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March 2, 2011 / marvinhawkins

Design Documents Vs. Prototypes

Design Documents are a necessary tool for game development teams. Prototypes are small examples of game play components, and is also integral to game development. One tool is all team communication, where as the other is about results. While I believe that it is necessary to have both, I would argue that the prototype(s) is most important to early game development. If you are a veteran designer, you probably feel this way already. As an amateur indie however, I had to learn this the hard way.

Benefits to Design- Prototype Iteration

Game play of This End Up in Action

Quickly sketching out ideas led to quick prototyping

When I first took an interest in game development, I spent hours writing my ideas into notebooks. I didn’t have any programming experience. To me, writing about games was game making.  I experimented with different types of game making software,  but the final product never lived up to my designs.

After learning how to program, I discovered the importance of iterating on my ideas. I learned that prototyping served as important heat check. By taking ideas from the notebook to my screen I was able to see what was actually fun. It also served as important heat check. It is very easy to write down creative ideas, but bringing them to life is a different story. Rocket Rita was the first game that I actually finished. Ironically, this was my least designed game. The original design document was only a page long. With Rocket Rita, I was able to quickly test new ideas, and iterate on anything that wasn’t fun. The design – iterate – test cycle also helped with feature creep. The only drawback to this approach for Rocket, was that I never designed any game play areas. At the time of the project’s completion, I had spent more time polishing the game play. I learned that you must still leave time for art, sound, and level design.

This End Up was my senior final. It was a game about  a robot that was able to rotate his world. Instead of writing a lengthy design document, I tested the core ideas of the game. If the idea didn’t work, or wasn’t fun I was quickly able to try something new. Using a tool like 3DGamestudio is a great way to test ideas.

Pitfalls of  “Over Design”

I sketched a ton of ideas for Hero, and yet had little to show for it

When I was working on the game “Hero”, I wrote down every idea that I had.  This game was originally designed as a World War II First Person shooter.  In the name of innovation, I kept adding gameplay mechanics. By the time I was finished, the game was a 50 level monster with vehicle sequences in multiplayer. In retrospect, I should have actually attempted to prototype these ideas. I would have learned earlier that some ideas were beyond my level of programming.

I learned that without a working game play prototype, it is hard to know what the game will feel like. I did get a few levels finished, but none of it was similar to the design document. This was because I didn’t try to implement the features that I was most unsure of. If I had explored the riskier aspects of my game concept, I would have learned to keep it simple. I would have saved myself months of design work as well. The only positive, to this madness was that I put my ideas on paper. This process did help me organize my thoughts. In the future, I’ll pair the design documentation that I learned from “Hero” with the fast iteration development style of Rocket Rita.


Design is great. Creating a design document is a great way to organize thoughts and ideas.  Design should go hand in hand with prototyping. Once a game prototype is complete; design documentation should begin. Based on my past experiences iterating on ideas gets things done. It also eliminates feature creep. I suggest paper prototyping as a quick way to test ideas. The biggest thing that I have learned from past projects, is to write a few ideas down, and test them. If  the idea is solid, putting a slick design on top will be easier. I’ll carry this idea into future projects.

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