Game Design Documents: Instructions and Examples

Sep 6, 2021
12 mins read

It is no secret that the game development industry is growing dramatically. In the U.S. only, the market value is expected to exceed $200 billion by 2023. This article will take an insider look at something many consider a product's cornerstone in the expanding game industry a game design doc — a GDD.

Although GDD is a game's building block, its role in game production is shifting. The particular form of redundancy brought by these three words game design document was well-known to many game devs. Today, many consider up to a 100-page-long GDD's obsolete and exhaustive. For instance, the agile model has substantially transformed the game development industry and promoted implementing a shorter game design doc. 

In this article, we will explore the process of creating modern and functional game documentation

What Is A Game Design Document?

Many poetic metaphors describe the game design document: an architecture, a script, a sophisticated, detailed manual, and the anatomy of the project. A solid GDD satisfies a team's need for:

  • an integral vision of the final product
  • understanding the detailed steps, the mechanics of how to reach the goal. 

Here is your answer to the question of what is a game design document: a game design document sets the direction for the team. It helps to understand every team member's task in this project while giving a detailed overview of the result.

As Warren Spector, a game dev, famous for immersive SIM games, pointed out:

“If anything, game development is even more of a team effort than making a movie, so for individuals to get credit for making a game is absolutely insane.”

A high-quality GDD game design document is the best way to ensure a productive team can produce a truly great product.

Why Is A Game Design Document Important?

The best metaphor to illustrate the vitality of the game doc is the one of a fortress foundation. Without a solid basis (game doc), this mighty and complicated fortress, with many towers and halls (the game itself), simply cannot function. 

How does a GDD impact the quality of the game? Any experienced dev will tell you that you cannot expect a satisfactory outcome without a sophisticated and well-thought-out game doc. 

Now, when we are settled about the importance of the GDD, let's move on to answering how to write a game design document.

How To Write a Game Design Document?

The Whimsy Games knowledgeable team has honed the development of the successful video game design document. We have designed a customer-oriented, adjustable, all-inclusive structure to create that solid, success-guaranteeing base doc for each of our games. So, how to make a game design document?

GDD in The Product Life Cycle

It is vital to make sure that clients stay on the same page with us at every project stage. Thus, before diving into the specific segments of GDD, let's go through the product life cycle.

  1. Marketing review. Before the stakeholder's pitch, we go through the idea with our talented marketing team. In some cases, it is the designer's job to check the ideas' marketability during the market research stage. 
  2. Stakeholders pitch. The Pitch stage presents your idea and gets feedback about possible adjustments and the product's viability.

    Notice, there was no mention of the GDD yet. Game documentation is developed through all these stages: it should constantly be adjusted and enriched with new solutions. It is finalized only after the pre-production stage when enough data is gathered and all the brainstorming insights are operationalized.
  3. Concept approval. As you can see from the infographic, the concept also needs a green light from the stakeholders. Moreover, at this stage, we might bring in the prototypes of gameplay mechanics. One can reject a concept at this stage, and we might cycle back to the idea stage. It is cool if that happens; that is part of the process! We have not wasted many resources on prototype and concept, so this "cycle back" is painless for the project. Because what? Because we are aces in planning!
  4. Vertical slice. During the pre-production, it is important to keep the customer on track. We allow you to play the prototype to affirm that everyone is moving in the same desired direction. We always emphasize tangible results. We believe it is essential for you, our customer, to imagine the final product as close to reality as possible. That is why we always contextualize our prototype models and visuals to help you understand exactly what we aim for, even at the earliest stages.
  5. As we already mentioned, pre-production is the brainstorming session for a video game design document. The more questions your team asks, the better. All the changes and suggestions are implemented in the concept document, transformed into the game document. On its basis, you can estimate the scope of work and break down the product's backlog.
  6. Production. The decisions carefully chosen during the pre-production are put to action. It is a stage that truly shows the weight of GDDS: diligent work on every detail during previous stages guarantees that the team's work is coordinated and smooth.
  7. Pre-Release Gate. Yay, you have a final product to demonstrate. Yes, it might contain bugs, but it is an important stage where you decide about the release. All the bug fixing is done during the stabilization. 

Key Stages of GDD 

We hope that this brief tour of the game product lifecycle helped you understand the role of diligent documentation in game dev. Before the production stage, GDD is an ongoing process. So, to sum up, here are the key stages to cover preparing a solid, final game document.

  1. Research of product requirements, establishing key points
  2. Research of competitors
  3. Definition of selling points
  4. Creation of the concept document and its approval
  5. Development of game design document and its approval

Now, when you understand how the GDD is developed through the product life cycle stages, let’s move on to the GDD structure.

The Name Of The Game

Of course, the title page is the perfect place for the game's name, which can be accompanied by some visual art. Make use of this space: on the title page, you can also indicate:

  • Age Rate and TA
  • Creators
  • Platforms
  • Ship Data
  • Genre

There are no strict rules here, no need to overload your title page. But make sure that all the necessary things will be covered in the following parts of your file. In a few paragraphs, we will introduce you to the perfect design document example.

Project Or Game Description

In the general chapter, you can cover all the basics and elaborate on some things you have indicated on your title page, for instance, your audience. Make sure to describe the emotions and moods of the game: what reactions are you aiming to get from the player? Also, here you can overview the game's mechanics: what is the player's goal, what is he going to do through the game? 

Here is a slightly old yet classic, almost iconic example game design document. It is a GDD of the one and only Grim Fandango

Main Characters

In the characters chapter, make sure to elaborate, yet only mention story-relative aspects. You can tell about the character's backstory, goals, skills, weaknesses, and 'type.’ Just make sure you are not distracted: only features that drive the story and are relevant to the gameplay. It is great when you can already present a visual of your characters. 

Take a look at one of the character descriptions in the Grim Fandango:

Story

As you can see in the GDD template, the game document is not a screenplay. Of course, the lengths can vary significantly. But remember: your story part should contain the description of the setting, the characters, their relationships, and goals. It is not a drama play. Your story paragraph/chapter should look more like a movie synopsis: brief but engaging and intriguing. Again, when we mean 'brief,’ keep in mind the overall length of your GDDs.

Gameplay

In this part, do not forget to include the technical limitations and specify the features of the suitable platform. This paragraph can get creative: infographics, diagrams, and concepts to illustrate your point. Make it engaging and quick to grasp.

Graphics And Styling

It is a chapter where you have to give the designers detailed, tangible, and coherent directions. Yet, you have to give them plenty of room for creativity. It is what agile is about, right: trusting your team, sharing responsibilities, believing in the common goal. While describing fonts, textures, styles, effects, focus on emotions you are trying to cause, rather than dry technical requirements for the image you have in your head. Trust your designer's artistic scenes!

Before You Begin: Useful Tips

Here are some principles that you should keep in mind while developing and adjusting your game documentation.

  • Good old 'show don't tell' is applicable everywhere. This has to be an engaging read. This is your pitch and also an inspiration for the team. It is the cornerstone of your game. It cannot be dull and dry, no matter how detailed it is.
  • How to make a GDD engaging and not dry? For instance, be visual: where it is possible, give graphs, pictures.
  • Be frank. Also, keep in mind that your GDD will be changed and adjusted at the pre-production stage.
  • Be brief and structured, but, once again, remember to have an exhaustive doc. When your game design doc is finally done, every team member should clearly understand their role and a shared goal.
  • Fake it till you make it: check out cool GDD template examples to see what format is the best for your project
  • One last tip: there is a simple rule which will help you to avoid the preparation hustle. PPD PROCESS > PLANNING > DOCUMENTATION.

We at Whimsy Games believe in the necessity of elaborate planning. Our team’s achievements are the best demonstration of why an exhaustive GDD is vital for the game’s success.

Game design document template

As we already showed, a detailed plan is a cornerstone of a high-quality game. Many beginner game dev teams make their work significantly harder by not paying enough attention to the des doc. They mix up production stages, get confused about what's done and what is not. To help you avoid amateur mistakes of not developing a rigorous GDD, we want to share this design document example with you.

While there is no precise format of the GDD game design document, it has to include all the mechanics of the projects and form a vision for the final result.

Here is how a fully developed game design document sample should look like: 

Game Design Document Outline

A game design document is the blueprint from which a game is to be built. As such, every single detail necessary to build the game should be addressed. The larger the team and the longer the design and development cycle, the more critical is the need. For your purpose, the intent is to capture as much as possible of your design. I want you to think big...bigger than what you are able to develop. I also want you to be clear about what the software delivers and what the design entails.

My recommendation is that you define the ultimate game and then clarify what it is that

you have developed. If you are finding it too difficult to do that, you may produce too documents.

  1. Title Page

1.1. Game Name – Perhaps also add a subtitle or high concept sentence.

  1. Game Overview

2.1 Game Concept

2.2 Genre

2.3 Target Audience

2.4 Game Flow Summary – How does the player move through the game. Both through framing int erface and the game itself.

2.5 Look and Feel – What is the basic look and feel of the game? What is the visual style?

  1. Gameplay and Mechanics

3.1 Gameplay

3.1.1 Game Progression

3.1.2 Mission/challenge Structure

3.1.3 Puzzle Structure

3.1.4 Objectives – What are the objectives of the game?

3.1.5 Play Flow – How does the game flow for the game player

3.2. Mechanics – What are the rules to the game, both implicit and explicit. This is the model of the universe that the game works under. Think of it as a simulation of a world, how do all the pieces interact? This actually can be a very large section.

3.2.1 Physics – How does the physical universe work?

3.2.2 Movement in the game

3.2.3 Objects – how to pick them up and move them

3.2.4 Actions including whatever switches and buttons are used, interacting with objects, and what means of communication are used

3.2.5 Combat – If there is combat or even conflict, how is this specifically modeled?

3.2.6 Economy – What is the economy of the game? How does it work?

3.2.7 Screen Flow -- A graphical description of how each screen is related to every other and a description of the purpose of each screen.

3.3 Game Options – What are the options and how do they affect game play and mechanics?

3.4 Replaying and Saving

3.5 Cheats and Easter Eggs

4. Story, Setting and Character

4.1  Story and Narrative – Includes back story, plot elements, game progression, and

Cuts cenes. Cut scenes descriptions include the actors, the setting, and the storyboard or script.

4.2 Game World

4.2.1 General look and feel of world

4.2.2 Areas, including the general description and physical characteristics as well as how it relates to the rest of the world (what levels use it, how it connects to other areas)

4.3 Characters. Each character should include the back story, personality, appearance,

animations, abilities, relevance to the story and relationship to other characters

5. Levels

5.1 Levels. Each level should include a synopsis, the required introductory material (and how it is provided), the objectives, and the details of what happens in the level. Depending on the game, this may include the physical description of the map, the critical path that the player needs to take, and what encounters are important or incidental.

5.2 Training Level

6.Interface

6.1 Visual System. If you have a HUD, what is on it? What menus are you displaying? What is the camera model?

6.2 Control System. How does the game player control the game? What are the specific

Commands?

6.3 Audio, music, sound effects

6.4 Help System

7. Artificial Intelligence

7.1 Opponent and Enemy AI – The active opponent that plays against the game player and therefore requires strategic decision making

7.2 Non - combat and Friendly Characters

7.3 Support AI -- Player and Collision Detection, Pathfinding

8. Technical

8.1 Target Hardware

8.2 Development hardware and software, including Game Engine

8.3 Network requirements

9. Game Art – Key assets, how they are being developed. Intended style.

Have you noticed how amazingly detailed this outline is? Every possible question about the game, the production style, mechanics is answered in this outline. As we already mentioned, there are no strict formats for the game design document template.

Here is one more game document template to get some inspiration: Dirty Bomb. While some developers might consider it too wordy (well, compare it to Scott Roger’s 10-page design doc), it is an impressive example of the diligent, well-thought game design document template.

Summing Up: An Elaborate Guide To the Game Design Documentation

It seems like we have covered it all. Nevertheless, game design documentation is a sophisticated process. Approached professionally, game documentation can be at the same time an inspiration for the team and a guarantee for the impressive final product. We at Whimsy Game know our way around rigorous game planning: our 100 delivered projects speak for themselves.

Whimsy Game believes that creativity thrives in the cooperative, interactive team, where every member has the freedom to work towards a shared vision. We take pride in our client-oriented approach. We make sure that the client's voice is heard during the creation of the game design documentation.

FAQ

How important is a game design document?

It is vital to understand that des doc is neither a script nor a collection of references. It is an elaborate, complete guide through your game, covering the story, the visuals, and the mechanics. It drives your team and guides every member through the whole production cycle.

What game design document must include?

Let's keep this simple. We have provided an elaborate game development document template so you can see key subjects every GDD example should cover:
- Short description of the game and genre
- The audience, region, and age rate
- List of competitors
- Key points and features
- Key mechanics
- Additional mechanics
- Monetization, market scope

Additional documentation may include:
- User-interface storyboard and navigation
- List of content
- Events
- Game balance

How long will it take you to create a GDD?

From our experience, estimating an approximate time for writing a game design doc is not an easy task. The answer is tied to many factors:
- As you already know, a GDD is constantly adjusted and reshaped. Thus, documentation is written through the several stages of the game development process.
- There are many formats of GDD. It can be a collection of folders with different docs. Or, it can be a famous Scott Rogers ten-page design document format, described in his book ‘Level Up!’.
Luckily, you can look at our pristine example game design document to get an idea of what to expect.

Denys Kliuch
CEO

I'm a CEO and a Co-Founder of Whimsy Games. Before that, I advanced my expertise in engineering, management, traffic marketing, and analytics working for large game development studios with a $1M+ monthly income. With a clear vision of how game development should work, I run Whimsy Games, being responsible for the marketing and sales of our products and services.