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How to Write a Game Design Document and when not to write

game design sketch

A game design document is a blueprint of your future game. It shows all the game content: ingame menus, mechanics, levels, story and every other detail. Also, it shows how those details will work together to give the right experience.

Many new game developers jump from ideas straight into coding, drawing or 3D modelling. They don’t want to spend their enthusiasm to write a long boring document. But instead of developing the dream game they barely make it to a buggy prototype with disbalanced mechanics, generic game art and bad UX/UI.

If you want to skip the GDD part and start coding — there is a 90% chance that you won’t finish your game. After several months of developing you’ll forget most of the cool ideas you got at the beginning and won’t know what to do next. The game design document will guide you at every moment of developing — if you’ll take an effort to write it.

How to write a Game Design Document in 3 steps

At the first glance a Game design document looks like a standardized report: it has specific parts, charts and illustrations, technical details like target audience and desired gaming platforms.

At the second glance, it looks like a book: it is rather long, has a well-built narrative and catchy subheadings. And after reading a good game design document you’ll feel like you’ve read a book, because you’ve learned about the story, characters and the game universe.

gdd as a book

It seems difficult to write a game design document like this because you must take many small details into account. Because of this, most good game designers write a GDD in a few approaches: they start with one page and expand it to a complete 20-100 page document.

There are 3 steps to write game design document:

  • pitch document or one-pager;
  • concept-document up to 10 pages;
  • game design document the team will work with.

How to write a one page GDD

The first thing to do is to decide the audience who will read the doc. In case with one-pager, it’s the developers and publishers. The goal of one-pager is to answer the main questions about the game and to interest ones who will invest their skills and money into the project.

one page gdd

One-pager must answer these questions:

  • target audience;
  • genre, gameplay and mechanics description;
  • main story line;
  • the coolest features;
  • art, sound and music style;
  • monetization system;
  • development roadmap.

You can use free template or take our example:

“Stylized action platformer about a fat shark eating eatable fish and avoiding poisonous seaweed. 

Shark is so fat that it can’t swim and must jump on the ocean floor like Mario jumps on platforms. Eating a fish pumps up the starwing timer. When it goes to zero the level restarts.

game design document example illustration

The shark can find power ups to jump higher, swim and eat poisonous seaweed for a short period of time. 

There will be two game modes: story levels and endless play.

The coolest features are cartoonish art style and game setting. Music and sounds are cartoonish too.

The player can unlock new skins for the shark: change her face, fins and tail with seashells. The player can find them in levels or buy them with microtransaction.

We plan to make a prototype in a month, a beta-version in the following three month and release the game within a year. The game will be released on iOS and Android.”

After reading such documents developers and publishers will know what their game will look like. If they are willing to work with this, game designers should expand one-pager to concept document.

How to write concept document

Concept document is an expanded version of one-pager. It’s target audience is developers, artists, publishers, investors and marketers. So the game designer must tell them about gameplay mechanics and art to be included in the future game.

difference between one pager and concept doc

Concept document is divided into these parts:

  • core idea description;
  • art and sound;
  • marketing plan;
  • financials.

The most important part is core idea depiction. This part in the game design document describes how the players will see and play the game. If the concept is interesting enough, the game designer will have higher chances to get money for actual development.

Often publishers, investors and developing team members may suggest some changes in the game concept paper. For example, the publisher may say that the players don’t like sharks — cute squid or seahorse will work better. The team may say that the fat shark is dull — lets make it buff and give it a gun. Maybe it’ll be better to show that the shark mistakenly ate a heavy stone and can’t swim because of it. You as a game designer should use those ideas to improve the concept while you can.

game art concept

Roughly speaking, the game concept paper is a proposal of what you want to do, while a game design document is an approved development plan. 

How to write a game design document

After the concept paper was approved, it’s the time to write a game design doc. Main difference between concept paper and GDD is that concept paper mostly explains game aspects the player will be focused on: gameplay, art and monetization. GDD includes “invisible” details: game menus, exact constants and formulas, feelings and emotions that the game has to evoke in the player, secret game mechanics and more. 

For example, the game design document for the Fat Shark game may include “Coyote time” mechanic’s description — a feature that allows the player to jump in additional 0,1-0,3 seconds after the character fell from the platform. It reduces the price of a mistake and makes the player feel more safe while playing the game. The players won’t know about it, but still will feel the impact on the gameplay.

coyote time

In conclusion, Game Design Document must have such parts:

  • Game Summary — concept, genre, target audience;
  • Gameplay — ingame objectives, rules of the game world, player’s interface;
  • Gameplay Mechanics — what the player will do in game, physics, combat, economy system;
  • Game Elements — story, characters, levels, overall design and feel;
  • Assets Needed — music, sound, models, art, fonts, etc.;
  • Financials — game price, monetization system, content plan, addons and DLCs.

As we will never be bored to say, the most important parts are game mechanics and gameplay elements. People will buy a slasher game about samurais and ninjas and won’t buy a game with the same mechanics but with boring robots. A hyper casual game design document about aliens — boring. The same game with alien-cats — 1 million installs.

alien cat game design

Tips for a game designer

  1. Keep things simple. When it comes to describing the game world, characters and mechanics, you may want to write a full novel so the team will feel what you feel. It’s better to say “The game takes place in a fantasy world with swords, magic and steam engines. Elves ride mooses and deers, human ride steam powered cabs” than “The world was created by seven gods [gods names], and almighty elvish god Elviuviel accurately made elves from light wind, and powerful Humanguinus roughly formed humans of wet clay…“. Those details aren’t valuable to the developers, unless they have impact on game mechanics.
  2. Explain what you want from the game. For example, you can write “The player jumps over the obstacles”, but it sounds too common and doesn’t inspire the team to make something unique. Instead, you can write ‘The player jumps over the obstacles to make a cool combo of trick-jumps and gain the speed. If the player stays still for 1 second or runs back, the combo is broken and his speed bonus disappears. Every level will have sections passable only with speed bonus from combo”. The team will understand what you want to achieve and will help you with efforts and ideas.
  3. Pay attention to the structure. Describe the mechanics in “Game mechanics part” and art in the “Art” part. In the best case you’ll have every part of the Game Design Document stored in separate documents for easier navigation and collaboration between team members.
  4. Do not use free game design document templates from 1990-2000s. They may ask to describe ancient relics like “2D render engine” or “32-bit color”. Nowadays we develop games with Unity3D or Unreal Engine and don’t even think about separate rendering, physics and collision engines.
  5. Explain how the player will learn game mechanics. In an example game about Fat Shark the player must learn three things: to move left and right, jump and avoid poisonous seaweed. To make the player go right we will simply block the path to the left. To force the player to jump we will add a platform a little higher to the right. Next thing to do — to place a narrow rift and a seaweed to teach the player that the shark has to jump over them.

Sometimes game developers forget to explain valuable game mechanics. For example, in Spyro the player’s health bar is a little sparkling dragonfly:

  • shiny sparks — 3 hits left;
  • colorful sparks — 2 hits left;
  • no sparks — 1 hit left;
  • no dragonfly flying around — death after next hit.

Developers do not explain this and some players may beat the game without knowing how to read the bug health bar.

spyro bad game design decision

Also, they may not know that Spyro can heal back from kicking or flaming neutral creatures: sheeps, frogs, mices and so on. This is awful example of game design, because the game has 3 bosses tougher than Ornstein and Smaug from Dark Souls.

You don’t have to write game design document by yourself

There are three cases where you won’t write a game design document as a game designer:

  1. You are an artist. You have an excellent idea for the game, but aren’t skilled with programming and don’t know how the game works behind the scenes. In this case, it is better to hire a skilled developer to write a GDD so you can assemble a team and start working.
  2. You don’t have experience. Writing a game design document demands you to know every single moment of game development, from coding to marketing. It is completely normal that you may not know how to make a GDD.
  3. You don’t have patience to write. Some people just don’t like to write and it is OK. In this case it is better to explain someone a game idea via Skype or Zoom so this person will form the game design document.

If you don’t see your situation in these cases — it’s still OK to hire an outsourcing company to make a game design document for you. 

game example

In Kreonit outsourcing studio we work with this orders like this:

  • talk with you about game idea and carefully note everything;
  • ask you questions to fill the spaces in game conception;
  • write a one-pager or concept paper and ask you to approve it;
  • expand the concept paper to full game design document.

If you are learning how to create a GDD, buying a game design document is simpler, faster and more efficient than writing it by yourself.

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