in Behind the Scenes

Planning Makes Perfect

Over the past three years, we’ve been slowly refining how we approach the planning phase. When we began making games, we would simply start working on an idea—no prototypes, menu flow charts, or to do lists. Although it was exciting to jump head first into projects like this, it caused more trouble than the initial thrill was worth.

Seemingly small issues— oversights that are easily avoided with careful planning— would pile up. Before we’d get halfway through an app, these tiny problems would become major obstacles, creating complications in other areas of the project.

Soon, we’d be spending more time putting out fires and fixing newly created bugs than making actual progress. This was immensely damaging to our morale. To feel satisfied and energized by a project, it’s important to consistently hit your milestones. But if you don’t set any, you have only a very vague sense that you are moving forward or anywhere at all.

A good plan lays everything out. Someone who knows nothing about your vision should be able to look over your documents, concept art, and prototypes and have a clear idea of what the final product will look like.

Everything should be written down, illustrated, or prototyped. You must capture as many details as possible—down to the menu transitions and the font of the copyright notice.

Here are the basic components of a good plan (for a mobile game at least):

  • Synopsis – Describe the objective, rules, gameplay, and strategy. Explain why it’s compelling and what makes it fun. This is also a good place to explore what kind of emotions you want to evoke in the user, and if applicable, what the story is and who the characters are.
  • Prototype – A prototype proves that the game is technically possible on your target device and platform. This is also a good place to really test how fun the core gameplay is. It’s not necessary to include a menu in the prototype unless you’re attempting to craft something totally different than what you’re used to building.
  • Concept Art – This part of the plan demonstrates the graphical style of the game and more effectively communicates the desired vibe.
  • Layouts & Menu Flowchart – Here everything gets drawn out—the main and sub menus, all of the gameplay elements, the heads-up display, the leader boards, the info screen, etc. The uninitiated should be able to the see the game. Menu transitions and loading screens may need to be storyboarded here too. Don’t wait to argue about major design decisions in the middle of the project.
  • The Master To Do List – Step-by-step, no detail spared, list everything that needs to be done. Organize it into phases and assign team responsibilities. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but try to be as thorough as possible.

If you know everything basically works from the outset and that all the details will fit together nicely in the end, you have little to worry about. You can simply put your nose to the grindstone and watch the pieces come together. Of course, you will come across some hiccups, you will overlook a handful of details, and you may want to add features mid-project. No worries. Step back, fit it into the plan, and carry on.

It’s extraordinary how easy planning makes a project. Let your brain do the heavy lifting. Grab a pencil and sketch pad, start drawing and writing, and you’ll save yourself from a lot of grief.