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Practice and Principles - General Game Design

A Proper Pre-Production

by Fenryal

Note: I wrote this article, inspired by Social's article on Pre-Development Planning.
Thanks to Social for writing it.


Intro
Pre-production is the game development phase where in you take care of all things that should be done before you start writing code, create any art or record sounds. It is a sort of preparation before you actually start producing the game. A proper pre-production can speed up the production greatly, and it really increases your chances of success.

The concept, the game idea
Try to come up with a unique idea, this may seem obvious but very often I see concepts copied from other succesfull games. People just aren't interested in the next Quake clone, they are tired of running around with a gun and shooting everything that moves. Instead try to create a game they never have seen before, surprise them, create something intresting! If your game isn't intresting, people won't buy or download it... No matter how hard it was to make.

Take your time to 'develop' this game idea, it is better to take a few months and have a very exciting idea than having a stupid idea you came up with in less then an hour. Of course, be realistic. Design with your limitations in mind, don't try to make something when you are not skilled enough to finish it.

Before you begin thinking of a game idea it may be a good idea to first read something on Game Design...

What is Game Design?
Some people seem to think that game design is "creating your game, like programming it and creating game assets and such". But that is not really correct. Game Design is the art of designing the content, background and rules of a game in a way the people who will play the game (the players) also will enjoy it. I personally think it's the most important part of game development, if your game design is bad, your game will be bad.

Only a true Game Designer is able to create a game that is really 'fun'. A well designed game doesn't need good graphics to be fun (a game with good graphics but no good gameplay is worthless).

So how can you learn it? Game Design is easy to understand, but very very hard to master. It takes years to become a good game designer. Reading articles and books is a good start, but as Computer Games are fairly new, there is alot to discover :-). So experiment alot, study other games and try to find out why a simple game like Pacman for example had so much success.

I strongly recommend to read this book: The Art of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford (pdf, 368kb). It is old, but its free and one of the best books on game design you can find. It is written by Chris Crawford, you should also take a look at his homepage (www.erasmatazz.com) where you can find alot of intresting articles he wrote.

The Design Document
Ok, now you have an idea of your game, you can write it down in a document called the Game Design Document (I like to call it just 'Design Document') and this is the most important document of your whole project. You have to be as detailed as possible when you are writing your game idea into the design document. Design Documents of complex games are often more than 100 pages long. Be sure your design document covers every aspect of your game, from top to bottom.

This is what a Game Design Document looks like:

- Table of Contents
  • Title of Chapter
    • SubTitle
      • Maybe a SubSubTitle
        Text
    • Another SubTitle
      • Maybe a SubSubTitle
        Text
(It's nothing special actually...)

If you would like to see an example of a design document, here is the game design document of Monolith Productions' Claw Design Document. (zipped doc, 262kb)

Technical Design Document
A technical design document is a bit like a game design document, but it covers the technical aspects of your project.

A technical document is a document where you can:
  • List projected system requirements and dependencies.
  • Write an overview of how objects/functions/data interact.
  • List all the classes/structures/variables, and what they contain.
  • Specify coding conventions such as variable naming and commenting.
  • List all the technologies the game uses, and how the game benefits from them.
Its handy when you are programming the game and is especially helpfull when you are working in team which brings us to the next topic...

WORKING IN TEAM

So... you want to develop a game together with a team? You probably want to do this when you are developing a big and complex game. Managing a team can be very hard, I'll give you some tips on how to do this. Please note that I still have to learn alot about this myself, so I just tell you what I know.

Recruiting
Before you can manage a team, you have to find some people who would like to work on your project. I recommend you to write a simple description of your game first. Don't right a whole design doc already, leave some place so your new team members can add some ideas themselves, otherwise they won't buy into your design and leave the team.

So post the simple description on a forum, in your post you should tell who you need, a programmer, an artist, a story writer, a musican etc. Tell what them what they have to do when they would join the team, try to be as detailed as possible. Don't be afraid to tell them how you will organize your project, the way you work and that kind of things. Also, post screenshots or concept art of your game if you can and give your post a nice layout, split it up in "chapters" and give it a nice and clear structure. If everyhing goes well some people will tell you they want to help you. Choose wisely. Ask them to show some of their work, like previous projects they worked on, models or textures they made etc. Take your time to choose a new team member, having a good team is very important.

Managing your team
You are the leader of this team, this means that you are the one who has to manage it and finish this project succesfully. You are the one who has to motivate the team members, you have to be there for them, you will have to listen to their problems and try to solve those. Read anything on Team Management where you can get your hands on (take a look at the links at the end of this chapter).

It may be helpful to split the project up in smaller "pieces", I call those pieces "milestones". In a milestone you try to make a certain 'aspect' of the game, this way you and your team are focused on that one aspect.

I also reccomend to set up a private wiki to store all your files on, like your design doc and the technical document, you can also write the contact information of your team members here, or write down the deadlines and such. A nice free wiki host is: http://pbwiki.com/. You can set up a private wiki there.

Being a leader is not always easy you know... You set up wiki systems, you motivate everyone, solve the problems of your team members, but they do not solve yours, often they don't even thank you for setting op a wiki or motivating them. They won't motivate you, so self-motivation is (for a leader) a requirement.

Some links of interest:
www.dexterity.com/articles/ (Unfortunately, Dexterity Software has closed and alot of interesting articles are gone. But you can still find some articles on the website of the leader of Dexterity here: www.stevepavlina.com)
http://www.gamasutra.com/resource_guide/20030714/index.shtml
http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20061012/mencher_01.shtml
http://gamasutra.com/features/20061107/mencher_01.shtml
http://web.cba.neu.edu/~ewertheim/teams/ovrvw2.htm

CONCULSION

A proper preparation will not only make your life as a game developer easier, I personally think that the pre-production is the most important part of the development of a game becuase the Game Design is also done in this stage. In this stage you define how your game will look like, its quite hard to make a game when you don't know what kind of game you are creating. I think the reason why so many projects fail is becuase of the lack of a good preparation and a bad team management.

The Pre-Production is the "groundbase" where your game is build on, the game would collapse without it, so you better do it properly.

-Bob "Fenryal" Mees

Links
If you would like to learn more on this topic, then these links may be of interest:
www.gamedev.net
www.gamasutra.com
www.erasmatazz.com
http://www.sloperama.com/advice.html


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