Video Game Design: How Successful Games Are Made

Learn what the game design production pipeline involves.

Video game design

Video game design is a vast and diverse field that exists at the intersection of computer science, creative writing, and graphic design. The job of the game designer is to take the creative lead and come up with a comprehensive concept for the game that is going to be built. It's often what separates successful game projects from failures.

Let's dive deeper into what video game design is and how experienced game developers approach it.

What is video game design?

Jesse Schell, a prominent game designer and the author of The Art of Game Design, defines video game design as "the act of deciding what a game should be". To decide what a game is, you must make hundreds, usually thousands of decisions.

These decisions cover a variety of aspects, including but not limited to:

Any work related to the creative vision of a video game will come from a game designer, typically in the form of sketches, mockups, concept art, or storyboards.

Game design vs. game development

Game design and game development are two different terms, though they are often used interchangeably, but they do, in fact, mean different things:

At many smaller game development studios, the same team members wear many hats and are responsible for both fields. At larger companies, however, game design is handled by a separate team of level designers, writers, artists, and interface designers.

Game Design Process

The game design process varies from studio to studio. An indie game designer doesn't need the same formal design workflows and procedures used by AAA game studios. But the first step is the same: before writing a single line of code, an experienced game designer creates a map for what he is going to build.

Start with a GDD

A new game development project is kicked off by creating a game design document (GDD). Here's an example of a game design document created in Nuclino, a collaborative documentation tool for teams:

Game design document example

Game design document example (Artwork credit: Stephane Wootha Richard)

The GDD acts as a blueprint for your game and evolves together with it over the course of the development process. If you have a great new game idea, you may be itching to start building it right away. But jumping straight into coding without cultivating a game design document is a sure way to end up being hampered by placeholder art, malfunctioning code, and clashing mechanics.

The first iteration of a GDD starts as a game proposal, in which the game designer outlines the high-level game concept, the target audience, requirements, schedule, and budget estimates. As the project progresses, the stakeholders – designers, developers, artists, and writers – all collaboratively update the document.

Pre-production

The pre-production stage is highly exploratory. Designers prototype various environments, characters, control schemes, and other in-game elements. They use storyboards, concept art, interface mockups, and so on, to flesh out their ideas and see how they look, feel, and interact with one another. Not all of these designs make it into the final game.

Game design storyboard

Game storyboard example (Credit: Ubisoft Entertainment)

Production

During the production stage, game designers refine the concepts that made the cut. Working together with artists, writers, and voice actors, they render character models, craft dynamic and immersive levels and environments, iterate on the interfaces, and so on.

As is the case with many creative projects, the final games often look very different from their initial concepts. Don't be afraid to let your designs evolve, as long as you document every change in your GDD and give your team a single source of truth.

Elements of Game Design

Game design is a complex and interdisciplinary field, and game designers at smaller studios have to wear many hats. The elements of game design can be roughly broken down into four main categories.

Gameplay and mechanics

Gameplay defines the way in which players interact with a game, which includes the game’s rules, plot, objectives, challenges. Game mechanics support the designed gameplay by providing a set of rules that govern player interactions.

Gameplay example

Gameplay example

Aesthetics

The aesthetics of the game define the look and feel of the game. It's an exceptionally important aspect of game design because it determines how engaging and immersive the game experience will be.

Story and setting

Every game, no matter how simple, needs a story. It starts with high-level worldbuilding, usually done by the lead game designer. Lower-level details, such as the creation of locations, events, quests, characters, and dialogues, are usually worked on by a team of level designers.

Audio

Audio is another fundamental component of game design. It involves creating and incorporating all of the sounds that take place in the game, such as background music, sound effects, or voice acting.

Game design is a multidimensional field and this is by no means an exhaustive list. The job of the game designer is very much like that of a movie director: they have to be the visionary of the project, controlling both the artistic and the technical elements of the game.

Nuclino: Your team's single source of truth

Nuclino

Nuclino is a unified workspace that helps you organize all of your team's work in one place. Instead of digging through the chaos of files and folders and drowning in endless meetings and notifications, Nuclino allows your team to break out of silos and collaborate more thoughtfully.

Try it for free

Image credit: Stephane Wootha Richard

Character illustration