Juan Uys

Coursera - Game Design Document - define the art & concepts, week 1


I’ve started CalArts’ Game Design Document - define the art & concepts and here are my course notes for week 1.

This is the Capstone project of the Game Design: Art & Concepts Specialization offered by CalArts, and is broken up like this:

  • Week 1: Ideation and Market Test
  • Week 2: Create a Prototype
  • Week 3: Refine Your Prototype
  • Week 4: Visualize Your Game
  • Week 5: Refine Your Visuals
  • Week 6: Final Presentation

Week 1

This is hilarious, and I want to get it out of the way right away. If you remember how in previous weeks I complained about the amount of questions but no real information… See here, here, and here.

Questions questions questions right off the bat.

Right off the bat we start with questions.

  • Has it been done before? This is part of the ideation phase. If it has, then how?
  • What can be done? Part of the preparation phase. What’s new/different in terms of genre/presentation? Technical limitations?
  • What am I doing? Part of production phase. Asses/validate what you’ve achieved. Play-test. If it doesn’t work, cut it.

The next section talks about the game artist. If you’re a better artist, you’ll be a better designer. The game artist

  • embraces an eclectic style and practice. Pulling inspiration from unusual art forms makes your game stand out.
  • wears many hats.
  • communicates clearly.
  • is fast an reliable. Conceptualise, visualise quickly, and communicate them immediately.
  • is willing to create subsequent versions of everything.
  • never looses sight of the gameplay. Don’t let the art get in the way.

GDD vs. Pitch

Let’s clarify what a GDD is, and what it isn’t.

A game design document (GDD) is a multi-media tool that helps you define your game as well as help communicate its needs to colleagues who are helping you create the game. It lays out the rules of your story, characters, environments and settings, gameplay, and even mechanics of how your game works. It is the one place you put all of your information to centralise it and make sure it flows together seamlessly and coherently.

In the GDD, you will include written documents such as your story synopsis, character and environment descriptions, and so on. You will also have illustrations and/or images that show off the designs of your characters, worlds, levels, etc. so that people can gauge your aesthetic and the look and feel of the game. You’ll even have text and diagrams that show the gameplay of your game and how a player will be able to navigate through your game. Again, all these materials do is communicate what your game is and how it will work.

A pitch, on the other hand, is the act of communicating your game idea to other people, such as investors or studios, who can help make your game, invest finances or even outright buy your game idea(s). In a pitch, it is your responsibility to effectively communicate the gist of your game and more importantly to excite the audience about your game, so that they will involve themselves. This requires you to be able to talk about your game and show your audience what they can expect once the game is complete.

While your GDD can play a huge role in your game pitch, they are not exactly the same thing. The pitch relies on showing elements of your GDD (or perhaps the entire thing at some point), but the pitch is more intended to be a quick way to communicate and excite potential backers, studios, artists, etc. into jumping on board with you. Simply handing over the GDD to a potential financier is not advisable. You will want to “wow” them with how awesome your game is and also back it up with any research you have done on the game’s potential market.

For example, when meeting with an investor for a pitch, you want them to feel confident that you have an interesting, original and exciting game idea that people will want to play (and buy). You’ll also need to convince them that you know what you are doing and that you have a solid plan to actually create the game.

To do this, you’ll want to have concise and specific answers for questions such as:

  • What is your genre?
  • What is your gameplay type?
  • What’s your story spine?
  • What’s so awesome about your characters?
  • What’s engaging about your gameplay?
  • How does it engage the player?
  • How will it keep people playing and interested?

These questions should all be answered in a GDD and will help prepare you for a pitch, where you convince backers that they absolutely need to jump on board with you, and take a fantastic ride. But in a pitch, you’ll want to give further analysis of the game, its market potential, and its production.

  • How does your game compare to others on the market?
  • Why is your game better than the others?
  • If you already have a team in place, who are your artists, writers, designers, developers, etc.
  • Why they are the best people to be working on your game?

Ideation / brainstorming

Recalling from previous notes in previous courses:

  • It’s a cornerstone of developing creative projects.
  • generate, develop and fine tune core ideas into workable elements to use for a greater whole.
  • brainstorming some lists of possible characters or titles for a game.
  • building a game around the central theme that interests you, that come from your experiences and works of art that appeal to you.
  • World Design course echoes this sentiment with pulling in outside inspiration for your game. Look at films and paintings, books, things you’re inspired by.
  • don’t create from the void - look for inspiration where you don’t expect it.
  • in the courses on narrative story, we practiced idea sheets. These categorize your game story.
  • idea sheets put you in a state of mind where you are freely expressing guided ideas and recording them to paper.
  • idea sheets: to free you from constant self-editing and allowing judgement and that inevitable edit to come later.
  • Break down the process, and the larger whole of a story into these manageable bites

Understanding the market

  • understand what other game creators have done before you, and how their ideas have been received.
  • What types of games have reached the most players?
  • What types of games do people spend the most time playing?
  • What types of games are people making most frequently?
  • define the potential market and genre of your game in the GDD, e.g. This is an RPG action game that borrows heavily from classic 8-bit games like Space Invaders and Asteroids. Due to some mild violence, it is suitable for players aged 14 and up.
  • visit gaming news websites to find out what sorts of games are currently on the minds of gamers.
  • your game might be very unique, but remember players might want to tie your game to something they already know and appreciate before jumping head first into the unknown.
  • if your game is a variation on a popular trend or genre, go for it.
  • many very successful contemporary games rely on a key balance: delivering a familiar environment or gameplay while offering a satisfying and refreshing twist.
  • If you’re basing your game on a “classic” gameplay experience then define what makes it so timeless and effective.
  • Strip the original game to its essence and build upon it.
  • Don’t reject a game idea solely based on how well it would do in terms of commercial viability, but rather how many people would like to simply play it.
  • for developer’s perspective rather than the player’s, check out Gamasutra and Game Career Guide. It can also be interesting to see how other game creators have approached the same endeavor.

The Traditional Game Development Workflow

A “workflow” varies from studio to studio, but it follows a basic set of guidelines. During video game development some of these elements can overlap and shift depending on your goals and processes.

Usually, the production is divided this way:

  • Research - A time of pre-production where the future game is discussed in all its aspects: visual, story (or context) and gameplay (its inner mechanics). This is where the “design” of the game is conceptualized at its most basic level.
  • Production - This is where the game is conceived. It means, prototyping, assembling and compositing elements together. Designing and researching can still occur. It is where elements of production may/should overlap. In fact, even though the progression is linear, some key decision regarding the entire direction of the game will be made here. Some aspects of the game won’t be defined until a playable prototype forces the team to rethink some choices, from the entire aesthetic and tone to the engine itself (what powers the game).
  • Post-production - You enter this period after having locked-down the core aspects of your game. The game should be playable. It should be reflect your original idea but can still be rough. Here, playtesting, tweaking and tuning will make your game a potential masterpiece. It is crucial to take time here to playtest. Get people to play the game, gather some feedback and keep steering the game in the right direction (meaning: a balance between what “you” want and what players want or need).

Creating a Production Plan

Now that you’re familiar with some of the tools, it’s time to familiarize yourself with production planning. There are many different ways to approach the production of any game, and ultimately you will want to do whatever works for you and your team (if you have one), but there are a few basic questions to ask yourself to help move you in the right direction.

  • What needs to be done? Does your game need backgrounds or elements? Does your game need writing? How about music or sound effects? Write down a list of all the parts that your game will need.
  • Who needs to do it? Can you create sound effects on your own? Can you find them for free online? Can you get a friend to make them? Questions like these will define a lot of your production, and should be taken into account while deciding deadlines.
  • When does it need to be finished? Even if you don’t have a specific event that will require that your game be finished, it’s often helpful to set yourself a deadline anyway. Perhaps give yourself a week to produce a prototype of your game so you can begin testing quickly. Perhaps a month. The time you choose is up to you, but having a set deadline for your production can motivate you, and your team, to finish the game.

Some teams work best with strict deadlines, others need a more free-flowing strategy. As the project lead, your job is to identify which type of schedule will work best for your team. No matter which you choose, keep some things in mind. Game Design (figuring out mechanics and interactions) will need to be one of the earliest things finished, as it will define what needs to be made by other areas. Art will need to be finished early enough that the art can be passed along to implementation (Code, if this is a video game, or printers for a physical game). Music and sound will need to be finished around the same time as any visuals, for the same reason. If your game needs animation, visuals will need to be finished early enough to send their work to be animated, who will later send that to be programmed into code.

You don’t need to know everything about all the different tasks that need to be done. Knowing that art needs to be made, for instance, will tell you that you need to have that artwork well before the final deadline, etc. You might also be able to set up weekly deadlines for major milestones. Again, the need for a loose or strict schedule will be up to you and the needs of your team.

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