How to Write Game Design Document or GDD

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How to Make a Game Design Document

Game design document or GDD is a long detailed description of everything that must be included in the final game. By “everything” we mean “EVERYTHING”: game mechanics, gameplay features, art style, level design, music and sound style, interface design, ingame menus, specific programming decisions, cutscenes, characters, story, interactable objects, quests, monetization system, color schemes, fonts and even ESRB rating.

Here’s game design document example. Just look how big it is.

gdd enemy example template

With a good game design document every member of the team will know how the final game should look like and what they need to do. In this article we will explain why game developers need GDD and what you need to know for writing a game design document.

Why you must write a game design document

Game designer is a person who knows how the game must look, feel and play like. If you have an idea of your perfect game — congratulations, you’ve become a game designer just by knowing what your game should be.

game design example

If you can develop a game on your own and have a perfect memory, you should not have any problems at all. But if you have at least one more man working with you, you’ll face the problem of misunderstanding and forgetfulness.

Here’s an example: you want to create a game with Angry Birds mechanics, but with raccoons and beavers fighting each other. You tell this concept to your team and after a few weeks they give you a prototype. In this prototype you shoot skunks from a canon into a pile of trash with a few raccoons hiding in it. But you wanted a slingshot instead of a canon, beavers instead of skunks and raccoons as good guys. The problem is that your team has forgot or misunderstood what you said.

To get rid of forgetfulness you need to write down even the smallest details of your game concept. And to solve the misunderstanding you need to explain these details in a clear way.

Game design document is your life vest in case someone of your team have forgotten what to do. 

Game design document structure

The structure of game design documents is typical for every game genre. The game design document template consists of these parts:

These sections are divided into smaller topics, which describe particular aspects of your game. The description must not refer to another game or be blurry. For example, “Combat system like in Dark Souls” is a bad description. It’s better to say: “R1 button for light attack, R2 button for heavy attack, L1 to shield, L2 to parry or to make special attack”.

game design document template

With a help of detailed GDD the programmers, artists and designers will certainly know what they need to achieve without asking the game designer.

Also, there is a simple game design document or one page GDD — it’s called game concept document and we wrote an article about it.

Game description in game design document

Overall description is needed for your team to understand the game’s main details like genre, platforms and play modes. Imagine, that you wanted to make a turn based strategy game for mobile, but didn’t mention a gaming platform in GDD. And now your team must redraw the interface and think how to make it playable on a smartphone screen. Better write all the details in the document.

game design document example

Overall description consists of these topics:

  • game name — obviously;
  • platforms: mobile, consoles, PC;
  • technologies — what game engine to use;
  • languages the game will be translated into;
  • target audiende;
  • game genre. Do not write “Fortnite-like”, better use “third-person 3D battle royale with guns and building”;
  • game modes: singe player, cooperative, multiplayer, massive multiplayer, etc;
  • game mood. For example, Fortnite has bright mood, PUBG is serious and Hunt: Showdown is terrifying;
  • emotions — how the players should feel like while playing the game;
  • gameplay cycle length — the game is meant to be played for 3 minutes while in subway or for 3 hours at home;
  • ESRB rating — it is needed for artists and scriptwriters to understand what they can and can’t include in the game;
  • main game mechanics or core gameplay loop. For example, in Fortnite it is “loot, build, shoot”, in Darkest Dungeon — “manage town and plan combat”.

This isn’t a full list, you can expand it if you need. For example, you can include the last update date or detailed game flow summary for a game with complex mechanics.

Gameplay and game mechanics description in game design document

This part of GDD describes what the players will do in the game, how it motivates them to play further and what are the rules. Imagine a world where board games never existed and you are the first one who came up with an idea to move pieces on checkerboard. To make simple checkers you need to invent the game rules: how the board looks like, how many pieces are on board, how do they move and what is the winning objective. Without the rules checkerboard and pieces will be just colored plastic chunks. And without the gameplay part GDD is only useful to produce a cartoon, not a game.

game design explained

The Gameplay part of game design document must contain following:

  • game objectives — what the player needs to do to finish the level: defeat enemies, get 100 points, do a barrel roll above a running giraffe, etc;
  • game progression — what the player needs to do to move to another level, how the player improves his gameplay abilities;
  • game flow — how the ingame screens change. Better write is as a scheme;
  • missions, quests, challenges and puzzles structure;
  • game mechanics.

if the game is more complex than Flappy Bird, the “Game mechanics” topic may be taken out into separate sections. That’s because you’ll have many things to explain and it’s better to do separately.

Game mechanics section needs to include:

  • rules of the game world. If you’ve imagined Dungeons and Dragons rulebook, you are partially wrong. In the Rules topic you have to describe the laws of your game world: cars won’t run out of fuel, melee weapons may break, there is no health bar and the player dies after one hit, etc;
  • game universe model. There you need to write how different mechanics, objects and NPCs exist inside a game world. Here’s example on the Skyrim: the merchants may wander between cities, bandits live in mountains and don’t attack other NPCs off the player’s sight, Ulfric sits on his throne and is always ready to talk;
  • physics. if your game doesn’t need a basic physics simulation, you can skip it. If it does, you need to write exactly what simulations it needs: gravity, weight-acceleration simulation, water simulation for a pirate game, etc;
  • economy. If your game has ingame purchases and some currency, you need to write what the player can purchase how he can earn currency and how it affects the gameplay;
  • player available game mechanics. Describe what player can do in game;
  • interactive objects. What objects the player can use, what effects do they give;
  • combat details (if there is one);
  • artificial intelligence — what the enemies can do and how do they behave;
  • game options;
  • replaying and saving, replayability options.

game design document mechanics

it is easier to write game mechanics from basic features to unique ones. For example, if you are making a 3rd person 3D action adventure and the hero can fly, you have to write the following: “Main character can walk and run in any direction. He can jump, crouch and sprint for a few seconds. By pressing and holding the X button (Spacebar) he can fly up for higher than he can jump. Flying uses the energy, so if the energy falls to zero the player can’t fly”.

Story and narrative in game design document

This section must contain everything about the game universe, storyline main points, characters and levels description, items and interactable objects list and so on. The goal of this part is to make sure that your team will see the game as you see it and to give inspiration to artists.

Topics are following:

  • back story and lore — description of the game world, it’s history, how it looks and feels like;
  • main story — what the player will witness from start to finish;
  • cutscenes;
  • levels and areas description or [environmental design] — what do they look like, what interesting things do they have. Also you may include description of how the levels are related with each other on the overall map;
  • characters — back story, personality, appearance, abilities, relevance to the main story or side quests. This topic may include playable, friendly, neutral and enemy characters too. But if there are too many of them, it’s better to create a separate document.

The story section must not be a completed script with every plot twist written in smallest details. Here’s a tip to make it easier: imagine that you’re explaining a movie to your friend to make him interested in watching it. Like “There are 4 ninja mutant turtles with different weapons and they are fighting armored samurai with cool helmets. Samurai try to steal some artifacts from a museum, secret chips from the laboratory and money from banks to conquer the world”.

game design document story

Art style in game design document

Art style section includes your vision of the game. Art style is one of the most important features of the game, because most of the players choose the game to buy based on graphics. And that’s why we have AAA and indie games separation: AAA games have the most detailed models, coolest animations and shaderest shaders. And most indie games have outstanding art style only.

To make your game recognizable you need to come up with a unique artstyle: drawing, design and animations. You don’t need to draw concept art if you are not the artist. It is better to explain what you want to see and what feelings the art should evoke in players. The same goes with music and interface.

Game art in game design document you need to describe:

  • visual style — realistic or stylized, funny or scary, happy or sad feeling, colorful or more monochrome, etc;
  • interface, fonts and buttons style;
  • sounds and music;
  • animations — how they should feel to the player.

The thing is to give artists guidelines, a direction to move. They will use their imagination and experience to create cool concept art which you can use to complete art style.

art style in game design document

Level design and tutorials

It may seem that design document creation isn’t a suitable moment to think about level design. But after you finished inventing unique game mechanics you need to think about levels where the player can use them. Like in the whole GDD, level design section must not be very detailed. For example, in the GTA series the Level design section included such descriptions as “There is a luxury district, city center, ghettos, rural areas, farms, beaches, forests, mountains so the players will have where to ride”. In the Hitman series there was an annotation, that levels must look realistic and have many neutral NPCs to make a better use of stealth mechanics.

Also you need to develop a tutorial level and decide the order in which the game will teach the game mechanics. In this case you need to experiment with different tutorials and use what works the best.

Game design document examples

There are not so many game design document of famous games in free access. That’s because big studios consider documentation as valuable commercial information that must be protected. So the new game developers must buy courses or learn by themselves.

But we managed to find some examples which you can use as a reference:

GTA 1 game design document PDF

Diablo 1 simple game design document PDF

DOOM 1 full game design document PDF

Conclusion

Game design document writing is a difficult and boring task because of how many things you must take in account. But the GDD has one hidden advantage: in the process of writing you’ll see if you have a complete vision of a game or not. Also it boosts your creativity and self criticism, because you need not only to imagine cool things, but to write them on paper.

In the end, the game design document must become a beacon that guides your team to want results and don’t let them get lost into new ideas.

If you think that writing a game design document is an impossible task or you worry about lack of experience — hire us to write it for you. We will contact you, ask about your vision of the game, sort the thing out and write it in GDD form.

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