Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Game design documents: Plans come in many forms

When I was creating my first games, I didn’t think I needed to bother with design documents. 

Eventually, I realized that I was creating them anyway. I left notes for myself in various formats:
  • Comments in the code itself. It’s right there, which makes it easier to reference, but it gets distracting. The other problem is that it gets tricky to clean up comments later (unless you’re okay with distributing exasperated rants about your buggy, poorly implemented code).
  • Plans written on paper. Working in a space outside the game’s systems — especially outside of the computer — helps for visualizing problems in new ways. The tough part is maintaining the discipline necessary to convert those solutions back into digital formats.
  • Digital files. Donald and I have been doing more with Google Drive documents, and digital records are useful for copying and pasting ideas between plans and projects. The risk is that “the map is not the terrain”: It’s easy to waste time perfecting the design document instead of developing the game. 
Each format has its own strengths, which is why the broader concept of “what a Game Design Document should look like” ends up being such an amorphous glob. I have found many perspectives online:

  • What should a Game Design Document consist of and why should I write one? Thomas Steffen asks and answers this question, asserting that “Builders don’t just build, they make blueprints and follow measurements.” He also notes that the document will need to be flexible enough to accommodate changes and iterations during production. 

  • How To: Write a Game Design Document is the full Game Developer treatment from Danielle Riendeau, discussing common elements and providing examples (design documents from Grim Fandango and Deus Ex).

  • Creating a Game Design Document is Brenda Romero sharing her thinking. She writes, “There are sometimes multiple ways to do something right in the game industry.”

  • Common game design documents is a collection of archetypes put together by Max Nichols. He dismisses the idea of a monolithic, contains-every-detail-you-need design document as “a tidy fantasy.” Instead, he lists different ways that teams can communicate necessary information.

  • Game Design Document template for independent developers was created by Jason Bakker. I liked his advice to “Be thorough, but don't be absolute. Remember that everything must be allowed to change and evolve over the course of the project, and the design document is a general description more than a blueprint.” 

There are also documents online for Grand Theft Auto, Diablo, Doom, and Monaco

Ultimately, the game design document ends up taking on whatever form is most useful for the team that needs to use it. (Game design is all about testing and experimentation, which includes experimenting with the tools you use to make it easier.)

Monday, January 1, 2024

Keeping Imperfect Records

During Blaugust, I read Ocho’s post about maintaining and managing a backlog of unplayed games. It gave me some things to think about. 

I like tracking the games I’m playing for two reasons: the mindless busywork of recordkeeping is soothing when I don’t have the time or energy for actual gaming, and it helps me manage some of the more extreme mood swings that can come from beating a game. 

A lot of times, I get close to finishing a game and put it aside because I don’t want it to be over. If I’m lucky, I return and take care of unfinished business — I finally beat Inazuma Eleven and Metal Max: Xeno last year, which was rewarding. (My attempt to return to The Last Story was less successful.) 

But beating a game is like being the dog that caught the car it was chasing. I’ll be absolutely blown away by the experience for as long as the game lasts, and then I suffer an existential crisis. What am I supposed to do now that this amazing ride is over? 

That’s when the backlog helps with a list of shiny objects unplayed/unfinished games that can serve as distractions. 

Those are the theoretical benefits. But practical experience has taught me that managing my relationship with the backlog is as important as managing the list itself. If the backlog is a system for managing games, it needs to be a well-designed system that fails gracefully

I don’t need another collection of unfinished projects to feel guilty about. Instead, I should be okay with a backlog that's not completely accurate, or even one that gets abandoned. My PS2 died, and I’m not likely to see the end of Rogue Galaxy, Dark Cloud 2, Wild Arms 3, and several other games. I don't need them haunting the list as perpetual failures.

I’m playing these games to have fun, not to discharge obligationsLoosely tracking my unplayed/unfinished game backlog has been working for me, and I don’t want to turn it into an obsession. 

I think I’ll keep things unchanged in the year ahead.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Applying and Improving 3 Types of Narrative Choices

Picture of a hand placing papers labeled "bad" and "good."

I'd like to preserve some information that’s at risk of being destroyed by capricious billionaires: Ryan Kaufman's brief list of narrative choices.

Choices to access content 

Extreme versions are just “choose ‘yes’ to continue.” (See also: Dragon Warrior’s infamous “But thou must!”) 

Less extreme versions gate off side content — something like asking the player if they would enjoy a game of chess. Kaufman noted that most players don’t get much value from choosing NOT to do something. 

Instead, these choices can become opportunities to provide an "active no" that reveals additional details about a story and its characters: 

Tweet from Ryan Kaufman that reads "Consider changing this to an active No (if you must) by reframing the choice as a role-playing moment? Choice 1: Sure, I'd love to help! Choice 2: Card tricks are demeaning to magic! This allows you to follow up on both choices with a personal or emotional reaction from NPC X."

Choices to express an opinion

I’m ambivalent about reflective choices — asking players how they feel about things — because I can’t think of any times when they improved my enjoyment of a game. Cat Manning has explained that it takes an awful lot of work to do them well

On Twitter, Kaufman also pointed out that there are risks involved:

Tweet from Ryan Kaufman that reads "The What Do You Think Question Nothing breaks immersion like the game stopping and asking the player "what do you think?" It can feel like we're breaking the 4th wall. When we want to ask the player's opinion, we have to camouflage it a bit more."

The worst abuses are authors using “how do you feel about this?” in place of “choose ‘yes’ to continue.” The story moves forward on rails regardless of how the player feels about it.

Kaufman’s recommendation was to link these choices with actual changes in the narrative, possibly adjusting the character’s inventory or abilities to reflect their answer.

Choices for a secret, third thing

My favorite segment was the choice to keep another character’s secret. This happens in Outer Worlds, where the main character has several opportunities to turn Phineas Welles over to the authorities. (That game had some problems, but choosing to reveal the location of Welles’ base had significant implications for the story and the main character’s role in it.)

Kaufman pointed out that these choices should be introduced early, because the decision to reveal a secret has more emotional weight if the player has been keeping it for a while. 

A sequence of tweets from Ryan Kaufman that read "The other challenge is, if you're doing this right, you really have to support the "I won't keep your secret" rail all the way through the scenes. In what ways does the player value not keeping this secret, and what valuable avenues does it unlock for them?" and " i.e. make it more than just a moral stance, or a reason to mess with someone. Are there friendships or opportunities that actually unlock (or -even better- you can imply *will* unlock) if you DO choose to violate the Character's secret?"

Building on these choices can add new dimensions to a narrative, especially when the different types of choices are connected. Choosing to keep a secret can lead to follow-up choices that ask how a player feels about their actions. 

Are they the type of character who will go to extreme lengths to help a friend, or will they abandon a friendship to adhere to a strict moral code?