Compare this bird’s-eye view of a page from one of my first designs with a page from a design I wrote four years later:
The first problem any designer must overcome is getting their team to want to read a design. The second problem is presenting the information in a useful format for implementation. In this article, I’m going to share five tips I’ve learned that led to my current design doc style – a style which I’ve considered a success ever since developers who have moved onto other projects told me they missed this format.
1. Always Start with Design Goals
More importantly, the goals are for you, the designer. Writing 3-5 goals forces you to get to the heart of a design’s importance. Once you’ve written them, you’ll think more clearly about each aspect of the feature, you’ll avoid unnecessary bloat, and you’ll be more creative when challenged to achieve those goals.
Here’s an example of goals for a Tomb Level-Scripting feature for The Sims 3 World Adventures:
2. Use Strong Statements. Ditch all Mitigated Speech.
Designers need to take a stand in their designs. Brainstorms and early design meetings are for discussing possibilities and uncertainties, but design documents are for telling the team exactly what the game will be. Even if the designer doesn’t entirely believe in what he’s writing.
All designers are filled with doubt about some of their designs. Will a HUD-less screen work? Will the engineers laugh at me because I want to pull 20,000 cooking recipes from an online database? Will animators refuse to animate a snake latching onto a character’s face and flailing about? Yes. They will! This is normal, and this is necessary. It’s part of the process, and it leads to great conversations that narrow in on what’s right and possible for your game.
So take a stand. Ditch all mitigating speech from your designs – no more maybe, possibly, could we, it would be cool if, etc. (Malcolm Gladwell writes, in Outliers, how mitigating language likely led to at least one plane crash when a cockpit engineer and first officer were too soft-spoken to the higher authority of the pilot, rather than speaking clearly in a dangerous situation.) In addition, be as specific as possible. Instead of “large,” say “25 square kilometers.” Here’s a rewrite of the design statements with strong and precise language:
3. Lots of Bulleted Lists!
This is a bird’s-eye view of the entire design for The Sims 3 World Adventures tomb technology which allowed designers to script tombs by interlinking object behaviors of traps, triggers, and objects. Notice that the majority of the text appears after bullets:
And here’s a snippet pasted from the doc:
Non-bulleted text is usually an overview, introductory text, or otherwise non-implementable.
Another benefit of bullets is that they naturally reduce vague language. It’s easy to hide uncertain statements within large blocks of text and not even know you’re doing it. But bullet points shift your mind into making strong, concrete statements.
4. Color Code for Disciplines and/or Readability
Even if you were illiterate, the coloring conventions would tell you that the Infernal Mittens were more rare (purple vs. blue), you could not equip either item (red text), that the Mittens had some unrealized bonuses (gray text), and that both items had additional bonuses (green) on top of normal stats.
Now, translate this to design docs. I use color for three things:
Green = Interaction
Orange = Animation
Purple = Important Object or Related Design (like Traits)
Pink = UI Requirement
Red = Visual Effects
Light Blue = Standalone Audio (not attached to animation)
You should adapt your color styles to the needs of your game and your team. Perhaps you need to call out a lot of text requirements, or your world builders will want to easily find aspects related to level design.
This may seem like a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. Suddenly, your key disciplines will find it much easier to absorb your designs and find the portions relevant to them. Want to know all the UI requirements in a 15-page design? Just look for the pink sections. I’ve had people move onto different teams, then tell me they miss this formatting and cannot do their jobs as easily.
The success of color in my design docs has spilled over into my style in these posts. I use bold color to emphasize important points and to create visual anchors, which also helps prevent readers from skipping blocks of text. I highly recommend reading Lazy Eyes (How we read online) by Michael Agger – an article that also deeply influenced my formatting style online and in design docs.
5. Use Images to Set Mood or Explain
I like to use a picture at the top of every design document to set the mood and draw the reader in (and I do the same thing with almost all of the articles on my website). For example:
And if a design point is vague with words alone, consider supplementing with an image:
In fact, if you have a complex design with many interwoven parts, a design document dominated by imagery can be preferable. For more about this, check out Stone Librande’s great One Page Designs presentation from GDC 2010: