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Letters to the Editor: The Great Design Documents Debate

Gamasutra's new Letters to the Editor round-up has reactions and response to whether serious games need to be fun, debate on the relevance of design documents, and input on working as a gam
Gamasutra has recently had further interesting feedback to some of our notable features and opinion pieces, as collected through our Letters to the Editor, so here's the latest roundup, with some of the reactions you might have missed. Click through on each link (free reg. req.) for the full Letter. In response to Bryan Ochalla's feature, entitled Who Says Video Games Have to be Fun? The Rise of Serious Games, Sande Chen had some feedback: "I applaud the use of games to espouse a personal viewpoint and further social change. To do so effectively, I would ask developers not to underestimate the power of fun, especially as a motivator. Indeed, while doing research for our book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, David Michael and I found that more than 80% of survey respondents felt that the element of fun was "important" or "very important" in serious games development." Ernest Adams' latest Designer's Notebook feature, Why Design Documents Matter, also generated quite a bit of commentary. Tim Carter wrote in to express why he feels the feature missed the "real most important reason why design documents matter": "Most of Ernest Adams reasons were production-oriented and not design-oriented. The most important reason to write a design document is to develop the "language" of the design within the minds of the designers - before any consideration of what the team is going to code or build is even arrived at. Language (of any type) is extremely important because it takes effervescent ideas and forms them into structured units; units which can then be recombined to create larger, more explicit and more advanced conceptual frameworks. If you go from an oral mode to execution immediately - or even oral to sparse writing to execution - your conceptual framework is extremely thin and can't lead to output with much depth. This no doubt is one reason there is so much "me-too" derivative design out there: few take the time to develop the internal conceptual language you need to arrive at something really original." Chris Burke also appreciated Adams' attention to design documents, but stresses their importance for a different reason: "In addition to providing evidence for funding, forming a basis for contractual obligations, communicating intentions, turning generalities into particulars, and recording decisions made, design documents are the basis for internal organizational negotiations on project scope, schedule, and budget. Not everything a designer writes into a document is either practical or optimal or final, but until it is written down the project’s managers and craftspeople have nothing tangible against which to push or build. Designers should expect some push-back from the team on every document, and that push-back, when it occurs, must occur with the best interests of the project at heart. Ernest Adams’ article left out organizational needs for push-back and negotiation, portraying design documents as a kind of “law” handed down from designers - and in so doing I believe he undervalued design documents!" As a counterpoint, Tadhg Kelly wholly disagrees, asserting that in their current incarnation, design documents don't matter at all: "So I see that Ernest Adams has come out with a spirited argument in favor of design documents, but I think that he glosses over the basic point: Nobody reads them. They mostly don't refer to them either. The reasons are many, but the core reasons are these: 1. They are usually very badly written 2. They are usually very tedious 3. They are usually non-specific 4. The people who mostly refer to them are designers in meetings talking to people of other disciplines who haven't read them and ask the designer to just tell them what they want 5. Records of changes and decisions only matter to lawyers. So the problem is that game designers have to write, but they have to write what's wanted rather than what they think is wanted, and that usually means doing a lot of documents to order. It means learning how to give only the necessary information to a person of any particular discipline and for this to be an ongoing task. There is no silver bullet document that will solve all ills, and even though various book writers and freelance design contractors have tried for many years to imprint the idea that what we need are more words, the fact is that what we need is less, not more...I would therefore advise any aspiring game designer not to waste his time with so much typing and instead learn to ask the question "What do you need?" rather than "Here is my vision, if you only read it, you would understand" because that is in fact his job." Finally, on Working in Japanese Game Development, Patrick Dugan wrote in to advise relocating designers to consider working in Latin America: "Obviously Asian culture is of interest to a game developer, being the home of manga and certain iconoclastic styles of games, but Latin America's culture is much more familiar in comparison. Furthermore, Spanish is MUCH easier to learn than Japanese, just get those conjugations down and re-learn half your vocabulary, the other half consists of words highly similar to their English counter-parts. Monetarily, Latin America is a much better choice, since the exchange rates convert favorably. Since there aren't a lot of jobs for foreigners currently, a move to Argentina or Uruguay (Brazil and Chile's currencies are much closer to parity with the dollar) makes a lot of sense for independent developers looking to gain competitive advantage through cost-cutting. Last of all, you can have just as much fun in Buenos Aires or Montevideo as you can in Austin or Montreal. I encourage developers struck with wanderlust to research these countries and decide for themselves." For more reactions to other recent features such as Ian Bogost's How I Stopped Worrying About Gamers And Started Loving People Who Play Games, as well as thoughts on June's NPD numbers to be read and responded to, visit our letters page.

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