game design process
In theory, all Needy Cat Games are designed the same way, following a nine-stage system. Each stage is completed before the next begins.
Of course, this is never quite the case in practice, but we find that using this system as a guideline makes it easier to plan projects, set expectations and communicate progress with clients. This page lays out the nine stages, explaining what happens in each. If you'd like to know more about the system, why not get in touch?
Any design starts with a chat between the client and the designer, where the rough nature of the project is agreed. What's the pitch for the game? How complex should it be? Is there a set theme, or any desired mechanics? A brief will be developed, which will serve as a reference throughout the project.
Also, a contract will be drawn up which covers the scope of the project, the agreed price, and any other details. Once it's signed by both parties, this stage is complete.
Research & Development
The designer begins the next stage by researching similar games, source materials and any other relevant topics. They'll note down their initial design ideas and do some preliminary development, after which they'll present a set of idea boards to the client for approval. These boards will provide an overview of the game's shape and feel, along with a breakdown of any core mechanics. At this stage there is no detail, only rough ideas and concepts.
As soon as the client approves of the idea boards, this stage is complete.
Here is where the game starts to take shape. The designer will create an initial prototype and sketch out some rough, bullet-point rules. Placeholder mechanics might be used (e.g. using a dice roll in place of a more elaborate mechanic which will be developed later) and more advanced parts of the game might be ignored completely. The prototype will be tested internally by the designer - they will look for core functionality (does the game work, are the mechanics interesting, does the game have the potential for decision-making and strategy) without worrying about too much detail.
This stage is working towards creating a vertical slice - a demonstration for the client which showcases a snapshot (ten to twenty minutes) of gameplay. When the client approves of what they see in the vertical slice, this stage is complete.
The Mechanical Draft takes the bullet-point notes from stage three and turns them into a working rules document. It's important to note that this is not intended to be a final version of the rules, and is not meant for public consumption; rather, the mechanical draft should be clear, concise and comprehensive, containing enough information that playtesters can play the game without input from the designer. Shorthand and informal expressions might be used, and not all of the rules might be covered (fringe cases might be omitted, as well as advanced rules, additional scenarios and so forth). In summary, this draft focuses on the game's mechanics, not on presentation - it's the game itself that will be scrutinised here, not the rulebook.
A fuller prototype will also be created, featuring all of the components that are needed to play the game as directed in the draft. The rules will then be tested internally - this time, the designer is looking to see whether anything is missing and whether the game functions as written. After several tests and iterations of the rules, a full demo will be showcased for the client, running through an entire game session from start to finish. If they approve of what they see, the stage is complete.
At this stage, a playtest pack will, with the approval of the client, be made and distributed to Needy Cat Games' volunteer playtesters. If the client has their own test group, or wishes to test the game in-house, the playtest pack will be made available to them for this purpose. During this stage, the testers will be looking at the quality of the gameplay experience - is it fun, is it compelling, does it feel intuitive, and so forth. At various points, the rules will be updated based on feedback received and new versions of the playtest pack will be distributed.
Mechanical testing lasts for either a set amount of time, or a target number of tests - this can be agreed with the client, or decided in-house. Once testing is over, this stage is complete.
The game itself should now be sufficiently well-developed that there should be no more major gameplay changes or huge overhauls; as such, in this stage, the designer begins to draft the final manuscript. This is the complete document which will be laid out and become part of the final product, so will contain everything that is called for by the brief.
This will then be tested by the designer, using a small group of testers who have not yet played the game; the focus of these tests is to check that it's possible to play the game with no input from the designer or anyone who's played before. Once the designer is happy that the rules document is sufficient, the stage is completed.
In this stage, more comprehensive playtest packs are created and distributed to a broader spectrum of playtesters. All of those who were involved in the Mechanical Test are welcome to return, but this test group should cover a variety of gamer types, and even some people who don't normally play tabletop games. In each case, the aim of this test is to check the quality of the writing; are there any ambiguities or omissions in the text, is anything unclear, and so on. As a secondary concern, does the game feel balanced and winnable by all players?
As with the mechanical test, the full test lasts for a predetermined amount of time, with regular updates being made to the playtest pack as appropriate. Once the test is over, this stage is complete.
At this stage, the manuscript (along with any other prototype files - card decks, board layouts, etc) are handed over to the client, who is responsible for layout and editing unless specifically agreed otherwise.
This stage, which can take place weeks or even months after the previous one, is to pick up any changes, queries or feedback that came about as a result of layout or editing. The designer should spend no more than a day on this stage - any additional time will need to be agreed in advance and billed separately.