The Lazy Designer

Design Document Traps (Intentional)

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this insidious design trick before but if so, permit me to repeat myself as I have had recent cause to use it again.

Game design is a busy business and it is often hard to get people to meet for approval on features. Even when a meeting happens there are many unanswered questions that fall to the design lead to fill in. The design document the lead writes is then a contract, so to speak, between the various groups involved in the features being discussed. Implementors need to approve of the feature and management needs to sign off on it.

A problem I ran into often was that sometimes people did not always read the design documentation. This annoyed me and so I began to throwing traps into my design documentation when all other methods of getting approval for a document failed. Basically a training exercise to help encourage people to read the documents before approving them.

What kinds of traps did I use? Usually a ‘fake feature’ inserted into the design documentation, something like:

When dragons begin to sing magical berets will appear on their heads so players understand what is happening.

You know the document was read if the people you sent the document to come in, holding a printed copy of the design document and stabbing their fingers against the out of place feature, asking you “You can’t be serious about this.”

Did this help? A little bit… some people did start reading the documents. More often somebody stumbled across the out of place sentence many months later and it was cause for a bit of a laugh.
If you do use this approach do be careful of what you add… imagine the situation if somebody forwarded the document to Very Senior Management (as an example of a polished game design document) without reading it.

Not that that ever happened.

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Robert

    Your staff are smarter than mine. I always like a historical context to an investment analysis, so in one briefing email I once (jokingly, of course) reminded everyone that ‘Russian investment document X’ should contain an historical account of the 1941 Nazi invasion. This was a tongue in cheek attempt to remind people to write about how the company (ie the subject of the investment) was set up and its legacy Soviet-era practices (specifically labor). I thought it was obvious what I meant. Instead, I did indeed get a page on the Barbarossa campaign… Luckily it was just a draft (and the bit about June 41 was very well written)! But it was close – sometimes clients do ask for an ‘informal’ draft (ie with watermarks) so it could, conceivably, have raised some serious boardroom eyebrows.

    What was the feature (in any game) that you had to work hardest to get consensus on? Did the doctors ever have to ‘tie break’? If the majority of the departments thought something was a bad idea, did you bow to the rules of democracy?


  • Brent Knowles

    Wow… I guess we have to be careful because there will always be somebody who will take what we say literally!

    Feature hardest to get consensus on? This is difficult, it seemed, the longer I stayed on at BioWare that features like a silent protagonist or party-control were ones I had to continually re-argue for. I do remember a short-lived but volatile attempt to remove the Origin stories… I don’t think I argued *well* to keep them but I argued loudly…

    I can’t remember the doctors ever ‘tie-breaking’ specifically but I think there were occasions where the Project Director made a call that was influenced by them, though it is hard to be certain.

    If the other departments convinced the Project Director that something was a bad idea then yeah, I would bow to his final call. Unless I really believed the feature vital… in which case I would go and gather more data in support of my viewpoint. As time passes my memory is getting vague about specifics but I do have a crate of old notebooks that I might take a look at sometime… maybe next winter when the weather sucks again :)

    Take care,

    – Brent

  • Robert

    Good grief – I’m so glad you won those. The silent
    protagonist created a special connection between me and the Warden. My voice
    was his. I could inflect in my mind and give a tone of my choosing. When “I”
    spoke, some “other” person didn’t take over – just the NPC reacted. It’s a
    crying shame that that’s gone. I remember opening my first Dungeons and Dragons
    box as a kid, to be greeted by the words “As you whirl around, your sword ready,
    the huge, red, fire-breathing dragon swoops toward you with a ROAR! See? Your
    imagination woke up already”. Why is imagination going out of fashion in 2011? Or
    reading for that matter (Heather saying last week that the system in Origins was “text-heavy” and “confusing”)? Why do we need VO for *our own* character and
    cinematics just for walking up a path?


    Mike is promising changes for DA3, but given his earlier
    state of total denial (and blaming the customer), I suspect it’s mostly lip service on account of the community
    backlash and flat-lining sales, rather than because he ‘gets it’.

  • Andy

    Hmmm, reminds of a friend some years ago who was involved in negotiating a contract with a shipyard in the USA for a ship refit. The shipyard were so desperate to secure the job they were tripping over themselves and would have signed anything, which in fact they did.

    Being bloody minded and to prove a point he inserted a clause in the contract that went unnoticed. When it came time to request payment my friend pointed out that the shipyard had not actually fulfilled their contractual obligations, he then pointed out to them the clause that stated the contract would only be considered complete by the vessel owners on receipt of evidence that every second paving slab and kerb stone in the ship yard was painted yellow.

    Needless to say he did not insist on this particular obligation but it certainly made them sit up and take notice. I also worked for a company once where we lost £20,000 on a job simply because my boss signed a contract without reading what it was he was signing up to and we were responsible for all costs of equipment commissioning. Still. I got a nice two week vacation in Japan out of it ;)

    And more recently let’s not forget Kyle’s experience in South Park with the Apple “Cent-i-pad”. Be careful what you “agree” to next time you update your iTunes.

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