Whether you’re a student, a freelancer, or working 9-to-5, designing games is an intensely multimedia endeavor. Game designers are largely expected to be generalists, especially in smaller companies and on personal projects. It’s your job to organize information, model systems, and ease your game into creation. In other words: produce results. From my experience, exactly how you do this is more or less up to you.
As a generalist, your ability to nimbly switch between online tools, desktop programs, and different file formats will directly impact the quality of your work. Game designers are known for using whatever’s available to get their job done, and developing this scavenger mentality will serve a prospective designer well. Fortunately, there are an incredible number of tools around today for a new designer to choose from. Unfortunately, there are an incredible number of tools around today for a new designer to choose from.
In this post I’ll outline the tools I use most often, with a brief description of how they help me as a game designer. The focus here is on digital games, but many also apply to non-digital game development!
If you are drafting the internal structures of a digital game – whether just a piece or the entire thing – you are going to need to be comfortable working with spreadsheets. Though you can certainly get away with using spreadsheets in Google Docs (and I generally do), the gold standard for spreadsheet building is definitely Microsoft Excel. More importantly, if you’re brand new to digging through cells and if all those rows and columns seem overwhelming, Excel is more beginner-friendly. The UI is a little more obvious, if not as sleek, and there’s a vast amount of documentation available both in print and online. If you have a question, chances are someone else has already asked about it and worked out a solution.
It’s also worth mentioning that unless you’ve got a strong grasp on pre-calc algebra, you won’t be getting too much use out of Excel other than as a glorified chart-making tool. Working on smaller scale games, I’ve never needed more advanced math than this. However, it seems like there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t need to model a linear or polynomial formula over some set of data. Of course, Excel helps with the heavy-lifting here.
Like many who have been burned by failed hard drives or leaving mission critical files at home, I have switched to using Google Docs almost exclusively as a replacement for Microsoft Office. For most tech-savvy college students, making the jump isn’t too difficult: you trade in a lot of the bells and whistles (like dozens of fonts and a rainbow of color options) for real-time saving, easy sharing, and an effective collaboration space.
Google Docs provides a great, free option for making sure everyone has access to the most up-to-date design document, production schedule, or a known bug list. Moreso than any other tool I use as a full-time game designer, Google Docs spanned the gap between student projects and career work. There’s no reason anyone working in an intensively teamwork-based environment shouldn’t at least test out this toolset. For those who need to share larger files, higher-res images, or more obscure formats, there’s always Dropbox.
As an extension of the collaborative workspace Google Docs provides, teams working in bigger groups or on highly detailed projects should look into creating a Wiki. Wikis have all of the group-editing power of Google Docs but with a little more permanence and structure. Thanks to hierarchical link navigation you can easily separate different classes of information, from broad – Game Design, Production, Technical, etc – to very specific, such as having a page dedicated to a single new feature. Wikis are great as references when people need to learn about a part of the game they’re not familiar with; they’ re even better when introducing a game’s design concepts to completely new team members.
Any instant messaging system will work, really, so long as your team agrees on it. There are also clients that support multiple instant messaging platforms simultaneously, which can save you a little trouble if you need to consolidate your various screennames. Digsby and Trillian are a couple examples, as is browser-based Meebo. Overall, though, Skype seems to be a leader as far as intra-office communication goes.
Flowcharts & Schematics
Outlining flowcharts and drafting schematics are both regular activities for game designers. This is especially true when the design document is first being written, or whenever new features are being added. In my experience, flowcharts are mostly for the benefit of the coding team, while schematics are a point of reference for the art team.
I wasn’t long into my internship before I was asked to start making schematics, and from there it was only a matter of weeks until I needed to make flowcharts of game events as well. My office rig didn’t come with Microsoft Visio, so I went on a hunt for the best free programs to do the job. I had moderate success with Lucid Chart, which as the attractive quality of being browser-based. Unfortunately, I found that Lucid Chart wasn’t powerful enough to support the increasing size of the flowcharts I was making. It was still perfect for creating the schematics I needed, which to be fair have never been much more than boxes within boxes, but scrolling through a large flowchart was sluggish.
After searching for other options I came across Dia. While not exactly a pretty piece of software to interact with, Dia is extremely functional and I now use it almost exclusively for creating schematics and flowcharts. If you’re not someone who needs a particularly sleek or polished looking program — and if “free” sounds like the right price to you — I highly recommend it. As an added benefit, Dia is an open source project.
Photoshop or GIMP
While you don’t need many visual arts skills for most game design, knowing your way around standard image-editing software will save you a lot of time when creating schematics and reporting bugs. Operating with multiple layers beats the hell out of MS Paint, and at the minimum you should know how to do this. Adobe’s Photoshop is remains the industry leader, but I’ve found that GIMP is a more than suitable alternative. The GNU Image Manipulation Project is well-known for providing a free, open source (sensing a theme yet?) image-editing program with a fairly robust feature set.
I mainly use Dia to create the backbone of any dialog schematics, but I’ll open up GIMP whenever I need to add some extra visual details: namely if I want to drop in a reference for the art team. It also comes in handy for reporting bugs, particularly ones that are UI related. Taking a screenshot, circling the problem, and adding in a description — in glaring red font of course — goes a long way towards helping coders reproduce the bug.
It should go without saying that saving coders as much time and frustration as possible is a good way to curry favor, which will dramatically cut down the amount of time you need to spend begging when you want them to implement a new feature later on.
All right, so you can replace coffee with tea or water or cookies, but the effect is the same: have something light to help you refuel. The core idea here is to have an excuse to take a small break from your work, get up from your desk, and put some kind of sustenance in your body. This is also a great opportunity to explore different kinds of foods and drinks. For example, thanks to the office Nespresso machine, I’ve developed a taste for espresso and can tell the difference between their flavors. For curious minds: the black Ristretto capsules are the most intense, and hands down the best. Digression aside, find a micro-hobby that will fill two minutes of downtime and allow you to cultivate your knowledge of something unfamiliar.
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Pen & Paper
Don’t go to a meeting unprepared! If you’re new to game design, and especially if you’re new to collaborative development, surgically attach a pen and notebook to your person if necessary. Taking notes might not feel like a high priority, especially if the topic seems like something that’s going to stay in the front of your mind. However, once you start juggling different tasks – let alone different projects – the real estate value of the forefront of your mind will skyrocket.
You’ll be neck-deep in balancing the game’s currency economy when suddenly you have an idea for a new feature, or a fix to an unrelated issue that’s been bugging you for days. Being able to write these things down and knowing that they’ll be waiting for you later reduces the mental strain of trying to corral stray thoughts. The more brain space you can free up, the better you’re able to devote complete attention to what you’re doing at the moment.
Yeah, cheesy, I know: but a friend that you can talk shop with is worth their weight in gold. This can be a peer in the industry or just someone who has good design sense. As long as they can follow the tangled, web-like details of a game design problem and make appropriately sympathetic noises while you bemoan your circumstance, it won’t be long before you worship the ground they walk on.
Friends like this will keep you (marginally) sane, and talking through an issue will occasionally turn up unexpected solutions. Added bonus: if your friend does happen to be a game developer, you’ll both learn from each others’ venting sessions.
At the end of the day you’ll need to discover what works best for you. Developing your own suite of go-to programs is an on-going process, but it’s a rewarding one. Become knowledgeable about the different services out there, and practice the flexibility it takes to learn them quickly.