Bottom-Up vs Top-Down Game Design*

May 3, 2010

There are a few things that I would like to say about bottom-up design, compared to top-down design. Before I can do so, I want to make sure that we’re on the same page as to how I use those terms – they mean somewhat different things to different fields, and I suspect it’s likely that some readers have never yet come across these handy terms for discussion.

Top-down design starts from what a mind wants, and shapes that into something a medium can do.

Bottom-up design starts from what a medium can do, and shapes that into something a mind wants.

For example, a top-down art process might begin by thinking, “I want to create an image of Napoleon, in a way that conveys great intensity – this concept is worth attempting and sharing.” The artist would then create the most complete or faithful realization of that idea possible, using whatever tools and format the artist is most proficient in (might be charcoal, oil paint, or 3D Studio Max). The goal is to realize an idea, and if it can be made less evident that this is done by oil paint applied to canvas, by making its focal point what it is showing instead of method by which it is shown, that is desirable in this case.

Painting of Napoleon on horseback
Napoleon crosses the Alps by Jacques-Louis David
Emotive representation of an existing concept of interest
Examples: Call of Duty Modern Warfare, Madden, NinjaDreams

A bottom-up art process, by contrast, might begin by… (continued in ebook)

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