Beginners Shouldn’t Start With a Design Document

Jul 23, 2009

If you wanted to become a chef, would you begin by writing down recipes on paper?

I would start by following recipes. Then I would modify the ingredients or cook time in my favorite recipes, experimenting in the kitchen. Only after a great deal of experimenting would I consider inventing a new recipe starting on paper, since it would then be informed by grounded consideration of how various ingredients combine and react to different preparation processes.

If you wanted to become a singer and songwriter, would you begin by writing notes and words on paper?

I would learn some chords, and take vocal lessons. I would start performing some popular songs that my friends and I would immediately recognize. I might write my own spoof lyrics to the tunes I know, add my own flair to the notes, or read up on music theory. The first real inventing would likely to involve plucking the strings or playing the keys, and experimenting with how words come together in my voice. Only after a great deal of experience inventing directly with instruments and voice would I have a sufficiently grounded understanding of how music works to put notes on paper as a first step.

So why on Earth, when most people want to become a videogame designer, do they begin by writing design docs?

Doesn’t it make more sense to…

  1. Play lots of videogames. For years. Learn what’s out there.
  2. Maybe mod some existing games, commercial or open source or just tweaking example code, to try putting in new weapons, levels, options and characters into videogames that you and your friends can play.
  3. Program clones or pieces of simpler videogames that you like (classics, or casual webgames), nearly exactly, to learn about how the design ideas translate into program code to form a finished project.
  4. Start programming and designing variations on games that you like – by structure, extension, or adding personal touches.
  5. After gaining comfort with this, experiment with inventing your own videogames, doing so with programming and image creation, and only jotting notes as needed to keep your thoughts organized.
  6. Only after a great deal of experience creating games with code and asset creation, will you be remotely capable of inventing a new videogame starting on paper, based on your experiences with how various gameplay elements and content work together, with consideration for their impact on schedule and talent needs.

Is anything stopping you from writing down a recipe when you’ve never cooked before? Or putting notes on a staff with words underneath, if you’ve never touched an instrument or sang a song? No. Of course you can do that. All it takes is a pencil. But it will be absolutely terrible. The same goes for videogame design. Except that unlike those other examples, a bad design doc can burn months or years of a lone developer’s time, or from the lives of a team of people, to yield something that either won’t get finished or that members of the team won’t be proud to show.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from starting. I’ve devoted my life to making videogames, and helping others do the same. I’m only trying to warn gravely against a common first step that I fear may do damage that takes years to reverse.

Keep your cooking in the kitchen, following recipes at first. Let your instrument and voice guide the music you compose, but only after learning classics or hits.

(Originally posted as part of Vol. 4 Sec. 1)

Este artículo está disponible en español. Traducción por cortesía de Andrés de Pedro.

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