Saturday, June 06, 2009

Design versus Marketing

Students who are hardcore gamers (i.e. most of them, if you're teaching game design) are used to seeing the marketing-speak on the back of a game box (we call this "box copy"). You've seen it before: "Over 30 levels! 300 weapons! Epic, engaging storyline! Intuitive combat system!"

Most of these students have never seen an actual game design document before. This would be the document that actually describes the details. Exactly what are the contents of each level? What are the names, damage, speed, accuracy and other effects of each weapon? What happens in the story, when exactly is each bit of story revealed to the player, how much is text and how much is voice acting, what is every last line of dialogue? How, exactly, does the combat system work and what are the controls? And so on.

It is, apparently, easy to get these mixed up. Box copy is useless if you're giving it to a programmer to implement. How does a programmer write code for "intuitive combat system" exactly? The answer is that they don't -- they kick it back to the designer until they get the details.

I'm seeing this more and more with students lately, and I'll be taking additional steps in the future to warn them of the difference between design and marketing. I wonder if other teachers see this as frequently as I am... and what, if anything, they do about it.


Malcolm Ryan said...

So how do we get our hands on real design docs so that they can see what they're like? Not mocked-up 'pretend' docs, but a real doc for a game they know?

Ian Schreiber said...

Unfortunately, that one is difficult. A lot of companies think of their design docs as extremely confidential.

This is actually a problem in industry as well. As a designer, you would like to include some of your previous work when applying to a new job, but most of the time that work is owned by the company and they usually frown on you taking it with you for any purpose at all.

If you're an industry veteran leaving for education, you can try to take some docs with you -- maybe a few small samples, if not an entire set of docs. Your call where your actions should fall on the ask-permission-versus-beg-forgiveness continuum.

If you don't have that advantage (and don't have any REALLY good friends in the industry who could pass you something on the sly), then all you can do is look around for companies that have kindly released some documentation for the greater good. The nice folks at Introversion, for example, released design docs and a lot of other related stuff for their Darwinia game:

You can sometimes find design docs (or excerpts) in game design books as well.

The down side here is that many of the games are either obscure or else really old, which is why the companies involved don't mind releasing them. Still, it's better than nothing, and it's still probably better than anything your students have done :)

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Chris Taylor (Total Annihilation) wrote a long template for a design document that is available in various places on the Web. It's also possible to find design documents for quite old games, but I've never found one for a recent game.

No, I have not had students get confused between design document and marketing crap. But I'm sure it will happen. Maybe it's good that I try to de-emphasize the marketing side.

Kevin O'Gorman said...

I used to run into the "marketing fluff" more often than I do now, and I think it is because I do a better job of explaining the difference and showing examples of each early on, before the assignments start rolling in.

The most effective way to avoid this, I have found, is to show some of the most flagrant examples from past student work. It usually triggers giggles when I present them, and I think the giggle-factor comes back to haunt them when they are writing their own. They don't want to be next year's examples.

It also helps that I can show them some of my previous design docs and they can see how systematic and dry a lot of the writing is.

I know that at one point the IGDA Ed SIG was trying to create a document library -- perhaps another search of the IGDA Ed SIG wiki is in order to see if anyone posted any design docs lately.