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Effective Game Design: Software Challenges

Game design is the most important part of every game, but there are no specific tools for game designers. Dialogues must have a diagram-like layout to keep them organized, a game library database requires more structured storage...So what can we do?

Pavel Shylenok

January 31, 2019

7 Min Read

Game design is the most important part of every game, whether it’s a simple runner or a title of a “Dragon Age” scale. Every specialist in every industry needs professional tools to do his job right. There are special IDEs for developers, professional software (i.e. Adobe, Autodesk) for artists, but there are no specific tools for game design. So, videogame designers always had to use different workarounds to do their job. The main challenge is that assets, called 'game design' for any given project, are never kept in one document, because these are quite different. 

For example, dialogues must have a diagram-like layout to keep them organized, a game library database requires more structured storage, character’s data additionally require images storage, level maps should also have some visuals, etc.. So what can we do? 

Rules for Game Designers 

How do we track possible variations and flows of non-linear dialogues throughout the entire game? Well, some specialists use thousands of stickers, others build Visio-like flow charts. Big companies build their custom-developed set of tools to handle specific project needs — something that indie studios usually can’t afford and actually don’t need. 

In order to achieve consistency in design and create visually appealing games, the information that is generated by game designers should be: 

  1. Easily maintainable. This one is obvious, because design documents tend to grow large, so difficulties may arise when you need to update a certain dialogue line which was written long ago. Furthermore, other members of your team should be aware of the changes.

  2. Accessible. The documents are useful only when they are easily readable. In my work experience, I’ve seen game design documents that were written as 150-pages doc files. Well, there’s nothing wrong with 150 pages, it isn’t a lot for a game, but the issue is that for game developers it is really difficult to find information there, so the information must be broken down into smaller pieces and organized by categories. 

  3. Up-to-date. If we are talking about medium-to-big size games (i.e. RPG, Adventure, etc), which have stories, characters, multiple locations, game database (i.e. Weapons and game world events data), most of such content is created in design department as the project progresses. This content is constantly altered and updated (much more often than the source code, actually). Later, this information is integrated into a game project by the production department. It basically means that the production team should be notified of the changes. Needless to say, the error rate increases, because the information is duplicated in different places. So, it definitely would be good to have a tool that could somewhat automatically process design department’s assets and integrate them into the project. 

  4. Should not frustrate. You see, game design is a creative process, so having wrong tools is like asking a professional artist to use Gimp. While it is a great tool to make some image editing, it is barely for professional use, which means that work results will be the results of a demotivated employee. Have you ever seen game designer’s face, when it’s necessary to update story text, located in Excel file, that uses custom markup? That’s the look of a person in deep depression! So, the tools have to be convenient for day-to-day work. 

Software Tools for Game Designers & Challenges They Help to Solve

Tools that are shown in this category don’t require a lot of coding knowledge. Most of them are made to provide the simplest developing experience to anyone. Still, there are pitfalls to consider. These tools aren’t so easy as they look at first sight. While they are suitable for small and common games, it’s quite difficult to create a unique project without any comprehension. Let’s see what our software options are. 

Mind Maps

When we started looking for suitable game design tools, Mind Maps were our first choice. And we quickly ditched the idea, because only after 3 hours into a project, mind map started to look like this: 

Right now, our current project named Rise Of Colonies has a game database of 16 Megabytes in size, and it mostly consists of text data. That’s really a lot of text! I’m even afraid to think what a Mind Map of that size would look like. An additional issue is software. Desktop software choices are quite limited, so we found FreeMind to be the one with the most feasible export features. But the issue with that software is that for really big mind maps its UI starts glitching, so it is not suitable for professional use as you are battling with the software, not with the project. It could be used to track smaller mind maps (i.e. menu layout), though. 


We see that game studios use different Wiki systems (i.e. Atlassian Confluence, MediaWiki, etc.) quite frequently. Generally, it’s a good choice to keep all the information structured and well-maintained. However, it can’t be reused in-game by Copy-Paste means. 
Additionally, it is not suitable for character dialogues at all. 


Story Software 

When we just started considering different dialogue handlers out there, we looked through available Unity plugins on the Asset Store and found no suitable assets that could meet our project’s needs. 
Software like Twinery or yEd also didn’t work for us, because it is designed for a specific usage: Twinery is more for creating standalone interactive stories, it is not customizable with extra properties and entire game structure can’t be maintained in it. While yEd is more like a graph builder application, much like Microsoft Visio, it is also not really suited for all game design tasks. 


Articy Draft 

Finally, we’ve discovered Articy Draft — a visual environment solution that we’d previously overlooked (mainly due to its aggressive advertising as the golden hammer (or silver bullet)). At least that was the initial impression we gained from its promo website. However, after taking a quick look at the software, we realized that this tool can be successfully used in our processes, though not exactly as advertised. Our next article will be dedicated solely to this tool and how we use it in our Rise of Colonies project level editing. 


Spreadsheet Software 

I guess we are pretty much done for today, however, there’s one more specific tool that I would like to mention - Microsoft Excel or its free counterparts like LibreOffice and others. 

This tool has a lot of hidden power in it, specifically: 

  • Multiple platforms support. While it is still true that Microsoft Windows should be the platform of choice for most of the game development studios, sometimes you have to work on Macs, so ideally, all support tools should work on every platform that your studio uses. 

  • Literally, it is a table, so it means that game balance data (which often can also be a table-type data) can be easily managed with it. 

  • It supports formulas, which is good for doing some balancing, calculations, and simulations. 

  • It supports Macros, so you could write a piece of code, for example, to export your data in a format that is accepted by your game, thus automating the data exchange process. 

  • It is actually a grid, so if your game has grid-based levels or the levels that can be approximated to a grid - you basically have a level editor ready at your disposal. 

In our studio, we use this software for initial level design for many of our grid projects. A typical level looks like this and it is very well imported/exported using CSV files as an intermediate format: 


The software solutions we described above can be easily used for many of your projects, but feel free to use other tools that make your creative process more slick and convenient - your creativity depends on it, so start applying your creativity selecting the right tools for the job. There’s also a bunch of custom tools (like, i.e. level editors) that you might need for your project, and we will cover those in one of our following articles!

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