games, the team games should kick enormous ass. This presumes that in both cases you are implementing a good idea. A major part of team development is the design team. And team games need to be a lot more spec'd out at the start than do individual games. Also, once you get that juggernaut rolling it is much harder to change directions along the way. No game should ever be an exact replica of its original design, but a team game will likely wind up a lot closer to it starting concept than an individual game. This makes sense because a team game needs to be a much larger concept. It should take an individual at least 10 or 15 years to do a modern team game. That's not likely to be a viable dev cycle.

Is it harder to innovate as a single member of a team? Yes. The only way to truly be innovative on a team game is to be part of the design process and get the team to adopt an innovative design from the start, because the rest is mostly game mechanics and will rarely constitute fundamental innovations. So since the design must be set in hard clay (not quite stone) and lots of resources committed to it you are very unlikely to innovate after the design is approved for production. Software and art development are big tasks and once begun it is very difficult to change their direction in any significant way. A project is more likely to be cancelled than fundamentally changed and continued. So your window for innovation is smaller (only during the design phase) and you have to convince others to accept your innovation rather than just go ahead and test it out yourself. It's much harder to innovate in a team environment.

But the biggest killer to innovation today isn't team size, it's financial expectation. Games cost a lot of money to make these days so the cost of failure is huge. That means the amount of risk people accept is smaller. And whenever you talk about innovation you are talking about risk. It takes a new concept to break out and make a runaway hit, but most new concepts fail miserably. That is why you see narrowcasting in games. People keep repeating the same tried and true formulas because that is what sells. Just like Hollywood blockbusters recycle the same 4 or 5 story lines, the video game industry recycles it's 4 or 5 game plays that are the perennial sellers. They are trying to minimize their risk because the cost is so high. And just like you see innovation in low budget independent films, you see innovation in lower budget games for PCs and online. But you won't see that on big console games because the financial pressures overshadow the creative possibilities.

Team development is necessary today and fortunately it yields some truly amazing games. For me personally I prefer a work of authorship because it's just plain more fun to explore and develop.

GCG: There's so much emphasis on what experience is necessary to get into the game industry, but so little thought given to the experience one takes away from the game industry. What have you learned from your time in the game industry?

Warshaw: I've learned many things over the years. Many lessons I gathered at Atari took years to digest. I did the whole documentary series "Once Upon ATARI" to clarify them in my own mind and share them with others. One key thing I've learned is that creative industries start out as hotbeds of wild innovation with exciting dynamic environments and inevitably over time (if they succeed) they mature. This means developments get larger, slower, more compartmentalized and the goals shift from freshness to profitability. The decision making power shifts from the creators to the management and from engineering to marketing. And I've learned that this isn't a bad thing or the end of the world, it is rather the natural order of business. It is very frequently the case that the CEOs who create successful startups get replaced by classic managers as the company grows. Large companies in established industries are a totally different entity than small start-ups in new industries. It takes different types of people to make them successful. I was able to start in the beginning of the game industry and see it transition all the way through. The biggest change over time in terms of what it takes to get into the industry is this: originally it was about breadth, now it is about depth. I happen to be a person who prefers breadth so I miss that. But team development is still frenzied now just like individual development was frenzied then, now it's just happening in a bigger hive with more specialized bees.

GCG: Do you like to play any video games? If so, which ones?

Warshaw: My favorite games of recent years are the Grand Theft Auto series, and not for the storyline either. I think the game play is brilliantly designed. I really believe that GTA3 will stand as the first real crossing point between 2D style gaming and immersive VR. I see design innovations in those game unparalleled for at least a decade before and in many cases unmatched today. That was the first time I saw a 3D environment really used to its potential. I could go on and on about the significance of GTA, but let's just say I totally respect the series as a rare design innovation from which all gamers stand to learn a great deal. And of course they are milking it now, but they've earned the right. I also like the Jack and Daxter series for different reasons. They came up with a truly beautiful and aesthetically pleasing game to play and then they took it in totally new directions, and I think they did it well. I also still like a lot of the classic coin ops. Defender, Robotron and Millipede are some of the all time greatest for my money.

Today, a video game development team is made up of various specialized roles: programmers, artists, designer, producers, sound engineers, etc. Howard makes a ton of great points about the development process which we'll come back to in future articles, but for now, let's get on to some more immediate topics.

 Essence of Video Game Design

Good game design skills are not only critical to creating fun games, but also in helping to ensure that the development process is smooth, iterative, and efficient across disciplines. There are many different flavors of video game designer: spec (technical specifications) writer, scripter, level designer, lead designer, senior designer, combat designer, etc. Regardless of all the variations, at any given time, every designer gets called upon to come up with an idea whether it's in relation to pure creative design or specific implementation.

At the risk of sounding a little highfaluting, I like to think of this as the essence of being a video game designer: coming up with ideas. If that definition of essence seems a little simplistic, it's not. There's no right or wrong way to come up with ideas, but there is a natural window of opportunity for the birth of an idea as well as an order of steps which can be executed in any way a designer wishes. For the purposes of this article, I'll go with a fairly tried and true process of steps used by many designers in the video game industry: inspiration, formulation, documentation.


In simple terms, all ideas are inspired and inspirations, in turn, are conscious or subconscious responses to a variety of stimuli:

Sound: The urgency of a baby crying (a primary game mechanic in Yoshi's Island), a slowly turning windmill (Ico), the crackle of radio static (Silent Hill), etc. A good exercise in understanding the importance of sound is to play just about any game with the sound muted. Other than the obvious lack of sound, how is the gaming experience actually different without sound? What game mechanics are partly or wholly dependent on sound effects? As a budding video game designer, learn to listen to the world around you: the way the beat of a song matches a car's turn signal, the wind blowing across a lawn of unkempt grass, the complicated din of conversations in a crowded restaurant, crickets chirping at night until you get too close and they go quiet. If you want an interesting experience and have the urge to go searching on EBay, there's a great PlayStation 1 budget shooter called Gekioh Shooting King where there's an option to change the sound effects so that you can get a laugh track to replace the regular explosion sounds.

Yoshi's Island

Music: Music best inspires mood, but can also provide thematic structure and flow for an idea. Have you ever danced around to a song? Cried to a song? Think about how different types of music inspire different moods in you. Like a great song, a great game mechanic depends a lot on rhythm and tone and the way they're sequenced. Shigeru Miyamoto used music in the Ocarina of Time as a game mechanic analogous to a traditional magic system. Rez uses a pulsing electronic soundtrack that builds in complexity and themes as the player's performance improves and they move further into the game. The next time you listen to a piece of music, see if you can discern the different elements of the song (chorus, verse, rhythm, etc.) and how you can associate mood with each element and the way they flow together.

Sight and Vision: The artistic direction for Sega's Rez was inspired by creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi's love of the art of Wassily Kandinsky. Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus depend on the play of light and shadow in the environments to get across thematic game elements. For example, the barren expanses that represent the world of the Colossus bring emphasis to the grandeur of the huge beasts and the sadness of killing them and making the world feel that much more abandoned. From your own personal experiences, what have you seen in the world that would contribute to a great element of game play? A desert sky at night with a million stars, a double rainbow, a beautiful painting, a cityscape reflected in the windows of a skyscraper, a neat special effects shot in a movie, etc.

Emotion: On a more personal level, ideas can be the result of humor or sadness, love or despair. Parappa the Rapper uses humor to inject urgency into Parappa's misadventures. Aeris' infamous death in Final Fantasy VII (sorry for the spoiler if you haven't played it!) is an especially moving moment that leverages sadness and loss as emotions to drive the main characters' final battles with Sephiroth.

Environment: Miyamoto Shigeru's Zelda games featured environments that were largely inspired by his childhood adventures in the woods and caves near his home. Okami uses the environment to convey character development in relation to the ongoing rejuvenation of the game world. A large part of video game design is level design which is the art of creating game landscapes that abide by a set of game rules while also establishing an appealing setting. Don't ever pass up an opportunity to explore your surroundings!

You can consider all the examples of inspiration I've give so far to be intrinsic. By this, I mean that they are forms of inspiration based on personal reaction, experience, or background. There are even more abstract forms of this sort of stimulus. For example, synaesthesia is a condition where two or more bodily senses experience a crossover. For example, it's entirely possible to perceive sound as color or spatial distance between mathematics (like the proximity between two numbers). Take a look at games like Lumines or Rez or Vib Ribbon to see examples of synesthesia in action. In relation to Rez, Tetsuya Mizuguchi says, "You need to make enough fuzzy space in a game for the people who play it. If you make the details too real, there's no space for the player to feel. Maybe this is the state of art: a game can be entertainment, but feeling something is art." If you play Rez (which I suggest you do), see if you can feel this fuzzy space and pay close attention to how sound, color, and light bridge this space to connect with the player and the game play.

Ellis Goodson is a great concept artist I've worked with on a few occasions. Ellis has the unique ability to capture an idea (whether it's his own or someone else's) and turn it into a concept sketch (an art asset used for the later development of game assets or game play). Ellis answered a few questions for us in relation to the topic of ideas.

 Interview with Goodson

GCG: Where do you find inspiration for ideas for your original work (comics, sketches, etc.)? How do you use reference?

Goodson: Artists derive almost everything they produce. If you can create and invent from the imagination it most likely looks like work you have done in the past. If it's artwork by Ellis, I get a very deja-vu feeling, thinking haven't I drawn that thing before, just like that. Reference can get you out of a rut, open some new paths and definitely lead to a stronger image. I can use reference for everything from a color scheme, a technique, a pose, perspective, or a composition. And other stuff I may not even be conscious I'm deriving. I sometimes envy the guys I work with that disavow possessing any art ability and then do a simple idea sketch that goes straight to the heart of communicating an idea as well as anything I'll do later with more draftsmanship and flair. Lately I'm deriving most of my inspiration from good character designers and caricaturists. Stephen Silver, Chris Sanders, Kruger. I went through a period where I was studying accomplished painters. The guy who made me an artist, Frank Frazetta, was an accomplished cartoonist but he does those incredible paintings. Looking at Frazetta always inspires me. It's the mojo I most want to emulate.

GCG: As a concept artist, how are ideas presented to you? What's the optimal process for conveying an idea?

Goodson: Ideas are generally hashed out in meetings. People communicate a character idea or a gameplay scenario. There may already be a style notion the game will be adhering to like Anime or Photo Real. If I'm comfortable and confident I have a handle on my goal I'll probably pin up a few reference pieces related to the game, look at the notes or document and decide where best to look into the picture plane. I do that by loosely starting a perspective grid for a footprint for whatever I'll sketch. Then I will do something skeletal that I'll start to hang a more finished rendering onto. I say skeletal but that can refer to architecture and level ideas as well as the figure and characters. Just something to make sure you have a good volume in your drawing. My optimal process is being asked to blue sky. Come up with ideas. For that sort of work I just invent. No reference other than the George Bridgeman and Frazetta in my head.

Concept Art by Ellis Goodson

GCG: As a concept artist, how do you build upon somebody else's idea?

Goodson: It's amazing how much more you get out of someone else's idea by paying enough attention to it to copy it. I will do this, at least loosely, while I'm mulling someone else's idea. Fairly often it's also how I take notes, sketching someone else's sketch. Because I've been hired as an artist, and managed to acquire consistent skill after fortunate years of paid practice, I'll add a level of appeal to an idea that might need the extra oomph. We might know we want to do a Pirate character and that he's skin and bones. Drawing him in a rigging pose as a turn around won't get you excited about the character. A nice action pose with all the usual components of appeal, good silhouette, staging (looking at what's most important), composition, et cetera, that's what the concept artist can add to someone else's idea.

An important concept brought up by Ellis is the use of reference. We've already talked about some basic forms of inspiration which are based on intrinsic stimulus. I like to think of these as indirect methods of inspiration since, many times, we may be inspired by personal experience when we least expect it. Conversely, reference generally falls into a more direct form of inspiration since we seek it out with some idea of what we're looking for already. I like to think of this as a trained or directed use of inspiration.


In order to effectively use reference materials in relation to video game design, we have to retrain aspects of how we look at reference. In high school, most of us were given book report assignments where we had to read a book and then provide analysis based on the author's intent. For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, what is the significance of East and West Egg in relation to class struggle and the cultural differences in the period of American history that the book took place in? If you can answer that question, then I'll award you extra credit points! The point of the example is not to grouse about the fact that you can't just ask Mr. Fitzgerald what the significance was, but, instead, to take his work and analyze it in order to form a cohesive interpretation. The same analytical skills can be used with all sorts of different reference. I'll provide three different types of reference and examples of how a lot of other designers analyze them for useful elements.

DVDs: The video game industry adopted various parts of the movie industry production model around the introduction of the CD as a game media format. Games like the Seventh Guest and Myst were some of the first games to feature cinematic style composition and lighting while the original Prince of Persia and Out of This World featured life-like animation. Games today feature advanced real time environments with real lighting and motion captured characters which are approaching a cinematic level of fidelity. All of this means that DVD's are a near indispensable source of reference in relation to scene composition, sound, level layout, lighting, character progression, etc. In addition to the ability to instantly access any part of a film or television show, one of the greatest things about most DVD releases is the staggering amount of bonus material available on just about any aspect of production. Director's commentaries, behind the scenes footage, production diaries, and effects breakdowns are just some of the many resources that are often available on a DVD. In most cases, we no longer have to ask the questions, but, rather, soak up the expertise of the professionals who created the movie or television show. By taking advantage of the bonus materials, we can see why creative decisions were made and how complex elements were created with the input of multiple departments.

DVDs can also be used to help convey complex design ideas in visual terms that everybody can understand. For example, a nature film like BBC's Planet Earth could be used to describe complex creature behaviors or elements of environments that can be used in level layouts. Robocop inspired entire generations of ED 209 clones (also known as the chicken walker), the Fifth Element (just edging out Blade Runner) set the standard for flying traffic, and Alien presented one of the first truly alien creature designs. Designers and artists have used these movies as reference examples during the design process and many of these cinematic elements have actually formed a common language where by simply naming the movie provides instant recognition of an idea.

Video Games: Just about any video game can give you valuable insight on why something works really well or why something is virtually unplayable. When we get further on in the series, you'll be able to generate a more refined list of questions to ask when looking at any aspect of a game, but for now we can start with a couple of basic questions:

What are the core mechanics? Core mechanics are the basic game elements (player actions, interactions, and world dynamics) that form the foundation of the game. Well designed core mechanics fit together like a puzzle with each piece dependent on adjacent, related mechanics in order to form a complete picture. When you play a game, try and identify these mechanics and then think about how the game would change if any of the mechanics were removed.

Are the controls responsive? Are they intuitive? Control responsiveness is a key issue in game play. How long does it take a game character to respond to a button press? For example, compare Prince of Persia to Tomb Raider Legend. The main character in Prince Of Persia is animation driven which means that the player presses a button and the Prince commits to an animation, which (largely) can't be interrupted. Other button presses are queued which means that player input is read and stored for ensuing actions. Tomb Raider Legend bases its control scheme on "fluid movement" which ensures that player input results in immediate response. Judging which system is better is purely subjective based on the player's enjoyment of the game, but it also brings up the issue of intuitive controls. Intuitive controls are a very simple concept based on two elements: the required player input (how many buttons are used on a controller and which buttons the actions are assigned to) and player response (how does the on screen character react to the input).

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones

Does the game flow feel good? So what exactly is "game flow"? Level progression (level layouts become increasingly challenging and often follow a narrative), weapon progression (the player and opponents use increasingly powerful weapons), enemy progression (enemies become harder by displaying new behaviors and requiring different player strategies), etc. If a game flows well, then all these things work in concert with the core mechanics and produce a satisfying game experience. If a game doesn't flow well, then it should be relatively easy to pinpoint where it feels wrong.

In addition to the games I'm personally interested in playing, I keep a list of games separated out into two categories: games recommended by colleagues and games that are popular and / or have sold a ton of copies. Games recommended by colleagues give me access to game genres that we may share a common interest in as well as exposing me to game play elements that they've enjoyed which may be mutually beneficial to us if we ever work together on a project. In the case of popular games, even if I don't particularly care for a game or a genre, it's important, as a video game designer, to play those games in order to figure out why they were so successful with the consumers. You can also play a game for competitive analysis. This is where you play a variety of games that are related to the genre of game you're making and compile a list of competing features.


 More References

Books: Rivaling the near infinite scope of the internet, probably the largest source or reference for video game design is the printed page: literature, comic books, art books, strategy guides, etc. Literature can provide not only a plethora of ideas, but also great examples of how those ideas can be communicated: language, characters, dialogue, composition, plot progression, etc. It's important not to be limited to just one genre (like science fiction / fantasy for example), but to pull inspiration from other genres of fiction as well as non-fiction.

Graphic novels and comic books are great sources of reference and inspiration: just about anything by Alan Moore ("Watchmen", "V For Vendetta", and his entire line of America's Best Comics: "Top 10", "Promethea", "Tom Strong", etc.), Warren Ellis ("Transmetropolitan" and the "Ministry Of Space"), Garth Ennis ("Preacher"), Grant Morrison ("The Invisibles") and Robert Kirkman ("Walking Dead") are all current favorites for the team I'm working with. If you're new to comic books and want a great place to start, there are two books I can highly recommend: Scott McCloud's fantastic Understanding Comics (a graphic novel that describes the history of comics as a form of communication for entertainment and education) and Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art (a series of lessons on a variety of topics from storytelling to composition and application).

Understanding Comics starts with Scott McCloud describing the book to a friend: "...it's more an examination of the art-form of comics, what it's capable of, how it works. You know, how do we define comics, what are the basic elements of comics, how does the mind process the language of comics..." Will Eisner begins Comics and Sequential Art with a similar approach: "This work is intended to consider and examine the unique aesthetics of Sequential Art as a means of creative expression, a distinct discipline, an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea." Do you notice a common theme in both of those quotes? It's something we touched on earlier in this article as a fundamental concept of video game design: communication.

Excerpt from Understanding Comics

Y'know when that Electronics Boutique salesman tries to get you to purchase a strategy guide with the game you just bought? The simple answer is "no", but don't be so quick to turn down the offer. Most people skip over strategy guides in lieu of FAQS (Frequently Asked Questions) and other online resources, but strategy guides are a great reference for level layouts, enemy placement, item progression, etc. In many ways, strategy guides are like high level design documents, but instead of representing what's needed to make a game, they represent what exists in the finished game. Some examples of good reference strategy guides are: Prima's Metal Gear Solid VR Missions (an invaluable source of stealth setups and enemy behaviors), Piggyback Interactive's Tomb Raider Legend (yeah I worked on the game, but this strategy guide is a terrific source for level design), and Bradygame's God Of War II (an impressive selection of concept art, enemy designs, and level layouts).

Internet: The internet encompasses everything we've just talked about with reference. There's not much more I can say about it except to offer one caveat: the internet is filled with inaccurate information. For example, Wikipedia (one of the best websites for research and reference) clearly explains in its own entry as an "ongoing work to which in principle anybody can contribute."

There are probably large portions of this article and other articles in this series that could be portrayed as inaccurate depending on your point of view. So, what does this mean? It means that the internet, at the least, should always be considered a jumping off point for further exploration of ideas rather than a means to an end. A coworker once described the internet as the "world's biggest high school yearbook." Everyone signs their name on it and makes a little remark. With that being said, the modern video game designer is incredibly fortunate to have resources at hand like Google, Wikipedia, Gamasutra, Alta Vista's Babel Fish, and a ton of other websites. At my own grand old age, I marvel at how easy students have it today compared to the days when we all had to scour library card catalogues and microfilm for relevant facts! Anybody remember the Dewey Decimal System?

All these forms of reference relate back to one of the original points of this article and that's the ability to communicate design. Even though we haven't gotten to the formulation step of the process yet, all of these sources of reference are not only good for inspiring ideas, but communicating ideas. When an abstract idea can't be communicated with just words and gestures, a representation of an idea can be clearly communicated with reference.


Formulation is the process of transitioning an idea or group of ideas into a more formal format. Generally, there are three approaches to introducing an idea:

Creating a new gameplay element. "Hey, I have a great idea for a new player weapon that allows you to pick up large objects and throw them!"

Modifying an existing gameplay element. "That's a great idea! How about if we add the ability to charge those objects so that they explode when thrown?"

Devising a creative solution to a problem. "We need to be able to tell the player which items can be thrown with the weapon. How about if we make those items shake slightly if the player is in a specific proximity to the object and the player has the weapon equipped or charging?"

Once an approach has been selected, it's time to introduce the ideas to your peers! A brainstorm session is a forum for the introduction of new ideas as well as the cultivation of existing ideas. In my experience, the key to a successful brainstorm is that there are no bad ideas. It's perfectly acceptable to have an agenda for the brainstorm to help define the overall direction, but the level of censorship (self or otherwise) should be set really low. You never know where a good idea can come from and many great ideas have to be nurtured and developed over time. This means that a bad idea can often inspire the direction for a better idea. There are many ways to conduct a brainstorm, so let's go over a couple with some real world examples.

The classic roundtable is a reference to King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. King Arthur would seat himself and his knights at a round table where there was no position of authority and everyone could speak as equals. Whether the table is square, round, or even a bunch of randomly positioned chairs, the essence of this format is used frequently in the game design industry where one person brings up an idea and then the idea moves around the group as various people riff on it until the extent of the idea is exhausted. Many moons ago, a classic round table discussion revolved around ideas for a villain in a Sega Genesis Ren & Stimpy game. Hours of heated discussion (usually the result of a lot of creativity in one room) resulted in two camps of thought: one side wanted a sentient hot dog to be the villain while the other side wanted a crazy invention gone wrong. Another discussion about the same game revolved around the game's multiplayer mode and whether one player should be allowed to inflict damage on the other player to stay true to the flavor of the show or whether that feature would frustrate players and compromise the cooperative gameplay that was planned.

Troy Mashburn, a senior designer at Crystal Dynamics, came up with the concept of the tea time. Tea time gets its name from the time of day that it takes place (usually around 3) and the presence of either hot tea or hot chocolate. Basically, tea time is a session (formal or informal) intended for the exploration of a specific idea. The format is roughly the same as a round table with scope being added to support the discussion topic. For example, the group could discuss different ways in which a jump could be used: object avoidance (variations on jump over or out of the way), object interaction (jump on to activate), jump traversal (interesting ways of using the jump to move around an environment), jump attack (the classic butt bounce), etc. The goal of the tea time is to walk away from the meeting with a laundry list of ideas at a brainstorm level which will later be filtered and refined to drive a feature.

Have you ever visited one of those random movie title generators? Like the Steven Segal model for instance; it takes all the words that have ever appeared in a Segal movie title and then constructs a new, random title out of them like: "Out For Law", "Enemy Decision" or "Glimmer Siege" (kinda cool!). The same thing can be done with game ideas. At the annual Computer Game Developer's Conference, there's a fairly new panel called the "Game Design Challenge". The challenge consists of three notable designers producing their own take on a make believe game concept. It's a great idea, but you don't need to go to GDC to do it. A variation on the same exercise can be started by writing down every game genre you can think of and then sorting them out into columns (2 or more depending on how challenging you want the challenge to be). Then, you just pick a genre from each column and there's the design challenge. How about a first person shooter puzzler?

High Riser: A man runs through the strange corridors of a massive alien city. As if things weren't freaky enough, large city blocks descend slowly from the sky rearranging the cityscape as they land. The player has to anticipate the ever-changing landscape while trying to survive death around every corner: a trapped room, a traversal challenge, or an enemy.

So, I'm trying to make it sound like Tomb Raider meets Tetris meets Dark City. Did I succeed? If not, where did I come up short on the concept? First, we should probably identify the start of what I've got written here. It's called a High Concept and it's one of the major elements of idea formulation. A high concept is essentially a summation of the game design (or a single game element) in as few a sentences as possible. It's meant to be quickly read and comprehended. This means that if somebody can't understand your game idea from the high concept, then you've got a failure to communicate. The best thing to do at this point is to take a step backwards and bullet point out all the ideas in your head for the game. Since we're still talking about the topic of ideas, we'll just concentrate on one element: the puzzle element. To come up with the mechanic for the puzzle element, I'm going to break each bullet point down into three categories: form (the look of something), function (a system), and inspiration (points of reference for myself and potential readers):

FORM: the alien city is made out of recognizable blocks: buildings, streets, freeways, etc.

FUNCTION: automated transport systems (buses, cars, trains, etc.) move around the city.

INSPIRATION: layers of old Roman cities underneath cathedrals in England.

FUNCTION: the city keeps changing as new blocks fall from the sky and eliminate or severely damage the existing blocks beneath them.

FORM: there are basic shapes of city blocks. Each one has its own traversal challenges and function.

FORM: lots of physics. Buildings fall onto traffic and cause massive accidents before the vehicles are rerouted. Stairs collapse and buildings fracture.

FUNCTION: players can look up and see the next piece falling into place.

FUNCTION: if the player finds the lock mechanism in a building, they can lock the building into place which makes it invincible. Any other city blocks that drop on it are destroyed on contact.

FORM: the player must continuously adapt to new routes created by the changing landscape.

FUNCTION: if blocks drop onto enemies or enemies are inside of buildings being destroyed, they are killed.

FORM: each piece connects up with the new piece and parts of the previous piece.

FUNCTION: staying in more dangerous areas garners more points and bonuses. Safer areas are less rewarding.

FUNCTION: master control panel temporarily gives the player the power over which blocks are dropping and where.

The reason I separated them out into categories is to demonstrate the sort of thinking that goes into a typical idea. You can see that in this case, I have one main point of inspiration (a result of my reference which I mentioned a little earlier) and then numerous ideas for form and function. In future articles we'll start refining the high concept and explore the other parts of a design document using this first person shooter puzzler concept. BUT, before we get to the actual documentation phase of an idea, it's important to cover a few common pitfalls that happen during the formulation process:

It's quite common for an idea to have too much personal bias. Let's say you have a penchant for forklifts and you've always wanted to design some game play that revolves around the use of a forklift. The forklift has some inherently cool features like the ability to lift objects and move them around for example. However, the game you're working on doesn't really have a logical place for a forklift. Part of being a good video game designer is recognizing when a game element is incongruent. Game elements that don't fit often stick out as poor implementation or even run the risk of breaking a game!

In practice, there are no really bad ideas, just ill-conceived plans of attack and a lack of clear goals. You don't have to finalize specific implementation methods during the formulation stage, but it's important to keep implementation in the back of your mind going into the documentation phase. If you can't think of a single way to implement an idea, you need to resolve the idea into something more approachable or rethink the idea entirely.

It's important to judge the potential audience of an idea. Some people can be too quick to judge an idea on its presentation and this can even include an idea's preface. For example, "let me run a crazy idea by you." Well, this may not sit well with a conservative audience like a lead designer under a considerable amount of stress or somebody in upper management who may not have any frame of reference for the idea. The importance of moving into documentation with a clear idea of the intended audience cannot be stressed enough because many ideas can be shot down based on presentation alone!

Realize the scope of an idea so that you know when you've hit the extent of an idea before it becomes another idea or becomes too convoluted.

Formulation is all about taking an idea and making it accessible to other people and the key to a successful formulation process is to keep things clear, concise, and cohesive. When I first got into the video game industry, the company I was working at had an open call for game design ideas which would be run past our producer at Sega. I helped out a friend on her concept for a side scrolling stealth game about thieves in Paris. In 2D games, side scrolling games present the game world as a connected sequence of backgrounds which scroll in multiple directions to track the movement of the player. While she was editing her presentation, she used the automatic spelling and grammar feature in Microsoft Word which changed the term "side scrolling" to "side scribbler"! She didn't catch the change, but the producer did and thought it was a really interesting idea (perhaps interesting enough to become Sega's Wild Woody). Of course, nothing else in the presentation supported the idea.


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.

Reference List


Computer and Videogames has a nice interview with Tetsuya Mizuguchi - https://www.computerandvideogames.com/article.php?id=156568

You can also look at Tetsuya's sporadically updated blog over at 1-UP - https://www.1up.com/do/my1Up?publicUserId=5596845

Howard Scott Warshaw has a personal page along with a place to buy his cool documentary on Atari: Once Upon Atari - https://www.onceuponatari.com/

The Concept Art website has some nice featured artists' work as well as extensive forums with work in progress from a variety of artists - https://www.conceptart.org/

The Drawing Board is another great website for artists at all skill levels who are ready to present their work to the world and get all sorts of feedback - https://www.drawingboard.org/index.php

Game Dev is a website that has a variety of articles on game design documentation - https://www.gamedev.net/reference/list.asp?categoryid=23

The Miyamoto Shrine has a wealth of information on Shigeru Miyamoto's games including a substantial collection of interviews - https://www.miyamotoshrine.com/

1-UP has a nice interview with the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus - https://www.1up.com/do/feature?cId=3144673

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