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  • Scope: A Lesson in Game Design


  •  The Multi-Faceted Designer
    To be able to properly scope a project, you must understand all the other departments. Nobody expects you to be the best at any of the other positions (if you were, I assure you they'd have you doing that no matter how good a designer you are), but you should have a good enough grasp of the other disciplines to roughly understand the labor cost of anything you'll be designing. Simply including the words "navigate through fully realistic waves" or "perfect human fidelity" in a design document can sink a project.

    If you're unsure of the cost of any particular piece of your design, ask. It's as simple as that. People will be honest, even when they're trying to avoid work. I've found that when someone gives me an unreasonable time estimate on something they don't want to do, usually it will really take them that long to do it.

    Cost-Benefit Analysis
    Designing within scope is sort of like playing a game. You have limited resources and you have to choose carefully where to apply them. Once you know what everyone wants to do and how long it will to take to get things done, it's time to focus on what you're really trying to accomplish.

    Define the heart of the game's experience. Make a list of bullet points that, if you delivered only those but they were all phenomenal, the project would be a resounding success. As you are designing the features, try to assess how they relate to your bullet points. This coupled with your understanding of team resources should give you a good guide for what is achievable.

    Designing for a Client
    Often we don't have the liberty of designing whatever we want. Often we have the constraints of a franchise, a corporate structure, or a client to deal with. In these situations, it becomes even more important to understand what qualifies as a win for them.

    Don't let them get into specifics about the development. Instead, find out what they want to convey to the end user. Hopefully this will give you enough room to design a project that meets their needs, has an appropriate scope, and is something the team wants to work on.

    Scoping the Details
    Scoping, as a method, can also be applied to individual mechanics or granular pieces of a game's design. When designing individual game elements, always keep in mind what those elements are trying to accomplish. It's easy to start looking for answers without really understanding the question.

    There's a famous story about a team who was making a racing game. The client says, "We don't think the cars are shiny enough," so the team goes back and develops a really nice system for curved reflective surfaces. Everyone on the team loves it, and they present it to the client. The client says, "It's just not right." The team quietly starts tearing its hair out until someone asks the client, "What do you feel shinier cars would be adding to the game?" The client promptly says, "It would make the cars seem faster!"

    The problem wasn't with the aesthetics at all. No one stopped to ask how shiny cars would affect the core experience they were aiming for until they diverted massive resources toward the problem. By that point, it was too late. The project ended up running over time and over budget.

    Cheaper and Better?
    Making things simpler can often improve gameplay. Always be on the lookout for things that make the project easier on your team and more fun to play.

    It may sound impossible, but it comes up all the time. Let's take Assassin's Creed. I've read review after review decrying the distance the player has to travel between the main cities. If Ubisoft had just put in a simple menu that allowed you to move between the cities when you got to the city boundaries, they would have saved the game a huge amount of geometry and would have improved the gameplay.

    Know which features are important to your project before you start to design or build it. No project makes it through with all its originally intended features intact. When it comes time to cut, know what to fight for. When unexpected difficulties arise around building some aspect of the game, you must be able to assess if that part of the game just became too expensive; be willing to let it go.

    Design with execution in mind.

    Plenty of people have grand visions or genius wild ideas, but, unless they understand the ramifications of those ideas and can design around them, those visions will never be realized. For yourself and your team, be realistic. Dream big, then fit those dreams into the reality of making a game. That's the real skill of a designer.

    James Portnow is a game designer at Activision. Email him at jportnow(at)


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