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Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Tue, 11 Mar 2008
Subject: Pickford Bros.

Ste Pickford

I don't consider myself a very good writer, but I've probably written thousands of pages of game design documents, and combined these have probably been responsible for securing millions of dollars in development funding over the years. Nevertheless, I'd be delighted if I never had to write another game design again.

It's one of the great flaws of the video game industry that so many business deals happen based on the existence and quality of written documents, when words (and even pictures) are so poorly suited to describing the qualities of interactive video games.

How many terrible, doomed projects got off the ground because an incompetent developer could make great documents? How many amazing games never happened because a brilliant game designer wasn't a good wordsmith?

I get the short straw partly because programming tends to take longer than art, partly because the docs usually need pictures and a bit of layout (that's art!), but mainly because John writes like a programmer (optimised sentences that result in half-page long complete documents) whereas I can waffle a bit (design docs are often judged on weight rather than content, sadly).

It's my least favourite part of the job. I know these docs are necessary sometimes, but writing them is like pulling teeth. Documenting a design after you've completed it isn't too bad. You know what you're writing, and why, although you do wonder if the doc then has any value when an actual demo exists. That's what I'm doing now - documenting our nearly finished, nearly designed prototype.

Writing design documents at the beginning of a project is the worst. It's pretty much impossible (designing the game is the project, for the kind of original stuff we specialise in at least), yet it's also pretty much impossible to get any funding without some form of GDD.

The beauty of self funding is that you don't have to write a pointless design document at the start. Indeed, we didn't do any formal documentation during the design and development of Naked War, and that was one of the reasons why it was the most enjoyable job we've ever done and probably the best game we've ever made. We wrote things down; made lists and tables, and I documented a lot of the website code and database stuff (as I knew I'd have to return to this and maintain it), but we didn't have the dreadful chore of writing a TDD or GDD getting in the way of the real job of designing the game.

I wrote a fairly long presentation document afterwards, describing out how the game would work on the Wii, but this was quite fun as I knew what I was talking about, and describing a game that was completely designed already. I was only inventing minor adaptations to make use of WiiConnect 24.

The problem with writing design docs is that game design is a hard, slow, iterative process. It's a completely different process to writing paragraphs and sentences. The rhythm of writing paragraphs and sentences takes over when you're writing a design doc for an undesigned game, and you end up making arbitrary design decisions in order to finish off a sentence, or pad out a paragraph, or neatly tie up the section you're writing.

In fact, it's incredibly easy to 'design' all sorts of crap on paper when you get locked into writing mode. I can write reams of rubbish when I get in the right mood, and it all seems like good stuff at the time. One paper-idea leads to another. I spot a symmetry and add a corresponding idea. I see a space for a new feature, and invent one. I make a table of a particular type of game element, and spot an empty field which needs filling. 30 pages later I feel proud and productive.

Later, I show it to John and he's a bit lukewarm. He's working on the game itself and points out that some ideas aren't needed, or some don't make sense, or some might not work, or some conflict with what's already there. Then it becomes clear that all I've come up with are a load of disconnected words. They make sense in the document - they'd probably even convince somebody to fund their development - but they aren't really in tune with the game itself.

You just can't design a game on paper. You have to actually make the game to design it.

What I'm doing right now (or rather, what I'm avoiding doing by writing this blog entry) isn't too bad. The game is pretty much designed (although we're still tweaking, and have made a fairly major revision to the basic rules only last week, which is perhaps why I put off writing a big section of the GDD until this week), so I'm simply documenting working game mechanics, which is the right way to go about things. It still feels a bit pointless when there's an actual playable demo that shows what the game is far better than I can describe it in words.

Still, I know the document is needed, and even if only two or three people ever read it, there are probably tens of people who will need to see it on their desks at various points in the future, so hopefully it will have some use!

I've not done very well with my 'drawing something every day' New Year's resolution. I've started a little comic strip about a night out we had a few weeks back, but our boiler broke (just as we had some snow - it does this every year) and it was too cold to sit in my office room in the evening for about a week, so that broke my daily drawing habit.

Rooting through some old papers I did find this picture, which I drew at least 20 years ago. I remember being really proud of it at the time. I still am! It's a portrait of one of my favourite comic artists, Hunt Emerson, for a friend's fanzine which contained an interview with him. I copied it from the photo of him on the back of his brilliant compilation The Big Book of Everything, but tried to reshape the head into his own autobiographical style. It's probably only been seen by about 30 people before.


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