Drop the GDD and Just Get Moving

in Tutorials

WRITER’S NOTE: OK, I’m going to clarify some things before I start, so I hopefully don’t have to answer questions in the blog comments that are completely misconstruing what I’m saying:

A. If it works for you, and you are getting things actually done. THIS ARTICLE IS NOT FOR YOU. This article is directed at people who are procrastinating in preplanning in lieu of actually making their game.

B. GDD is not synonymous with all planning notes. You can have a story outline/storyboard and skillcharts without having a GDD.

C. I am not advocating no planning. I actually say that in the last section, but I’m going to put this up here, because apparently some people commenting never got that far.

So, I know I’ve talked about the wonders of planning before, but today, I’m going to talk about something a bit different.

First, Let’s define something:

What is a Game Design Document?

A Game Design Document is a huge collection of how everything in the game works, concept art, dialogue, etc that is used in the Video Game industry to organize things so that a large team can coordinate their efforts to create a game.

Why is it useful?

Well, I mean, if you have a team of 100 people working on a game, having one big bible to refer back to is a great idea. It lets you easily make your work coincide with your coworkers’ work to make a cohesive idea.

Why do RPG Maker users sometimes seem obsessed with it?

This one is a good question! I can offer conjecture, but it wouldn’t apply to everyone. I, myself am a compulsive planner. So that kind of thing comes naturally to me. Some people just want to feel like a pro game designer, and they’ll mimic the ideas even if they don’t understand the reasons it exists. Either way, GDDs have kind of developed a status in the RM community at times as a really good idea.

I’m going to respectfully disagree. And here is why:

You are not a Team

Okay. On this one, I may not be 100% correct. Some of you MAY be working in teams. But let’s look at the reason these exist in pro game studios: To make sure everyone is on the same page.

If you are working on a solo project, or even a small team of 2-3 people, this just isn’t necessary. You should know what page you are on! Even with a small group of people, its more about clear communication than having everything planned out and written to death.

You are not as Experienced

Okay, once again, there are exceptions. But, in general, RPG Makers aren’t the most experienced game makers around. That isn’t an indictment! That is saying that a lot of us are on the beginning of the journey, or are just hobbyists who don’t take the whole thing so seriously.

As Helmuth Graf von Moltke said “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy”. You can plan all you want, but are you SURE that you can do the things you are planning? Is it too big, does it not work in the program the way you thought? How much of this are you going to need custom scripts for? Can you make those yourself? How much time would you need to create all that art you are implying is needed? Can you do it at all or will you have to rely on a friend?

Planning during the process of making the game lets you build around what you have, skills you have access to, and adjust to the time you have available.

You are wasting time!

As I have established, the main purpose of the GDD is to organize a large group of people. Since we don’t have that, all you are doing is procrastinating actually making your game. Get moving. Figure out what works and doesn’t work IN process.

“So are you saying I shouldn’t plan at all”

OH NO. Oh, no, no, no. Planning is awesome. Everyone should be planning. Write down notes, think about what you are doing before you do it. The difference though is that you don’t need a large organized bible of everything in your entire game before you start. All that is doing is delaying you starting from actually making the game you want to make.

Planning isn’t making. Its good, but alone it gets nothing done.

Get moving. Open up the program. Make that game guys.

Think I got it all wrong? Maybe you just agree? Maybe you are just as prone to planning procrastination as I am? Join the conversation in the comments below.

28 comments… add one

  • Charles June 26, 2013, 3:02 pm

    For the RPGMaker games I make I don’t bother with anything but a few notes, however, in my main project (which is massive, made in Unity and in 3D) it is a different story. Since it will have to be basically made from scratch instead of using premade pieces, such as the environment tiles and animations in RPGMaker, it needs far more planning. Not to mention, as you yourself pointed out, groups (such as my Golden Dragon Studio) need something to keep all members on the same track.

    • Nick Palmer June 26, 2013, 3:03 pm

      Yeah, larger groups are where GDDs actually make sense.

      • Nick Palmer June 26, 2013, 3:35 pm

        I also think its a huge disconnect between what a Game Design Document means in the professional sense, and what people are using it to mean in conversation.

        • Kenton Anderson June 27, 2013, 8:15 am

          I concur. I keep copious amounts of notes, figurings, formulas, storyboards and tables even for the simplest projects I’ve undertaken. I plan out 80% to 90% of the game before I even create the new project file (however, I do often have a small project for rapid prototyping of ideas, to make sure what I am planning is feasible).

          Also, planning saves time! (in the end!)

  • Ronove June 26, 2013, 3:03 pm

    A GDD is useful for a solo developer if only to know what the heck you’re making. You can’t go into a game making program blindly and expect to keep yourself on the right track if you don’t plan it somewhere first. Sure, you don’t need to make it bible sized (that’s when you’re overdoing it and you need to get to the game), but I don’t think you can say anyone making a GDD is wasting their time. Planning is a very useful part of game developing as if you’re planning something while creating the game and realize a good ways in a feature or story part doesn’t work, you’ve lost a ton of ground (and wasted your time!). If you had planned that out beforehand properly in a GDD, then you would have caught it wouldn’t work long before you wasted time in it.

    Not everyone needs a GDD of course, but I still think new developers should at least have some form of planning–even if it’s a sticky note listing off what their game is about and the features they know they can do–and even if it’s just a tiny listing, it’s still a GDD.

    My GDDs keep my game premises in a neat place for easy reference, a list of characters and what role they play in battle, what I need to do for the game, and a rough outline of the story. It also lets me see what I WANT for the game and allows me to sit back and decide if I can do what I WANT and when I need to trim stuff out of my GDD.

    I wouldn’t make a game without making a game design document first. It’s part of the game making process for many and to say it’s a waste of time is kind of a recipe for disaster in my mind.

    • Nick Palmer June 26, 2013, 3:32 pm

      I really think people aren’t reading what I’m writing. PLANNING IS IMPORTANT, GIANT DESIGN DOCUMENTS ARE NOT.

      • Nick Palmer June 26, 2013, 3:36 pm

        Also, its very easy for the opposite to happen as well: You design something theoretically, then learn it won’t work in reality.

        • Bishop June 27, 2013, 12:27 pm

          In my experience, 80+% of your plans go out the window once you actually start making the game, thus invalidating most of the time you spent planning it. High-level planning is good. Finely-detailed and elaborate plans are a waste of time.

          There’s just no way to know how something will look, feel, or sound in context until it’s actually…well, in context.

  • Beau June 26, 2013, 3:23 pm

    Agreed, when working alone or in small teams you just don’t have the time and need to be making the game. A small concept document is good idea though to quickly flesh out the game, then iterate on making the game so you can see what works and what doesn’t :)

  • Traveling Bard June 26, 2013, 3:51 pm

    I agree with a small group not needing a GDD in the traditional sense. If you are working with 2-3 people having a summary similar to a GDD would be helpful. Gives an idea to those working with you what you are trying to accomplish without needing a “large organized bible”. I’ve just really started getting serious about all this and I have to say, most of the time I change my mind at the moment of implementation “You know, it would be waaaay cooler if the characters did THIS here instead of THAT”. The beauty of a small group vs a 100 man team is that we can make those kinds of decisions on the fly and just tell the other two later instead of having to get things approved and notify EVERYONE of the changes to make sure it jives with whatever they are working on for the project, blah blah blah. Small groups are meant to be flexible like that and that’s what Skype and the like is for ;) moral of the story, don’t get caught up with detailed planning when a summary will do the job and you guys can get to work….the faster you get to work the quicker the dream becomes a reality and believe me when I say it takes time, effort, and many many cups of coffee ;)

  • CosmicKitty June 26, 2013, 3:54 pm

    I believe the real issue is what defines a GDD. A traditional business plan style GDD would be pointless for an RM game, unless you were looking for a large amount of outside funding. A simplified version which is focused on actual game design would make sense for an RM game…. and I think that’s the common definition of a GDD.

    • Nick Palmer June 26, 2013, 3:58 pm

      I write lots of notes and general plans. I have outlines of the game and the scenes I’m going to have. Outlines and skill charts alone aren’t really a GDD.

  • Traveling Bard June 26, 2013, 3:54 pm

    What I do is break the whole game down into scenes, write a small commentary on what I want to happen and all the events involved, then go down each bullet putting it all together. Works for me, what about all of you?

    • Nick Palmer June 26, 2013, 3:59 pm

      Outlines and short descriptions is what I tend to go for.

    • Kenton Anderson June 27, 2013, 8:23 am

      Outlines, commentary, long descriptions, historical information/motivations for the characters in the scenes, character bios, stat tables, equipment tables, skill tables, enemy tables, formulas, skill and stat progress notes, dialog written for key scenes, areas, plots, quests, story, bug tracking, list and bios for key NPCs, sketches of towns and dungeons, associated music/mood/aesthetic, and, most importantly, a TODO list.

      One thing I need to do a better job of is dialog ideas for random NPCs. I usually do those on the fly and often they kind of become jumbled and meaningless. Also, I should write the walkthrough as I develop the game (and not 2 years after the fact when I’ve forgotten much of it).

      tl;dr – I plan a lot. It works for me.

      • Nick Palmer June 27, 2013, 12:04 pm

        I would like to add that in general, if something is WORKING for you, you really don’t need the article.

        People work in different ways, and this article isn’t meant to apply to everyone everywhere, but there are a lot of “stuck in development forever” games in RM, and a lot of it is a result of overplanning and underdoing. That is who this article is directed to.

        Also, Planning ≠ GDD. GDD is a type of planning, but is far from the only kind, and I support planning things a LOT. I have skill charts, I have outlines, I have general concepts of how I want things to work. But I think that sometimes people get caught up in this phase and they don’t actually GET anywhere.

  • Epic Alphonse June 27, 2013, 2:18 am

    Hm. I admit I feel conflicted on this point. On the one hand, I am a compulsive planner, and when I want to make games involving large skillsets, mechanical gimmicks for major bosses, and the like (even when I can execute them all with the scripts that I have available), I do need a way of keeping track of them all. Especially when in one case, the skill count actually did exceed 300. (I may revisit that idea later now that the scripts for VX Ace and the damage equations are much better than the ones for VX).
    At the same time, this has brought to light worries of mine–that I may have been procrastinating in a pre-production state for varying reasons on my current game–I’ve still been in plot and mechanical concepting without having opened up VX Ace for it yet. In fact, I fear I may have forgotten how to get myself started on production, and wonder if this has led to me misguidedly handing out bad design information on my regular blog at one point or another.

  • Zachary Nelson June 27, 2013, 5:10 am

    I have to agree 100%, In my personal experience I tried making a GDD it ended up being 135 pages long. Only when I got into actual development I learned the combat system I had planned out wasn’t very function or fun and was full of bugs and easy ways to abuse it. So my entire combat system which worked well in theory was absolutely useless in practice. Out of the 135 pages only 28 ended up being salvageable the rest had to be scrapped. I still organize everything but in a binder this time and only use brief descriptions or vital information. Since I am only doing this as a hobbyist I tend to carry around the binder on me whenever I might get free time when away from my computer.

  • Chris June 27, 2013, 8:32 am

    I carry around a notebook to jot down ideas at most, so does my friend, and we compare notes, and trash the crappy ideas that wont benefit the entire story. We have story boards, and concept art, and this springs more creativity than anything. We then make our vision fit into the RPG Maker lens and try to scope it properly to scale it down.

    We find that this is the best course of action, however I used to work for Sega once upon a time. The story board and idea marker board makes the whole situation smoother, because if he implements something, and I never know about it, it could make for a retarded aspect, and break the flow of the overall story.

    It also helps move things forward and get the creative juices flowing, gives you a better idea over your overall data. It is much easier to erase a marker board than to implement 70 hours of blind RPG maker work only to find, it doesn’t work.

    RPG Maker is the end phase of the whole process, and saying that GDD is a waste of time, only goes to show the ignorance of the entire community at large, and is largely the reason RPG Maker games never get fully completed. This article is garbage. You need vision, and an overall framework to your story, otherwise it just wont fit together, and you end up with 90000 unfinished projects floating around the Internet. If you just stop and think then it will work out.

    This article is nothing more than paid advertising to sell more copies saying “oh you dont need to do this, just buy our over priced product!”

    • Nick Palmer June 27, 2013, 12:00 pm

      You are entirely misconstruing the article and creating a ridiculous strawman.

      Notice that ending where I said planning is good. GDDs aren’t the end all and be all of planning. Not needing a GDD ≠ Blind RPG maker work.

      And I’m not just a paid marketing guy. I’m a long time fan of the series and have messed with it for years. Also, you can check out this same advice from many indie game developers. The idea that I’m ignorant or disingenuous is insulting.

      • Nick Palmer June 27, 2013, 12:17 pm

        Also, I’ve seen a lot more games that are stuck in planning hell than are unfinished due to lack of vision. Usually people have vision. That is what they have. Their vision is huge. Then they try to make it in the maker and learn that they planned way too big or that their idea isn’t feasible with their skillset.

        Vision isn’t in short supply in the RPG Maker community. Follow through is.

    • Bishop June 27, 2013, 12:36 pm

      You’ve apparently never been involved in this community or else you would be abundantly familiar with how over-planning is what kills the majority of RM projects. It’s much more useful to plan as you go along because one thing you can’t plan for is context. No matter how much thought goes into a game mechanic or a battle or a quest, you can’t predict how it will play out in context until it’s actually implemented.

  • Ron June 27, 2013, 11:23 am

    I think as a team is very important so you need to plan
    but I do not have a game plan, to where I do, think about it

    • Nick Palmer June 27, 2013, 12:08 pm

      The more people involved in a project, the more need for a single cohesive highly detailed GDD to give direction.

  • Infinite Angel June 27, 2013, 8:45 pm

    Actually, the intention of this particular article of Mr. Nick Palmer is not to entirely discourage planning or the use of Game Design Documents.

    Regardless of one’s opinion regarding planning, the point of this particular article is actually there on the title —- to help get one moving in one’s game development progress.

    Whether a GDD is workable or not is not the point — it was just used (discussed) to make the point. Add to that the disclaimers that essentially communicate: “I am encouraging to read this but I’m not denying you of your ability to think for yourself or do what works for you”.

    The essence of the article can probably be stated as a question which Mr. Nick Palmer probably suggests that a “game maker” should think about:
    “Is my planning (or the way I’m planning) preventing me from actually making and completing a game — or an RPG Maker game?”

    • Nick Palmer June 28, 2013, 3:08 am

      Thanks! This actually describes some of what I was trying to say.

  • Xidonte July 12, 2013, 10:51 am

    Just want to say thanks for the blog. It has helped me get back in the saddle, as it were. Not that I was procrastinating by making a GDD. It was more a case of using planning and graphic design (Sprites and the like) both as an excuse to not work on what makes a game a game, which is gameplay.

    One of the great advantages of working alone is that you’re able to plan, prototype and playtest during the creation of the project interchangeably. I don’t need to worry what skill ‘PC X’ will have at level 99 to be able to make the intro quest, nor create all the sprites, artwork, tilesets, etc at the start, when I can use the rtp as a placeholder until the finishing stages of the project.

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