How to Write Your First Game Design Document

Although there are sure to be exceptions, most games end up having some form of game design document. Whether it is completed before the game starts development or gets fleshed out throughout the process, having an organized document that grows alongside your game is an irreplaceable tool.

The best part is, there really isn’t one true way or template to create a game design document. If we compared the design document of ten different games that all belong to the same genre, you’d most likely see ten unique formats.

In fact, most developers would argue that following a generic outline when planning out your game will reduce the chance of innovation and uniqueness in your project.

So how, then, does one learn to write a game design document?

While we won’t give you an exact format to follow since there isn’t one universally-used template, we will offer you 3 pieces of advice that will make your game design document a useful tool.

More than just a way to keep your ideas organized and available to read, the game design document is what you’ll use to help artists, programmers, and other developers understand what your game should be.

Remember Who The Document Is For

One of the first mistakes often made is writing a design document as if it will be read by gamers and potential customers. This is understandable since getting your awesome game ideas down on paper can be pretty exciting, but it’s a crucial mistake that will only cause frustration.

For example, if your game has a character whose special attack is to summon a dragon, the following line would be appropriate for the back of the game box or trailer: “Players can call upon a mighty dragon to scorch their enemies in flames!”

It may sound cool but the programmers and artists will be left wondering exactly what you mean. After all, everyone can imagine their own dragon breathing fire on enemies.

Instead of being vague, include the important details your team will need to create what’s in your head.

The following would be more appropriate for a game design document: “When the player character has filled his rage bar by defeating enough enemies, they can press the appropriate button to summon a dragon. This dragon will dive down from the sky and shoot a fireball from its mouth that burns all enemies within a certain radius of the player. The player character is not damaged. Once the dragon finishes its attack…”

The clearer and more detailed you are, the smaller the chance that your development team will run into issues. By avoiding ambiguity you’ll even be able to anticipate problems or concerns that may come up later, giving you an opportunity to solve them before they can hinder development.

You may have to come back and revise your design document to fix instances where you weren’t specific, but that’s fine.

Simply keep in mind that you’re not writing the design document for potential buyers or gaming websites. And, with practice, you’ll become better at avoiding colorful prose and marketing-speak.

Identify The Core Of Your Game

If there’s one thing your game design document should embody, it’s what your game is about or why it’s worth making.

This can sometimes be tricky because we get so wrapped up in all the cool ideas we have that it takes some effort to strip away the features and identify the main idea of your game.

The best way to do this is by asking this question: “What will be the main thing that players do to have fun in my game?”

Whether it sounds easy or difficult to answer, it’s always good to use examples of other games.

  • Sonic The Hedgehog is about completing stages as fast as you can.
  • Call of Duty is about surviving war scenarios in story campaigns and competitive multiplayer.
  • Pokemon is about catching fictional creatures and developing them to become the best trainer.
  • Super Smash Bros. is about defeating opponents by knocking them off the stage.

Once you have your game’s core, you must then make sure all the features and systems that follow enhance the core itself.

For Sonic The Hedgehog, having crazy loops and a power-up that doubles your speed are awesome additions that made the game more fun. They didn’t add puzzles to solve or anything that ruins the sense of speed because they would work against the core rather than make it stronger.

Worth mentioning is that the core of a game isn’t impervious to change throughout development. In fact, many games often change during development and so the core has to be revised.

If this happens to you, make sure that all the features still enhance the core and you should end up with a good game even if it wasn’t what you initially envisioned.

Make A List Of Features

Once a solid core is written down, you can then start organizing all the features that will make your game stand out and be worth playing.

This can be a pretty fun process but avoid getting carried away. Instead of listing 50 vague features that will be impossible to all fit into the game, come up with around 5 to 10 main features that you absolutely must have (or would love to have) to make this game awesome.

As an example, let’s look at the ‘Features’ list from a 2014 indie 2D platformer called Rex Rocket. Below are the features listed on the game’s Steam page, which you can also check out here.

  • Classic 2D platforming with shooting, wall-jumping, and more – all combined with innovative gameplay twists like shooting your laser downward for a handy aerial boost with each jump!
  • Amazingly detailed pixel art and animations make up hundreds of unique characters as well as over 100 hand-crafted levels that all connect within the expansive starship!
  • Awesome retro sound effects coupled with an amazing chiptune soundtrack by Saskrotch!
  • Choose the gender of your hero/heroine as you step into the boots of either Rexford or Rexanna ‘Rocket’ Rexington on this epic space adventure!
  • Collect powerful weapons and useful upgrades by defeating bosses and solving clever platforming puzzles!
  • Learn more on the backstory and details of characters, weapons, enemies, and more by collecting Info Nodes throughout the ship!
  • Get lost in an expansive starship as you explore the various routes that may offer a better path to your destination, lead you to a treasure trove of collectibles, or take you on a deadlier course!
  • A captivating narrative with plenty of light-hearted humor and goofy characters to brighten your adventure!
  • Prepare for a tough yet rewarding space adventure where you’ll face giant flame-throwing machines, swarms of Oozling-possessed crew members, and a berserk AI computer that never runs out of clever ways to try and kill you!

Since this list is used to motivate readers into buying the game, it’s written in a marketing speak that you’d want to avoid when writing those same features in your game design document.

Even so, you can get a clear idea of what Castle Pixel added to make this 2D platformer worth playing even though you’ve played a 2D platformer before.

Get Started!

With these three tips you’re ready to get started on your first game design document.

Remember how we mentioned that there isn’t a specific template that everyone can recommend? Although it’s true, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look around the internet to study examples of other game design documents.

In fact, it could prove incredibly useful.

Even if you have no plans on making a game any time soon, you should still practice making a design document based on any cool ideas you may have.

If there’s one thing all game designers should know how to do, it’s transferring their ideas to their development team. Your game design document will help you do that in an effective, organized way.

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