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Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition: 'Not All Game Design Documents Are Created Equal'
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Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition: 'Not All Game Design Documents Are Created Equal'

November 1, 2004 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

The Pie-in-the-Sky Document

These design documents often have noble intentions with grand ideas for truly magnificent gameplay. Sadly, the writers of them typically lack any technical grasp of what the computer is capable of or what a team of twenty people is likely to accomplish in a year and a half. As a result, these overly ambitious documents put forth fancy ideas with no basis in reality or feasibility and end up frustrating and infuriating the teams assigned to “make them happen.”

Pie-in-the-Sky Documents include ideas such as “a fully modeled replica of Manhattan will be the players’ primary game-world, complete with AI agents representing all of the city’s seven million inhabitants in real-time.” The authors of Pie-in-the-Sky Documents do not want to be bothered with messy details such as the reality that no existing computer system can simulate seven million humans in any sort of reasonable time frame (let alone real-time). Another feature suggested might be “a natural language parser will be included that allows users to type in full, complex English sentences, which the characters will respond to with their own dynamically generated dialog.” The guilty designer does not want to hear that research institutions have been working for decades on natural language processors that still have trouble with short, simple sentences. When confronted with a Pie-in-the-Sky Document that you must work with, the first thing to do is call a reality check meeting involving key programmers and artists as well as the management who want this document implemented. With them all in the same room, some simple and quick calculations on a piece of paper or white board will often reveal how fundamentally impractical the game proposed is, and if the management still refuses to accept the reality of the situation, it might be time to start looking for a new job. Pie-in-the-Sky Documents are often combined with Ellipsis Specials to create truly wretched design documents, where the guilty designer outlines a completely impractical project without bothering to go into much detail about it.

The Fossilized Document

Any of the above flawed design documents can also be a Fossilized Document. Indeed, a design document that does not necessarily suffer from any of the above problems and was once a fine reference tool will become a Fossilized Document over the course of a project if the designer is not diligent in her efforts to keep the document up to date. I know of no original game project whose design has not changed significantly during the course of its development, and when the design changes but the design document does not, that document starts to become fossilized.

Suppose a programmer on the development team looks something up in the Fossilized Document and the information she finds is out of date. She may start implementing the old, long-since-modified functionality. At some point, a designer or producer who is aware of the changes that have taken place in the design will notice that the programmer is creating a system that is no longer appropriate, and will chastise the programmer for doing so. This creates frustration for both parties, not to mention wasting the programmer’s time. Furthermore, whenever the programmer needs to know something about the design in the future, she will not trust the design document, and instead will go hunt down a designer or producer to find out how a given system is supposed to function. Of course, this defeats the purpose of the document, as the designer must stop whatever she is working on to explain the system to the programmer. This new system may be described correctly in the document, but the programmer is not going to get burned again by using the Fossilized Document. When the designer fails to update the document when design changes occur, the entire document becomes useless. No one can trust it, and as a result no one will bother to read it.

Wiki systems can be great for more easily keeping a document or collection of documents up to date. With Wiki, any member of the team can update a section of the document through their web browser, and full version control and history is supported to prevent the accidental loss of data. So, for example, the programmer who is implementing a particular feature can slightly modify the text of the design document to match how the feature actually ended up working, to add more information, or to link to the newly created technical design document for that particular feature. On a large enough project, keeping the design document completely up to date can be a full-time job.

A Matter of Weight

It is often joked that design documents are not read, they are weighed. This is not surprising given the heft of many design documents and the lack of desire among team members to read them. Shockingly, this statement is often true. I once heard an ex-producer from a major gaming publisher talk about her experience with design documents and the project approval process. She said that the “decision-­makers” would bring a scale to their “green-light” meetings. When it came down to two similar projects that were both relatively worthy of funding, they would take the design document for each project and place it on the scale. Whichever one weighed more would get accepted, the other rejected. Much as it pains me to tell you, if you are in the commercial gaming business and groveling for dollars at publishers, you need to make your document hefty. You need it to be impressive to pick up and flip through. Many will never read it at all. Others will read only the Overview and Table of Contents at the beginning. But everyone will pick it up and remark on its weight.

Of course, many of these super-thick documents contain a lot of information of negligible value toward the actual development of the project. They may be stellar examples of one of the failed types of documents I discussed earlier, such as a Back-Story Tome or an Overkill Document. It is your challenge as the game designer to make the document as practical as possible by providing only useful information in the document, while making it hefty enough to impress the suits. One might want to include a large number of flowcharts or concept sketches or choose to use a bigger font, all while not being too obvious. Indeed, a great game (though a simplistic one) can have a perfect design document only ten pages long. One wonders how many great, simple games have been cast aside by publishers who were unimpressed with the mass of their design documents.

Thankfully, over the last few years many publishers and developers seem to be wising up to the unwieldiness of massive design documents. Design consultant Mark Cerny has been preaching the concept of starting development with only a simple “macro” design document of perhaps ten pages in length that can be expanded on as needed over the course of development. As I have discussed, others are starting to use Wiki as a means of organizing and interlinking a lot of design information contained in many smaller documents. And fewer and fewer publishers are funding development based on a phone book-like design document alone, with prototypes and high-level, graphical pitch documents becoming increasingly important. The days of padding out the design document just for the sake of it seem to be thankfully drawing to a close.

Getting It Read

Once your design document is written, one of your biggest challenges may be getting anyone on the development team to read it. Often, many programmers, artists, or even other designers will not want to put the time into a careful reading of your document. Others may have been burned by bad design documents in the past and will jump to the conclusion that yours is of similarly poor quality. Keeping your document up to date, including only useful information, providing a detailed table of contents, and limiting yourself to practical, accomplishable gameplay elements will help. Including numerous short, high-level summaries before each section of the document can also help team members get high-level information for aspects of the game they don’t need to know so much about. At the same time, such summaries can give readers a big-picture vision before they dive into the gritty details of the document. If your team members sample your document and find it to be of superior quality, they are more likely to return to it for reference when they are actually implementing a given system or working on a particular piece of art. As with any written document, you need to earn the trust of your readers if you hope to keep them reading.

Another key method of getting your design document read is to make it easily available to anyone who wants to read it. Keep it in the same source-control system that your team uses for asset management. You want your team members to be able to get the latest version of the design document as easily as they get the latest build of the game. Since you will be constantly revising and updating your document to keep it up to date with the project (and to prevent it from becoming a Fossilized Document), source control will be a valuable tool for keeping track of the previous revisions. Not to beat a dead horse, but a Wiki system run over a company intranet can also be great for distributing the document to the team, with developers at any time being able to easily read the very latest version of the document through their web browsers.

When you check in the latest version of the document, send your team an e-mail telling them that it is available and explaining what has changed. That way, people can easily skim over the changes. If one of the changes is relevant to their work, then they can get the latest version of the document off the network and read over the relevant updates. Updating your document does not do any good if no one knows you have updated it or if people are still reading old revisions. It is probably a good idea to use a version number with your document, such as 1.3 or 2.7. Include this version number, along with the date, in a header on every page. Often people will print out a design document and not realize how old or fossilized it is. If they can quickly compare a date and a version number, they will know which version of the document they have and whether they need to get a new one.

Documentation Is Only the Beginning

Some designers or aspiring designers seem to think that a thorough design document is, by itself, enough to build a game. Indeed, some companies have had designers write design documents, only to then have those designers move on to write other design documents while a separate team actually executes their design. At its best, a design document is a rough outline, more the suggestion of a game than anything else, and without being involved in a game’s creation until it goes gold master, one cannot truly be considered to have designed the game. A designer who takes any pride in her work will want to be there throughout the project, ready to change the design as necessary to make it the most compelling game possible and updating the document as the design is changed and revised (and rest assured it will be continuously changed and revised). A committed game designer will want to be there to balance the weapons, the AI, the controls, and certainly the levels. She will want to make sure the game follows the focus through and that the initial vision is realized.

If a designer writes a design document and then passes it on to others to actually build, the people who do the actual creation will change the design to match their own interests and artistic drives. The design document will be a springboard for their own acts of creation, not the original designer’s. The design document is an integral part of the game’s creation, perhaps, but a design document is not all that is required. To claim any sort of meaningful authorship on the project, a designer needs to be involved for the duration. In a way, writing the design document is the easy part of computer game design. Actually taking the document and creating a compelling gaming experience is much, much harder.


This article is excerpted from Game Design: Theory & Practice Second Edition (ISBN # 1-55622-912-7). For more information about the book, please visit


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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