Design Docs 101

People are scared of design documents. It’s natural; we hear all these stories about people who have invested tons of time into their massive, several hundred page docs, and we quiver – and not with anticipation, either! After reading several folks cite the 1-2 page design doc requirement as a reason for not entering the upcoming Realmcrafter “Game in a Month” contest, I figured I’d see what I could do to remove some of the fear.

A while back, I blogged about a concept I called “simplest game”, the idea being to create a fun but basic game which was refined down to a few simple concepts. Something relatively fast to make, with few enough ‘moving parts’ that the complexity level was kept within a range that a small team or single dev could accomplish. The simplest game concept is ideal for contest entries, too.

And because the simplest game concept espouses the idea of a basic, uncomplicated game design, the design doc doesn’t really need to be hundreds of pages. A handful will do. Because your team size is one person, or a couple/few people, you don’t need to doc to keep a huge staff all pointed in the same direction – you just need it as a way to track your progress, figure out what is left to do, and as a reminder to yourself about the overall plan for your game.

What I’m going to go over here is the basic layout of a simple design document, and then I’ll give some examples. You’re welcome to use stuff from the examples – and the format – for your own games. I’d prefer you not try to just copy and paste one of my designs and try to enter it as your own work in a contest – keep in mind, I might just be entering that same design myself! The examples will be given in PDF format for ease of reading; the blank format itself will be in OpenOffice because it’s free and easy to use.

Title Page:
Title of the game goes here, along with your name and some sort of copyright notice. You can add a logo, if you want to. Not an essential element, but adds a feel of professionalism which is nice.

Mile High View:
In one sentence to two paragraphs, summarize your entire game. What genre is it? What is the setting (backstory is later)? What do players DO in the game? Don’t make this a detailed feature list, just hit the broad strokes.

Backstory:
Now for the storyline. This can be a paragraph or two, or as much as a page. Don’t detail the entire history; this is meant to be a summary of the major events that led up to the conflict the players will find themselves embroiled in.

Character Development:
This will probably have multiple sub-sections. You’ll want a section for races, if you have more than one, talking a bit about the benefits and drawbacks of each. You’ll want to do a short talk about classes, if you have them, or skills in the skill system if you prefer that route. You’ll want to talk about how the character is created, and how the character advances in the game.

Gameplay Systems:
Again, an area with multiple sub-sections that depend on the game. Is there combat? Then talk a bit about how that will work. Is there crafting? This is a good place to talk about how crafting will be implemented. Is there pvp? Permadeath? Player conquered buildings? Instanced dungeons? Boss mobs? Quests? Talk a bit about each piece of the gameplay, and how you plan to implement it. You don’t need to list every item here, or every quest. Just talk in generalities about how you plan to add these features.

World Details:
How many zones will you have? I’d recommend one paragraph of overview, talking about the entire game world, and then a sub-section for each zone talking about what that zone has in it, why that zone is important, and what players can expect to find and do there.

That’s it. That’s the basic design doc. You CAN, of course, add more. You can detail every quest, complete with all quest dialogue. You can list every item, with full stats for each. You can list every mob with stats. You can list every art and music asset you will need for the game. You can map out every zone, with a key that shows every major and minor location in each zone.

…and you probably don’t need to have any of that.

If you do feel the urge to add those things, of course, they can always be tacked on later as appendixes. They’re not the core of the design doc though. They’re not the meat, not the essential elements of design which will keep your game on track and moving forward in the planned direction during development. Keep It Simple. Get the basics down on paper (or on hard drive) and then flesh things out as you move along.

And now for an example:

Working Title: Brittania

Intro and Concept:
Brittania is a game of player vs player battle, set in the heroic era of 6th century Brittania. The Roman legions have left, the Saxons are invading, and everything is going to heck. The players can choose sides between the Romano-Briton people in the west, and the invading Saxons in the east. Gameplay focuses on the developing struggle between these two peoples for the control of the island of Brittania.

Backstory:
In the early fifth century the last of the Roman legions were recalled from Brittania to defend Rome against barbarian invasion. What was left was auxiliary troops and local musters. The Saxons were invited in to supplement these local armies in defense against the Picts and Irish. After a while, the Saxons rebelled and raided through the country around 450 CE, killing many and destroying much of what was left of the infrastructure. Still, the Romano-Brits rallied, and forced them back. For another two hundred years, an off and on war was waged between these two peoples. The game opens in the early 6th century, well into the struggle, during a period when neither side can really gain the upper hand.

Character Development:
Race – Players choose between Saxon and Romano-Briton ethnic groups. Because this game is so focused on pvp, there are no major differences between characters from these groups. The choice simply decides which side of the struggle the character will be on.
Class – Each side has a warrior, scout, and morale class. Warriors wear heavier armor and tend to hit harder. Scout classes have less armor, but are more prone to use ranged weapons, move faster, and sneak about. The morale classes from both sides as musicians, with low offensive capabilities but the ability to ‘heal’ by boosting the morale of the friendly characters around them, among other special powers.
The game will use a level-based system. Leveling will increase stats and grant new special abilities.

Gameplay Systems:
Combat – Combat in this game will use the default Realmcrafter combat script.
Crafting – Wood, stone, food, and metals can be harvested by players. Virtually all items in the game will be able to be crafted by players. Additionally, food can be cooked for special buffs. Wood and stone can be used to repair forts.
Quests – Questing will be a large part of the non-pvp zones, a good way for players to improve characters.
Player Conquered Buildings – The pvp zones will feature forts which can be ‘flipped’. Killing the guard captain in an enemy fort will generate a special drop that players can use to turn the building to their side. This will make new guard spawns appear of the faction which just conquered the fort. Ownership of each fort will be stored as a superglobal.

World Details:
The game will take place over a five zone spread of southern Brittania (England, today). The farthest west and east zones will be pve only. The middle three zones will be pve and pvp enabled. There will be three forts in each pvp zone. Portals to the neighboring zones will only be open if a faction controls at least two of the forts in that zone. So if the Saxons own two forts in the middle zone, they can move west to the next pvp zone. If the Britons take back one of those middle forts, then the portal closes and the Saxons can no longer move west until they take back another fort.

Zone 1 – Farthest west, the starting point of the Britons. This is a pve only zone, and features numerous quests and places to level up and get to know the game.
Zone 2 – The western pvp zone. There is a Briton camp on the west side, and three pvp forts. Leveling against pve in this area is middle level.
Zone 3 – The center pvp zone. Three pvp forts are here. PvE leveling here is high level. Harvesting here is also highest level; the best gear can only be made from materials harvested here.
Zone 4 – The eastern pvp zone. There is a Saxon camp on the east side of this zone, and three pvp forts. Leveling against PvE here is middle level.
Zone 5 – Farthest east, this is the Saxon Shore, where the main Saxon camps are and all new Saxon characters start. PvE only zone.

(This design doc took me 22 minutes to write from start to finish. I might add a bit more detail if I was entering this in the Realmcrafter contest that’s just starting up, but it’s enough to give you a good idea! It’s a barebones approach, and really needs more fleshing out, but what you’re looking for in a contest entry like this is really just the basics.)

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1 Comment

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One response to “Design Docs 101

  1. Heya Kevin, not sure if you remember me. Just wondering how things are and drop me a line sometime.

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