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How to Design a Game [+Costs]

How to design a game and cost

Searching for a comprehensive guide that breaks down how to design a game?

Over the last decade, rapid evolution in software development technology coupled with an increasing focus on the need for user-centered gaming experiences has allowed game design to see unprecedented advancement. What’s more, with Statista averaging the U.S video game market at a strikingly high figure of $60.4B, there’s no doubt that video games can be a lucrative asset for the business that succeeds at its design. 

That said, unlike websites, mobile apps, and other types of digital products, the difficulties of user testing and iterations in video games have made its design a fairly complicated task. 

However, now the emergence of new frameworks has proven that while game mechanics are far from easy to design (especially Android and iOS mobile games), there are some standard design practices that will help to maximize the margin of success. 

Prior to delving into traditional video game design frameworks and why they have been largely abandoned in lieu of more modern approaches, it would be a huge disservice to game design if its unique design-development relationship was not explored.

The Relationship Between Design & Development in Games

As is customary in digital product development, the video game development process is highly dependent on its corresponding preceding design. After all, it would be illogical to undertake an extensive video game project without first determining crucial elements such as its expected user experience and functionalities, among others.

However, in the case of video games, the design-development correlation is underscored even more for two main reasons: 

  1. The complexity of the project: Modern video game designs often rely heavily on storytelling imagery, extensive 3D storyline narratives, and advanced computing interactions that make their development highly complex. These high-level designs are typically associated with role-playing games (RPGs). Consequently, due to the detailed intricacies regarding the type of user experience envisioned, video game designs need to be as precise as possible so that the development process is not made more challenging than it has to be. 
  2. The length of production: Video game designs are characterized for being far lengthier projects than websites or applications, in most cases exceeding the 12-month marker with the development period oscillating anywhere between 3 – 5 years. With such extensive project completion periods, failure to produce a top design implies an extension of an already long development period. 

An Assessment of Traditional Game Design Framework

Having appreciated the crucial dependency that game development has on its design, we now turn our attention to examining how this interrelation has manifested itself in game design theory. 

Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, game design theorists religiously followed a straightforward framework for design that was noted for its inflexibility and tendency to produce relatively simple games. 

To be more concrete, the activities conducted in game design largely stuck to the following format:

  • Conceptualization: The game design process would typically begin with a pitch for the creation of a type of game. This idea would take the form of either a write-up explaining the concept accompanied by some game art, a video mock-up, or a prototype (where possible). 
  • Funding: Once the idea had been pitched, it would be presented to a round of potential investors or possible financiers to begin acquiring the capital needed to make the project a reality. 
  • Design documentation: The acquisition of funding signaled the commencement of pre-production development. This culminated in the creation of a design document that often contained more than 100 pages. This document detailed the factors which would condition how the game would be developed. It also contained important information regarding costing and scheduling. It may also include a prototype, although it wasn’t a prerequisite for the document’s completion. 
  • Development: This is the phase where programming languages are used to convert the design into a fully-working finished product. At this point (usually in excess of a year following the commencement of this stage), functionalities would be implemented to make the game playable from start to finish. This was then followed by testing and evaluation.

For decades, this archaic approach to game design immensely stunted the niche’s growth and led to many failures. 

Why Traditional Game Design Had To Be Reviewed

Practical, real-life examples of the success rate of the framework previously fleshed out were reason enough for any business in the game development sector to realize that drastic change was needed to start producing great games.

Here is a brief round-up of why gamemakers and gamedevs fell out of favor with this framework: 

  • Any design changes risked jeopardizing the entire project: Since this framework did not emphasize iterations or progressive modifications throughout the game creation design cycle, usually changes to the design were proposed and implemented several months (or years) into the development phase. Therefore, some changes ended up throwing the entire project off-schedule, forcing programmers to trash hours upon hours of work spent coding in order to modify what was done at the last minute. 
  • Increase in workload: As a consequence of design changes, developers and project staff alike found themselves working extra hours on regularly scheduled workdays. Sometimes, their work schedule even forced them to dedicate unplanned hours on the weekend in order to make gameplay development adjustments as a result of design modifications. Needless to say, this played a negative role in work productivity in terms of negative work output and also decreased employee engagement. 
  • Wasted resources from project cancellations: Due to the sheer number of unplanned iterations which occurred too far down in production, the end-result at times proved so unappealing that the project would subsequently be called off. Undoubtedly, this implies not only a waste of financial investment in the project, but also a waste of human resources, time, and effort dedicated by those who were involved in the project.

In summary, the traditional framework of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a game design that you could only truly test when it was at a far-advanced stage in development was flawed to the core. 

Not only was money being lost, but designers were afraid to innovate since the slightest modification could spell the death of your game. 

How Agile Framework Revolutionized Game Design

The traditional game design framework was based largely on the Waterfall method. 

This is a school of thought which emphasizes the sequential nature of product development. 

In it, progress is measured almost exclusively by the completion of phases throughout the game design cycle.

In doing so, team members who are schooled under the Waterfall method are taught to conduct all planning prior to the commence of the project. As a result, game design project leaders were required to predict every single activity, task, and problem that could crop up during the design process prior to even starting the project, a methodology which, as already discussed, brought more harm than good.

It was from this need for an improved design framework that the notion of borrowing from the agile framework arose, a methodology that had already existed in software development.

The agile framework as a project management approach emphasized the notion of ‘working software’, prioritizing rapid iterations and testing throughout the entirety of a product life cycle.

When applied to game design, this methodology reduced costs associated with project management by making it easier to iterate and test throughout the product life cycle. 

Initially, due to the limitations in technology, the agile methodology did not immediately satisfy all project management pain points in game design. However, with the advancement in technology and development of game design-specific tools, the entire testing, iteration, and modification phases have been accelerated. 

The Value of Open Innovation in Game Design

In addition to agile methodology, over the years, some video game designers have opted to leverage the power of open innovation as a mechanism to gain insight that enables them to improve the design of their product. 

Usually, game designers create an ‘open alpha’ version of the game which is built for live user testing.

Then, the design team compiles any sound comments or changes to the design based on feedback from the community. 

Thus, they get to test, iterate and modify their designs in collaboration with future users of the video game. This is particularly common in Indie games where stakeholders do not have much budget to work with and, consequently, need to get creative in their testing and iteration processes.

Granted, this methodology is not suitable for each and every video game design as it may or may not infringe upon internal privacy or secrecy agreements among stakeholders. However, it is undeniable that this innovative, modern approach to testing and iteration can provide you with real insight that can set a game design up for even greater success. 

How to Design a Game Step by Step

Having discussed the key theoretical elements which frame contemporary game design, one may continue by breaking down its various stages. Each of these stages has its own activities which require lengthy preparedness to execute. 

That said, game design is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Ultimately, you will come across other resources that may or may not call into question areas of your design. Remember that this is a general guide on how to go about designing a game and should be taken as such.

In any case, the steps which constitute game design are outlined below:

  1. Definition of Video Game Vision & Strategy 
  2. Product Research
  3. Video Game Ideation
  4. Video Game Design
  5. Video Game Testing

Definition of Video Game Vision & Strategy 

With game design being far more costly projects than websites or mobile apps, it is even more important that even before ideation, the video game be founded on logic and strategy. 

A video game design team needs to be provided with some sort of vision surrounding the video game project. Otherwise, they have no guidance, direction, or basis upon which to condition their activities in the following phases.

Consequently, video game vision describes the product that is being built along with a basis for its creation. 

On the flip side, video game strategy qualifies the impact that the video game will have on the business’ revenue gains and key segments of its overarching structure. This constitutes developing a value proposition and criteria that will aim to predefine the type of concepts that surge from the ideation phase. 

Product Research

Having established the vision and strategy that will have an impact on the design of the video game, research is another major element that exerts significant influence on the project. This involves market research.

The game design team should pay particular emphasis to measure the possible strengths, weaknesses, risks, and opportunities that surround the project at hand. 

This can then be documented in the form of a SWOT analysis which compiles all the relevant data which stems from this facet of market research.

Credits: Tallyfy

Oftentimes, market research is complemented by some sort of competitor analysis and market segmentation in an effort to identify insight that will help to produce a compelling design that meets the needs and expectations of users.

Credits: Keep It Usable

This may involve the creation of user personas that aim to give shape, character, and form to possible users, including key data about them that will help to understand who the design team is constructing the game for. 

Video Game Ideation

This phase involves conceptualizing ideas for the design of the video game. 

Needless to say, the types of games elaborated are conditioned by the vision, strategy, and product research conducted in previous phases since they all serve as precursory design elements for the project. 

That said, what is also of equal importance, particularly due to the nature of game development as a complex initiative, is the need to cap design game ideas based on the technological limitations of the time. With game design and development being such long-winded processes, it would be counterproductive to propose design concepts that are too complicated or impossible to accomplish due to technological restrictions. 

In any case, game design teams have several techniques at their disposal which serve to aid them during the ideation phase. 

User journey mapping is one such technique whose purpose is to predict and create realistic scenarios which a user will have access to when playing the video game. 

Here is an example of one such user journey mapping which documents the journey that a user has in a virtual space at an airport.

Credits: Smaply

In much the same way that the aforementioned example includes graphics that serve to contextualize user journey, so too should the design team create sketches that serve to provide additional context regarding design instructions.

Video Game Design

This is the most taxing and time-consuming phase in the video game design process. 

Due to complex 3D narratives and extensive storytelling techniques which are featured in contemporary game designs, the team must dedicate time and effort to producing clear and concise prototypes which allow the development team to better understand what needs to be created.

Credits: Youtube

SketchUp is a popular 3D design software that allows one to create 3D visually-immersive experiences that are close to the finished product.

Designers can also use the platform’s Augment feature which allows those 3D models to be transplanted and viewed in an augmented reality (AR) setting. 

Video Game Testing

Following the completion of the design phase, the design team then proceeds to put into practice various testing strategies that enable them to gauge the effectiveness of the design in satisfying the needs of users. 

It also serves to determine whether the project is technologically viable. 

Here, a design team can opt to use the 3D models built previously in a usability test which participants.

Credits: Gamasutra

Usually, these tutorial sessions are moderated and recorded so that they can be studied and design insight can be extracted.

Credits: Reddits

Similarly, a game design team may find it useful to start building out an alpha-stage version of the game and provide access to it to a select number of gamers. These participants will interact with the design to provide feedback. 

These findings are then compiled in a game design document and submitted to the development team.

How To Design A Game Cost Guide

Due to the nature of game design, its corresponding costs are characteristically more elevated than those associated with website or mobile applications. They are also heavily dependent on budgetary restrictions which impact the techniques, tools, and activities which take place during the various phases of design. 

Also, costs are also conditioned by the team you partner with to flesh out the design of the game. As is the case with most CEOs, directors, stakeholders, and product owners, due to time constraints, it will be easier to outsource the creation of the game design. You may therefore entrust one or more game design specialists with your project. 

At first, the desire to begin your search for design team members may tempt you to visit a job board or freelance platform. You may be persuaded by the possibility of hiring a low-cost freelance designer via the platform for $20/hour to get your project underway.

However, this may very well constitute the downfall of your project before it’s even taken off.

These types of platforms are loaded with fraudulent service providers who falsely advertise skills and capabilities to unsuspecting recruiters. These employers end up partnering with these illegitimate professionals under the impression that they are ideal candidates only to be disappointed by their inability to deliver on what they promise.

What’s more, even in instances where these candidates are qualified in terms of experience and skill, they may not have the training or familiarity needed in agile methodology to take on your project.

Instead, DevTeam.Space is a hub where you can secure talented game design specialists who are all bolstered by the agile methodology. 

Leverage DevTeam.Space Teams For Game Design 

DevTeam.Space is a vetted community of top, proficient software developers who are supported by an agile AI process. 

This agile AI process enables businesses to seamlessly collaborate with expert software specialists for stress-free project management.

Our community is teeming with software professionals who specialize in game design and development.

All of these professionals have been granted an opportunity to form part of the DevTeam.Space community on the merit of their experience, skills, knowledge, and ability to provide high-quality services for a host of businesses throughout their career.

What’s more, these software engineers are all backed by an AI algorithm process that serves to promote agile methodological practices throughout the entirety of project management: 

  • Align the various phases of game design with milestones which make it easy to track accountability and visualize the design cycle throughout its various processes.
  • Obtain daily work overviews and weekly reports that register the work done throughout the various phases of the game design process.
  • Easily identify possible hiccups or setbacks in the project to correct them as soon as possible.

Through DevTeam.Space, you can connect with individual game design experts or entire game design teams. Once the design cycle is completed, you can then collaborate with game developers within the community to continue leveraging the expertise of top software engineers. 

Final Thoughts

This manual breaks down the steps needed to design a video game.

As has already been discussed, predetermining the costs associated with your video game design are entirely dependent on the techniques, tools, methods, and team used. 

DevTeam.Space can provide you with an estimate for a successful game design with our professionals. 

Take a few minutes to complete our DevTeam.Space questionnaire. An account manager from DevTeam.Space will reach out to you as soon as possible with a product design estimate so you can get started.

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