Lesson #1 - "I have a great game idea!"  Please click here if you do not see a Nav Frame at left

GAME DESIGN 101

"I have a Great Idea for a video game...

how do I sell it and get rich and famous?"

by

Tom Sloper


Latest update: July, 2010
NOTE: these articles are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This article is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome. ALSO NOTE: Board games are much easier to design than video games. If you're interested in learning about board game design (and it IS recommended, even for those who aspire to design video games), read article 20.

The short answer is: "Great, you have an idea. Now start writing. (But, by the way, nobody will buy your idea, don't be silly!)" The long answer (why you need to write, what to write, and what to do with what you wrote) is below.

So you want to get your idea made into a working electronic game.
There are two ways for you to follow up on this dream.

1. DIY -- Do It Yourself. Execute the idea into a game yourself, training yourself along the way as a game designer and/or programmer and/or artist, etc. First step: write a formal GDD (game design document).

2. DIFTI -- Do It From The Inside. (You're "outside" the game biz at the moment.) Write your idea down, training yourself along the way to write the way a game designer does. Write more designs, too. Then, having built a design portfolio, go to a game company (a developer or publisher) and take a job -- ANY job. The practice of writing your designs will help you get your foot in the door, but it's unlikely that anybody will want to make your ideas into games or hire you as an apprentice game designer. The designs may never get made, but now you're in the biz -- and you can learn & grow within it, and eventually make other original designs if you're good.

- Both of those paths (#1 and 2 above) require the same first step: writing. You have to write down your game idea. FAQ 2 and FAQ 13 explain how to write. There are three levels of documents, each one having a particular purpose. The Concept Paper is very short, describing just the basic idea in exciting terms, in order to get someone else excited about the game, so they'll ask you to tell them more. The Treatment tells them more, maybe ten to twenty pages, to answer the questions a lender or publisher might ask before risking money on your idea. The GDD, the Game Design Document, is a full description of every aspect of the game so that a creative technical team can create the game.

- Both of those paths require passion, perseverance, & perspiration. Do you want to be a game designer? Or are you just a person with one idea that'll never go anywhere because you can't be bothered to spend the effort? If the latter, you can just stop reading right now. If the former, keep on reading.

- Either way, when you've finished, guess what profession you're in -- the games biz.

The latter path (#2 above, getting a job in the industry, DIFTI) also requires a good attitude -- you'll need to be a team player, a professional who works on projects without letting his own ambitions get in the way of doing a game other than his dream idea.

DIY: You're on your own if you want to DIY. Go forth and teach yourself how to begin, once your design is written (that's still a necessary first step). You will need to learn about programming and about management and business and marketing. Read my FAQs (see nav frame at left). Read the postings on the IGDA forums (http://www.igda.org/Forums/) and at GameDev.net's forums (http://www.gamedev.net/community/forums/). Go back to school and learn everything about art and music and computers and business. Research. Learn. Create. Do it all, all by yourself.

DIFTI: A design portfolio is a great way to present yourself to potential employers in the game biz. They won't buy your idea (they already have great ideas up the wazoo, or they think they do anyway) but they might well give you a job (it might be an entry-level job, but hey, it's a job in the biz). That's how I got started, 20 years ago. I made a board game design, and I tried to get it published. Eventually (2 years later) I gave up on that, and used the board game as a part of my portfolio to get a job at a thinktank for electronic toys. I took an entry-level job as a toy modelmaker, and one day I had a chance to design an electronic game (see Lesson 18 for the complete story). Next thing you know, I designed two games for the Vectrex game system. Then I worked at Sega and Atari. In other words, I went the career route. My first board game idea has never been published. But I've designed and produced a number of electronic games, and have a great job.

So, now I need to tell you a little more about the topics raised above.

a. Why nobody will just buy your idea from you (or otherwise execute it into a playable game).
b. Writing a formal game design document.
c. Working in the games business.

Here goes:

a. Why nobody will just buy your idea from you. You didn't expect me to be talking about these things, did you? (^_^) You just wanted somebody to take your idea and run with it, while you sit back and wait for the end result so you can play it, right? And maybe make some easy money.

Forget that right now, it's not going to happen.

Pretend for a moment that you have a great idea for a novel, not a game. How would you go about getting it written and published? Would you go to a bulletin board and advertise looking for an author to write it for you? No, you would have to get off your butt and write it yourself. I have heard that a friend of Frank Herbert (author of Dune) asked Herbert to author the friend's idea and split the profits 50/50. Herbert refused, even though the guy was a good friend -- Herbert's reply was basically that ideas are easy; the writing is the hard part. Think about it for a minute -- would YOU want to have a friend come up to you, tell you a few sentences, then have you spend months hunched over a keyboard turning his few sentences into the Great American Novel? I doubt it. If you did spend months writing that book, would you want to give half of the money to that guy? I don't think so.

Now pretend for a moment that you have a great idea for a movie, not a game. How would you go about getting it made into a movie? You would have to begin by becoming a movie industry professional, get several movies under your belt, become a producer or studio executive, and off you go! That's the DIFTI route ("Do It From The Inside"). There's also the DIY (Do It Yourself) route: spend a lot of money (tens of thousands at the cheapest), write and direct it yourself, with the help of actors and technicians you hire. The end result may never get into theaters everywhere but could well prove your worth to a real studio. Either way, (DIY or DIFTI) by the time you're done, you're in the movie biz. And you earned it by hard work, not by waving your arms for a few minutes in front of a cigar smoker who then throws wads of cash at you -- it don't work that way.

Okay, enough pretending. Your idea is not for a novel or a movie -- it's for a game. How do you go about getting it made? First step: write the game design yourself. Then you can either make the game yourself (DIY) or use the design to get a job as a game designer (DIFTI).

b. Writing a formal game document. It doesn't necessarily have to be a full GDD. If you want to write a complete GDD, go ahead. But a GDD is really only needed when there is a team ready to work on the game. Writing a 10-20 page treatment is harder than you might think, because it has to get the reader excited and see why your idea is worthy. You have to research the competition and describe how your game is better than those others. There is no one standard format -- every game design looks different. Look upon it as an exercise in writing. Before ANYthing can be done with your idea, it needs to be described in writing. It needs to be well illustrated. It needs to be well written, with good spelling, grammar, punctuation, and with a coherent and well-organized outline. It needs to tell what is special about your game (why your game will stand out from the other games in the market), told in a clear and informative manner -- you need to understand the competition, and express that understanding in the document. It needs to be thorough and entertaining to read.

It needs to take the vision that's in your head and communicate it fully to the reader.

It needs to get the reader interested in your idea, and especially in you as a designer. If you are not ready to take your idea and go to this next step (writing a formal design), then your idea is not going to go anywhere, and that's too bad. If you are not ready to take your idea and go to this next step, you are not a budding designer -- you're just a guy with an idea that will never go anywhere. Don't let that get you down, just come up with completely different ideas until you find one you are willing to put passion, perseverance, and perspiration into -- then you'll have found your calling.

c. Working in the game business. The principles discussed in this article apply equally to computer games or any other kind of game (if we're talking board games, substitute "artist" or "modelmaker" for the word "programmer" and you won't suffer too much of a paradigm shift! (^_^)).

The cold hard reality is that it's extremely difficult to get a game made. If your idea is for a board game, there are tremendous manufacturing and marketing costs involved that you need to learn about (it's those costs that are behind companies' reluctance to just make your game). If your idea is for a video or computer game, the costs are even higher. It costs millions (at least hundreds of thousands) of US dollar$, and anywhere from half a year to 3 years to create a hit computer or video game (one-man-band games cost considerably less, but such an endeavor has an extremely low probability of becoming a hit -- just look at the competition). It also takes a lot of people and a lot of know-how to get a competitive commercial-quality game made.

The making of games is a business. And business is all about making a profit.

It seems to me that the typical bright-eyed wannabee imagines that game producers sit back in their plush leather chairs, yakking on their cellphones. An imaginary conversation (as envisioned by the wishful would-be game designer) might go: "I need to find a game idea for the next project. Everybody here has just more me-too ideas -- I wish a good original idea would just fall into my lap."

Far from it. Everyone in the industry (the programmers, artists, designers, producers, marketing managers, sales managers, and corporate executives) has more ideas than they have time to work on. Ideas are a dime a dozen (and that's probably an inflated value!). There is an involved process for deciding which ones to work on. Each person in the process has ideas about what other projects the company's resources should be used on. This process is not standard from one company to another, and this process is not standard in one company from one project to the next. This process is often, in fact, mysterious to its participants!

Usually, the purpose of the first company meeting is to discuss a direction that has already been in the company's plan for a while. They do NOT sit down and start, "Okay, now we have a slot we need to fill. Anybody got any project ideas? How about that design that Quincy wrote up?" Usually they sit down and start, "Okay, Project Q was a spectacular success -- let's do a follow-on," or: "Company Q is killing us in the marketplace with their Game Q -- we gotta do something similar, with our better engine, and with a cooler universe." Or: "Okay, Legal got us that great license Q. Now let's plan what the game will be, and present it to the licensor for concept approval so we can get started on it." Or the initial impetus for a project might come from a variety of other directions.

At the end of the first stage of this process, some producer is usually given a direction. S/he's supposed to work on Project Q. S/he's not sent out to "go forth and find us a great idea." S/he already has an assignment.

Producer goes to designer and asks for creativity upon demand. Usual real world conversation (NOT in these exact words): "No, don't give me your ideas -- here is the project I need designed. Go design it for me. . .. Oh okay, then, give me your ideas -- I'll read them and get back to you. Go design this new Project Q -- oh, and here's your paycheck."

Designer works like that on several projects, proving his abilities, and perhaps (if s/he's really good) eventually gets his/her own ideas greenlighted. S/he may never make that /original/ dream game though. My first board game idea still hasn't been published. But you know what? It doesn't bother me! I have other games out there -- and I have a great job. I went the DIFTI route -- I work in the industry. Some people prefer to do it themselves.

Remember what I said about the guy with the Great American Novel in his head -- the only way anybody else will see that novel is if s/he writes it himself -- s/he can't get somebody else to write it for him. It's darned hard work to write a novel -- or to design a game! But it's worthwhile -- if nobody thought it was worthwhile, we wouldn't have any novels to read. Or new games to play.

The question "I have an idea, what do I do now," is such a Frequently Asked Question that I'm not the only one who's written an answer for it. Here's a great one from the old Usenet world...

Perhaps that puts things in a clearer perspective.


But don't take my word for it. Check out Chris Crawford's article at http://www.erasmatazz.com/page78/page117/page123/Education.html .

Or Lewis Pulsipher's 2008 article at http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/614/the_idea_is_not_the_.php?page=1.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR GAME IDEAS!