More of a process-related post this week because, well, I've been doing a lot of this lately. As I'm discovering, one of the biggest challenges with design is actually communicating those ideas to the rest of the team. The best ideas are naught but vapour if you can't get them out of your head. Getting your collaborators on the same page, and allowing them the freedom to make their own mark in ways that integrates elegantly into game. The worst position a designer can be in is sitting on high, issuing decrees not understood but obeyed by fiat alone.
Jaime Griesemer, responsible nearly all of the Halo series' combat design, recently started blogging at The Tip of the Sphere. If you're a professional designer and aren't reading his site, you're mad. Fortunately, that malady can be cured with a simple RSS reader add. One of his posts was about paper designs, including this astute observation, "A tool that is useful for generating an idea is rarely useful for communicating it efficiently."
As nearly anyone in the industry knows, writing monolithic, 100+ page design bibles provides little but a guarantee nobody on the team will read it. If you're lucky, folks might skim five pages directly related to their domain. And honestly, that's completely fair. Wall o' Text is just about the least effective way to communicate anything, especially something as visual and tactile as a game. The perpetually out-of-date project wiki fares only slightly better.
What Jaime encourages is writing a simple, concise paper design for any meaningful feature. Long form writing is important for the designer, to ensure they've thought things through (it's really, really easy to hand-wave important details unless you're forced to put ink to page) but that doesn't mean that dumping that text on someone else is the best way to communicate what about that design is important.
At GDC 2010, Stone Librande took this idea one step further and encouraged creating highly visual one page paper designs. Slides of his presentation are here, lots of good examples within. The basic idea is similar to Jaime's, except each design idea is communicated via a highly diagrammatic design. Think educational placemats, but for games.
I've been doing some of this and even though I don't nearly have the same level of layout/graphic design skill that Stone does, I'd say it's markedly better than the Wall o' Text. I'm treating it as a way to start conversation and communicate visually in a way more permanent than whiteboard scribbling (although there's still plenty of that too). In this regard, it seems like it's been quite useful. We're still quite early in, but it's something I'm planning on continuing until enough of the game just lives in implementation that the one page designs become necessary only for certain things. But if you're currently struggling with clearly communicating design ideas, I'd highly recommend checking out what Jaime and Stone have to say. And I'm happy to answer questions over email, if I can.
I'm going to cut things short this week because, well, I did just rattle on about brevity and also, well, how much of this stuff I've actually been doing lately. But next week, I'll talk about how those same principles can be applied outward to make a game clearer and more meaningful for an audience.