While we adore games here at Double Coconut and would probably make ’em for nothing if we could, we need to charge a modest sum to cover our time. In order to give you an accurate idea of this cost we first need a full and clear understanding of the talent and effort involved. To figure that out, a High Level Game Design Document (HL-GDD) is essential.
You can read more about our take on why game costs vary like crazy. Trying to price out a project without a HL-GDD is like planning to construct a house without blueprints or filming a movie without a screenplay — doable but generally with overblown budgets and uneven results.
Most people that approach us have a cool idea or hook but not a professional doc all ready to go. Not many folks understand how to make such a doc, and there aren’t many good resources online. As such, this article serves as a guide… and also includes a free HL-GDD template!
Grab the template and get to work!
You may find that writing a good game design doc is actually a bit of a pain — it requires some specialized skills that combine artistic, technical, as well as creative know-how. As such, Double Coconut has begun offering the service of helping you create your HL-GDD at a highly reduced rate (skip to the end of the article for details!)
What’s Up, Doc?
So what should a High Level Game Design Doc look like?
There’s no one right answer. Ultimately what we (or any competing work-for-hire studio) need is to communicate the full vision of the game to our producers, software engineers, artists, and QA testers. Each member of the team needs to understand the aspect he or she is responsible for and be able to visualize the title in action before a single pixel is programmed on screen.
Volume upon volume full of WORDY WORDS is usually not so useful. While some folks are excellent writers and can convey detail in a crisp manner, most folks tend to ramble on when trying to get into the weeds and they wind up creating a bramble of ambiguous thorniness. Words aren’t the most efficient way to express visual or mathematical concepts — and games, primarily, are a visual medium combined with numerical systems.
When it comes to GDDs, pictures are really worth 1,000 words.
And wireframes are worth 1,000 pictures.
And when it comes to system design and understanding how variables fit together, the value of spreadsheets is, well, incalculable.
If you must use words:
- In Short
- Easily Readable
- Bullet Point Lists!
When we create a game design document it has these sections and formats:
High Level Vision
A brief ‘elevator pitch’ with the big vision.
Helpful here are examples of what other games this is similar to but how this title is unique.
What is the main platform the game will run on?
And how will this game make money? What is its business model? So many aspects stem from this decision.
Art Style / Theme
The goal here is to convey the level of quality and visual style that the game wants to hit.
We prefer a few Google Slides or PowerPoint slides with Mood Boards – screen shots lifted from similar games or other art found online.
Here’s an example for a medieval massive army vs. city game:
We’ll need a bunch of well-selected images or references that show off the main game theme. What other games, movies, etc. match the look you are going for?
Video clips from YouTube with a specific time stamp are awesome — both in terms of showing a game mechanic as well as a desired animation style.
Ideally you also provide a separate mood board for:
- User Interface Style: Juicy and casual? Sci-fi? Flat?
- Environments: What is the main setting? Gloomy and moody or bright and airy?
- Characters: Cartoony? Realistic? Voxel? Pixel Art?
- Rendering Style: 3D open world? Side scroll? Top Down? Isometric? First Person? etc.
If there is an important narrative element, lay it out. As important as the story itself is an understanding of how the story will be conveyed to players. Do you want full motion-graphic cut-scenes? Live action actors? Voice overs? Comic book panels? A popup with a talking head?
A flowchart is nice:
We’ll need to understand all of the core systems and meta-game systems — what are all of the key screens and variables involved?
Screens, User Interface, and User Experience
We’ve seen great wireframe and flow documents done in fancy tools like Illustrator or Sketch or Flinto or Adobe XD but even boxes laid out using the Draw tool in PowerPoint or Google Sheets is just fine too as long as they are clear, with nice callouts pointing to each element:
When it comes to the game economy or systems, the more numbers the better. Excel / Google Sheets is ideal, so we can ‘play with’ all the key variables in the game and understand the data structures that need to be created. MUCH easier to understand than words.
This is the ‘shopping list’ we’ll use to price out all of the art or other individual items that comprise your game.
Include each of the icons, popups, buttons, overlays, backgrounds, game characters and sprites, buildings, weapons, 3D models, 3D textures, animations, sound effects, musical scores, and all other bits and pieces used to make the game.
And for each we need a clear idea of whether this will need to be made from scratch or can be sourced from an asset pack.
Again, we often use a spreadsheet for this.
Level Schema and Sample Level Design
If your game has levels — or some form of variation — all of the levels don’t need to be defined 100% ahead of time — but we do need an overall plan about how many levels there are and a ‘map’ of how they related. Also, a few key examples of easy, medium, and difficult levels need to clearly be diagrammed.
If it’s a word game, these levels can be laid out via a spreadsheet grid. If a match-three game, show some clear examples in a spreadsheet with all the power ups or special features that the levels will have. If a platform game, graph paper or a very wide spreadsheet with colored cells can work.
We also need a clear idea of the LEVEL DESIGN TOOLS that will need to be built. Most level-based games have a way for designers to try out various ideas, play-test them, and share them with others.
First Time Experience
Details of how a new player learns your game.
Team, Schedule, and Budget
Based on the design, we’ll have a clear idea of how many people are needed to build the game you want. A ‘team’ may be as small as one engineer, with the art and audio purchased from ones of the many great online asset stores.
A typical casual game will have a team of about six core folks:
- A producer to help keep all on track and work with the client to make sure the delivery is consistent and meets expectations.
- A game designer to craft any levels or do any game balancing. For a free to play game with an advanced systems, we need a specialized system designer who can figure out all of the variables in the city building, combat, or wait times for goods to harvest.
- A front-end engineer, with expertise in Unity (if a mobile game) or HTML5 (if a web game).
- An art director to lead the art team and keep a vision in mind.
- A lead artist — a 2D or 3D specialist, depending on the game style.
- A Quality Assurance (QA) lead to test the game out.
Along with many part time support roles:
- A back-end engineer if there are any multiplayer, social, or cloud features.
- A user interface artist to create the look of all screens, buttons, popups, etc. and make sure all is clean.
- If the game has original environments or characters we’ll also want a concept artist or two.
- A net-ops engineer to set up the cloud provider.
- An audio designer to compose or source the music and sound effects.
- Visual effects artist / engineer, who can create ‘technical art’ and cool interface effects.
- A writer, if the game has story or creative writing around quests, achievements, etc.
We’ve got a great HL-GDD by this point but it doesn’t even include the full set of documentation that a full game production will need.
- Technical Design Document (TDD): Tools Used, Architecture Decisions, Cloud Hosting, Etc.
- Creative Design Document (CDD): Mood Boards, Etc.
- Schedule (Spreadsheet): A list of all milestones, What is in the milestone, Team to accomplish the milestone, Delivery date
- Budget (Spreadsheet): IP / Brand License Costs, Software License Costs, Hardware Costs, Hosting Costs, Team Costs, Total And Per Milestone Costs, Marketing Costs
That said, with a good HL-GDD we can at least get to work scoping out the real cost of your title. The other stuff can come later during pre-production or the full production process.
When Is a GDD Not For Me?
After thinking about all this you may feel you really need to prototype and try some ideas out before you can figure out your larger vision. Not a problem! In that case we can work with you on a more sprint-based ‘agile’ approach — and help you hack and slash your way through the jungle until you find your city of gold… but it also becomes impossible to put a final timeline or budget on your game, of course.
A Special Deal
Double Coconut will offer you a free initial consultation to determine if we’re the right fit to help you develop and deliver your game. If so, we will set up a series of meetings with you and work on your GDD for a special cost starting at $1,000. This usually takes about two to four weeks of work per design document — so quite a bargain, if we do say so ourselves.
Once we deliver the HL-GDD, it is owned by you. We want to bid on your game, of course, and we hope going with us is a no-brainer once you see our value proposition. But you’re free to pass the document to other places for competing bids, as well.
With a HL-GDD in your quiver you are now, officially, on the path to attack a big, bad professional game!