Game Design

Design Document Approach

Now that I’ve reached a point where the game is playable, I’m doing some refactoring to the code base alongside some tweaking to the game design document so I can continue implementing other game systems more easily.

Because I’m rewriting the game’s GDD so I won’t create stuff I won’t use later, I figured it might be a good time to do a post about my way of working with a GDD.

I’m a solo developer and I don’t really need a big and cumbersome GDD that goes through every detail of the game aspects, but I do like to keep track of the core ideas of the game by creating a general & high level GDD, and i’m doing this by mixing 3 design approaches

  • MDA approach
  • Defining the core pillars of the game
  • Defining gameplay loops

I think that it’s very helpful to have this document even as a solo developer for these main reasons:

  • It help me as a guide and a beacon so I can reach my goal
  • To focus my development & planning so I don’t put in features that the game & gameplay will not really benefit from
  • To better understand the motives of the players how will play it
  • In the future it will greatly help with marketing
  • Helps to decide what to work on next, and keep track of tasks

MDA

After I have my initial vision & inspiration I usually try to figure out what the game will be about & what are the main reasons for playing it, at this point I use a theory called MDA, Mechanics, Dynamic, Aesthetics, and it was written by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc & Robert Zubek.

This tool really helps me to deeply understand the game and get into greater details when deciding what features & mechanics I want to put in. 
I really recommend reading this article even if you don’t use it, you can find it here.

Just as a high level review I’ll explain the main concepts shortly, this will be my own personal interpretation mixed with the article descriptions:

  • Aesthetics: why the player is playing this game, what is the desirable emotional response of the player, what type of fun is it.
    Let’s take the “Witcher 3” for example, I would guess its core aesthetics are; Fantasy, Narrative, Discovery & Expression.
  • Dynamics: A set of mechanics that creates a specific aesthetic, usually the game’s systems, for example; a ship management system, base building, combat, all of those are dynamics that help create certain dynamics
  • Mechanics: the smallest units that the player interacts with, for example, WASD moves the player up, down and to the sides, drag & drop mechanic, etc…

After I go through this step I get a very good grasp of what the game is about and I can clearly see what mechanics & dynamics will create the desired emotional response in the player.

In The Traveler I defined these concepts as so:
Aesthetics: (by priority)

  • Fantasy – be a space pilot, be an explorer, be a mercenary, be your space fantasy.
  • Discovery – explore the galaxy and its mysteries, discover new ships, game mechanics & items
  • Expression – customize you spaceships, make your own story

Dynamics:

  • Exploration
  • Looting & Mining
  • Simplified space combat
  • Ship management

Mechanics (high level): 

  • Ship flight rotation & aiming
  • Ship flight movement
  • Ship flight movement bost
  • Targeting, push a key to toggle between targets
  • And the list goes on….

Core Pillars

Once I have a good understanding of what the game is about, I move on to think about what do I want the players to remember the game for, what are the game’s unique qualities, later this helps me think about wow moments and hooks for the game.
From some research online, and from my own experience with games, 3 main core pillars are good, no more no less, so I can stay focused and on track.
This part really helps me to understand & define the nature of the game, and its “feel”

For The Traveler I defined the core pillars as such:

  • Un-paused, un-interrupted, space flight & exploration
    – Everything happens in real time, UI menus/maps/etc is overlaid on the game view & doesn’t pause the game.
    – Actions like building & repairing takes a little bit of time, and can be done only when player is safe
  • Captivating  Atmosphere
    – Meditative music that get you in the zone
    – Great looking  & unique art
  • Rich Story World To Explore
    – Rich & round characters
    – Galaxy history & factions
    – Space creatures & other mysteries

Gameplay loops

Once all of the above is defined and understood, usually this part becomes really easy and also quite fun, because it’s the part when I start to imagine how the game will play.
In this game I defined 3 types of loops, long term medium terms, and short term, each supports the others to create a more fluid gameplay.

Long term loops – are taking place over a long period of time and can “run” while doing other smaller loops, I plan this loop to last for about 2 or 3 playing sessions. 

Medium term loops – are several actions long and a single game session should have between 1 or 2 of these loops.

Short term loops – are very small and short and happen many times in a play session.

These are the loops I currently have in the GDD, but they are not implemented yet so they might change in the future

Long term loop:
Explore > Find ancient artifact > Get special ability

Medium term loop:
Explore > Find quest > Perform quest > Receive Upgrades, Abilities & Blue Prints

Short term loops:
Explore > Enter combat > Get Resources/Loot > Repair ship & modules
Explore > Mine Asteroids > Get Resources > Buy/Build Modules or Ships

Features & more

In the rest of the document I keep a features list and other notes & all kinds of different lists to keep track and to save my ideas about different sections of the game.

Here is my GDD for The Traveler, and a GDD template for you to use.

Hope you find this post useful, let me know what you think and thanks for reading!