For this post I want to try something I have yet to see here on #AltDevBlogADay, I would like to (try) and get a discussion/debate going on a subject, particularly on design documents. Because I am still a student and not yet in the industry, my exposure to design docs has been limited and they’ve already left a (somewhat) sour taste in my mouth. For those who don’t know, design docs are meant to be compendiums of the game you are working on. Ideally design docs would contain everything from art assets, code functions, dialogue line lists, a full breakdown of the game’s story/plot, testing reports, etc, etc, ad infinitum. If it was created for the game, it goes in the design doc. Now this all well good for small games, but imagine what happens in AAA games with thousands of assets.
For arguments sake lets look at a game that has been making a splash lately, Overstrike, which is being worked on by the crew at Insomniac Games. Not much is known about Overstrike other than it’s an espionage themed FPS. It would be safe to assume that it would have some sort of multiplayer because most games released have multiplayer. This imagined multiplayer would have potentially dozens of levels, some sort of ranking system, unique code that allows the players to actually play against each other, and some sort of chat function. With all that you’re looking at thousands of assets. Now let us hypothesize about the game’s single player campaign. A standard FPS has roughly 6+ hours of gameplay(give or take a few hours) and about a dozen levels(+ or -). Going with the a standard design doc you’re looking at hundreds of pages before adding in things like testing reports, post-mortems, artwork samples and charts/diagrams. It’s not hard to see design docs ballooning into massive creatures that no one looks at more than a couple times.
The other beef that I have with design docs is that I personally view design docs as stagnating the creative process. I view game design as an inherently fluid process that continuously undergoes change. Design docs, at least from what I’ve been exposed to and understand, ostensibly set things in stone and don’t leave a whole lot of room for change.
So, I would love to try and get a debate going on the usefulness and purpose behind design docs, especially from those who are in the industry and have had exposure to the subject. I’d also love to know things like: Are design docs widely used in the industry as a whole or does it vary from studio to studio? Do you follow the giant list model or do you use some other model/system? Personal thoughts in general?