How to develop a game design document
Ludo.ai's Tom Pigott explains why a well-formulated game design document can make a huge difference for game devs
It has become increasingly important for game studios to be able to work quickly, collaboratively, and with the right tools at their disposal. There has also been a surge in demand for remote working systems.
It is therefore no surprise that we are experiencing an advent of sophisticated solutions to an age-old industry problem. How to develop a clear plan, the tools required to execute it, and inspiration for key game elements all in one accessible space for every member of your team?
The best of these solutions is a fully integrated, well-formulated Game Design Document (GDD). But why is it important, and how to create one?
Encourage collaboration, innovation and inspiration all in one place
A GDD is an important tool for studios looking to get ahead in the games industry. It forms the basis from which a game is built by breaking down the key elements of the development process, while also acting as a blueprint for what the game will ultimately look like.
A successful GDD is one that is made collaboratively with other members of the development team from the outset, giving the game development process a clear structure as more elements are added. Without a clear and coherent GDD, developing a game becomes a far more difficult task than it needs to be.
Without a clear and coherent GDD, developing a game becomes a far more difficult task than it needs to be
What is so useful about a GDD is that it can be utilised in so many ways by game developers. At its base level, a solid GDD can offer a clear throughline for studios to follow when bringing every element of their concept together.
Keeping track of every facet of a game's development and design, particularly on large scale projects, can be a huge job in itself when a variety of different tasks are being undertaken at once. A GDD can act as a log for what is being done and when, with many developers using it to clearly mark tasks as planned, or in process.
It's been very exciting to see the emergence of more sophisticated GDDs which also include tools that developers can use to actively create key elements of their next game, such as mechanics, characters, or level design. I believe that studios should use a GDD as a central hub for members of the team to use for a wide array of different game design and conceptualising tasks.
Don't make your GDD too complicated
One of the most commonly made mistakes when creating a GDD is making it too long. This was particularly true when the GDD first emerged as a key tool in the industry over 30 years ago, with studios keen to make their initial GDD as detailed and comprehensive as possible.
While it is always important to include specific information relative to the game concept and design in a GDD, if it becomes too long it has less room to adapt. A successful GDD should have the potential to grow alongside the project it is attached to. With the industry growing at a faster rate than ever before, studios are increasingly electing to streamline their initial design document.
A GDD should be an ever-evolving document
It is important for a GDD to be flexible to the needs of the team that is using it. As such, there are few 'necessary' requirements for things to include in a GDD.
A summary at the beginning of a GDD can be very useful. The concept of the game, the scope for the project and a schedule within which to execute it, as well as other elements such as the genre the game falls under and the audience it will look to target. A GDD summary can be a point as the project progresses, making sure the entire team remains on the same track throughout the process.
The GDD can be structured in line with the preferences of the particular studio or developer constructing it. They may, therefore, elect to have gameplay, game mechanics and design, all in one section. Others may decide to separate these out, having clearly defined sections for each to allow space to explore different possibilities and zero in on what's right for their concept.
Remember your game idea comes first
If a unique area of your game concept is its innovative game mechanics, then dedicate a significant portion of your GDD to this key game element. A GDD should be something that you feel confident you can create within, and refer back to, as the game concept begins to take shape.
A GDD should be updated whenever any significant changes occur in the development process. These changes can be minimal, but if they alter the course of your game's development, the GDD should reflect this alteration.
Keep your GDD up to date
Your game is progressing as planned, in line with the initial summary you put in place in conjunction with the rest of your team. As a team, you have decided that a key concept point for your game is its unique and innovative level design. You have elected to build an open-world environment, within which the central character may interact with various geographical elements and dynamic NPCs in-game. However, during a productive development session with a small section of your team, you decide a more appropriate approach is to make the levels more linear and episodic as it better suits the game genre.
This demonstrates the need to update the GDD whenever a significant change occurs. This is not to say you cannot archive earlier versions of the GDD as historical reference points. In fact, this is something as a means of evaluating your process at the end of a particular project. However, every member of your team is working from an updated version of the GDD of the development process.
Build your GDD collaboratively
When creating a GDD it is important to do it collaboratively. It is a center for discussion, development, and exploration of new and innovative game ideas. Involving your team from the start will not only open up a wider range of ideas for the game itself. It will also allow every member of the team to get up to speed on how to use it from the outset.
The entire team should have access to all of the information, and this is one of the many reasons for the use of GDDs in the game development process.
To recap, here are my key points:
- A GDD encourages collaboration, innovation and inspiration all in one place: They can act as a central hub for teams looking to develop their next game efficiently and effectivel y
- Don't make your GDD too complicated: The more streamlined your GDD is to begin with, the more room it has to adapt and evolve
- A GDD should be an ever-evolving document: It should contain a clear summary of how your team intends to approach the development process, whilst also containing sections that explore key game elements
- Remember your game idea comes first: Always structure your GDD in line with the priorities of the project, ensuring enough space is given to what you consider to be the most important elements of your game
- Keep your GDD up to date: You should update your GDD whenever there is a significant shift in the game's development, ensuring everyone is working from an updated version
- Build your GDD collaboratively: Make sure you consult your team when building your GDD as this will benefit all of you as development progresses
Tom Pigott is CEO and founder of Ludo.ai, a platform that equips game creators with AI and machine learning tools. Pigott is also the founder of Jetplay, a creative studio that develops mobile games.