Think Big, Design Small

[Originally posted on – June 15, 2006]


One of the largest issues in game development is that of scope management, particularly in this day of MAG (multi-action genre) games such as Grand Theft Auto. Game designers have a tendency to think big; more and bigger levels, more features. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact thinking big is critical to the process of developing innovative gameplay and innovative gameplay is the key to being successful as a company. The real trick however is to know when you have crossed the limit of your time and budget.

This comes with experience. Veteran designers develop a sixth sense for knowing when they are approaching the limits of feature implementation for their projects; however, even the most senior among us still need to step back from time to time and begin cutting to stay on schedule. A secondary effect of scope management arises when designers are not willing to cut features and instead of doing one or two things well, their game ends up doing several things poorly. There are a few simple guidelines you can follow that will help you keep your game design lean, while maintaining fun and interesting gameplay.

The One Sheet Concept

Start your designs with a one sheet concept. This one sheet is often used to pitch your game idea to publishers. Whether you are a 3rd party developer or an in-house studio for a major publisher, a one sheet is a valuable and important early step in the process. A one sheet should contain a brief description of your game idea, no more than a few hundred words long. This description should nail your game idea, allowing anyone who has never heard of it to read it and say ‘I get it.’ Avoid boasting about how great your game is here. This description should be short and to the point. What you are trying to achieve with a one sheet is similar to what you see on the back of a game box. You are selling your game idea here. If you want a publisher to buy it, you had better put a great deal of time into making this good. It is on the one sheet that you begin to include your game’s core features, what makes it so fun and unique, listing out your core features as unique selling points. And it is here that you should already be thinking about scope.

Unique Selling Points

Unique Selling Points, or USPs, are a bulleted list of what makes your game idea so great. It is here that you begin to determine the scope of your game. Many designers make the mistake of listing dozens of USPs in their pitch. A publisher will see right through this and have major concerns with your ability to manage the scope of a multi-million dollar project. The best thing to do here is to under promise and over deliver. Keep your USPs to three or four line items. Look at the back of some popular game boxes for examples of USPs.

  • Massive go anywhere gameworld
  • Play against 40 people in online play
  • Incredibly realistic AI

The above are just generic examples of USPs. While your USPs can change as development begins, at least you are beginning to think about scope by listing them in your pitch one sheet.

The Design Document

Once you have your one sheet prepared, it is time to start with your design documents. This is where you get to think big. Design documents can often fill enough pages to rival major city telephone books in size. Do not worry about over designing here. Get out all your ideas on paper. The thing to remember here is that you should never be married to anything in this document that is not core to your gameplay. In other words, if it was not a USP, be prepared to cut it later on. You may want to consider some way of marking all items that are not core to gameplay, perhaps prioritizing them in the document.

The Schedule

Before going any further, it is time to create a detailed project schedule. Here you will need to list out every game feature from art to design to code to audio. Every element of the design doc should be included and resources and time calculated. A good schedule is critical to determining if you can in fact deliver the features you have promised. Scheduling a project is beyond the scope of this essay; however, there are many good books and articles out there which can help you figure out how.

The Prototype

The prototype step is where you begin to determine what features truly are core to your gameplay and how risky those features are to implement. A prototype is often required by publishers once they like your initial idea, and it is often best to have both a one sheet and a prototype ready to go at the same time when pitching your game. The prototype does not have to look pretty, but it should demonstrate all of the core gameplay elements listed in your USPs, whether they are interactive slices of the game or just movies (interactive is always preferred). Not only are you attempting to demonstrate how fun these core elements are, but working on the prototype will help you determine how difficult it will be to implement the features. Any feature that is not in your prototype should be considered secondary and one of the first items on the chopping block if cutting is required.

The Beautiful Corner

The next step is to create a “beautiful corner” of your game world. This is a small pie slice of your game in which you attempt to create a fully playable and shippable segment of your game. Avoid doing throw away work here. Whatever piece of the world you do should be directly from your design documents. Again, this step of design will help you determine how difficult it will be to implement your game features as designed. Figure out what percentage of the game this slice represents. Once you know how long it takes to do this percentage of work with your current staff, you will be one step closer to understands how long it will take to do your entire game. You may or may not be surprised to find that your original schedule needs some tweaking.

By this point, you should have a pretty good idea of how feasible your ideas will be within the time and budget limits of your project. If you were smart, you kept your USPs to three or four items and proved those items well in a prototype. Along with a detailed schedule and a beautiful corner segment of your game, you are well on your way to nailing down the scope of your project. Now is the time to begin cutting features. Waiting until later will cost you valuable time and resources which will lead to missed milestones and could ultimately result in crunch time or the cancellation of your project.

Final Considerations


  • Certain game genres are typically larger in scope, such as MAGs and RPGs.
  • Never be so strongly attached to a game feature that it causes scheduling problems.
  • Find one thing that makes your game unique and do it really well – the rest is fluff.
  • Features = time = money – does your budget have room for the feature?
  • Avoid feature creep! Sometimes great ideas come up later in the project, evaluate them for resource requirements and if you don’t have time, save it for the sequel.
  • If this is your first title, it is critical that you demonstrate your core gameplay before anything else. Again, save the pie in the sky ideas for the sequel.
  • Don’t add features just because game X has it. Only add features to your game if they are truly core to your gameplay.

0 comments on “Think Big, Design SmallAdd yours →

What do you think? No really...I'd like to know.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.