At Needy Cat Games, we’ve developed a structure by which we design all our games. Every project is different, but we’ve found that codifying the different steps that a project goes through really helps us communicate both internally and with our clients.
Our process is split into nine stages, which are detailed on this page. This is primarily so that people we work with can keep track of what we’re talking about, but it’s hopefully an interesting read for anyone who’s getting into game design, as well.
The aim of this stage is to ascertain everyone’s expectations and ensure that we’re all on the same page.
At the start of a project, we’ll come up with an initial concept for the game and create a design brief. If we’re working for a client, this will happen during an initial meeting with them, but even if we’re working on a game for ourselves we make sure this stage takes place.
Here, we ask a few questions to ascertain key information about the project. What’s the high concept? What’s the target audience? What’s the theme? Do we want to include any specific mechanics or player interactions?
The brief that is created at this stage will serve as a reference throughout the project. If we’re working for a client, we will then draw up a contract to confirm details such as milestones, deadlines, price and payment dates.
Once the brief is complete and the contract is signed, this stage is complete.
Research & Development
The aim of this stage is to get an overview of the game’s shape and feel, and maybe a few core mechanics, without going into any detail.
Next, we cast our net wide and start our research for the project. We’ll look at existing games, source material, relevant media and anything else that seems appropriate. During our research we note down any initial design ideas, which will result in the creation of idea boards that gather together sets of ideas (for example, a worker placement game might have idea boards for “player interaction”, “action spaces”, “theme” and so on.
When it is agreed that the idea boards match the brief, this stage is complete.
The aim of this stage is to create a very basic version of the game, focusing on the core gameplay.
Here is where the game starts to take shape. Working off our idea boards we create an initial prototype and sketch out some very rough rules for the game. Placeholder mechanics might be used (e.g. using a dice roll in place of a more elaborate mechanic, to be developed later) and some parts of the game might be ignored completely.
We’ll test and develop this prototype internally, without involving external testers, to see whether the central mechanics work and offer interesting gameplay. Again, detail isn’t important at this stage. Once we’re happy with the prototype we will create a vertical slice - a prototype which showcases a rough snapshot of gameplay (enough to see what a round or turn might look like).
When the vertical slice is completed and seen to match the brief, this stage is complete.
The aim of this stage is to create a fully playable prototype of the game, with enough rules to play a full session.
The Mechanical Draft develops the test build prototype into a functional rules document, which can be used to play a full session of the game. This should be clear, concise and comprehensive, containing enough information that playtesters can play the game in our presence. For example, the rules might feature shorthand and informal expressions, 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 mechanical prototype will also be created, featuring all of the components that are needed to play the game as directed in the draft. We’ll test the rules in-house throughout this process, checking to see if anything is missing and whether the game functions as intended.
When the mechanical prototype is complete (i.e. a game can be played from start to finish), and is seen to match the brief, this stage is complete.
The aim of this stage is to refine the game engine as presented in the mechanical draft.
At this stage, we will create several mechanical protoypes and start running playtesting sessions. If we’re working with a client we encourage them to get involved in tests, but we’re also happy to handle this ourselves. The testers will be asked to look at the gameplay experience - is it fun, does it present interest decisions, does it feel intuitive, and so forth. We will gather detailed feedback and compile it, adjusting the prototypes and updating the rules accordingly.
There is no hard and fast rule for when mechanical testing is over; it could theoretically go on forever! However, once we feel confident that the game engine works well and any major problems have been ironed out, we will finish mechanical testing.
When mechanical testing is over, this stage is complete.
The aim of this stage is to produce a complete prototype and rules manuscript.
By this stage, the game should be developed to the point that there will be no more significant gameplay changes. As such, we can now draft the final rules manuscript. This is a complete document which will be passed to a graphic designer for layout, so anything that was left out of the mechanical draft needs to be included. This includes advanced and optional rules, additional scenarios, basic concepts, introductory sections and any “colour text” (in-world narrative).
The final prototype will now also be created, to include everything that will be in the finished game. This prototype should effectively be a home-made version of the final production version of the game, so it should feature the right number of each component, and these should be as close to the final versions as possible. As such, at this point we may need to consult with the client (or with our own graphic designers, production liaisons, etc) to ascertain details about component limitations and other concerns.
When the rules manuscript and final prototype is complete, and are seen to match the brief, this stage is complete.
The aim of this stage is to refine the final prototype and rules manuscript, picking out any ambiguities and omissions, ensuring that the flow of information is clear and checking game balance.
In this stage, we will create multiple final prototypes and start running more playtest sessions. Testers who took part in the mechanical testing are invited back, but these sessions will also include groups of testers who have not played the game in any form. These testers will be given a prototype and asked to play the game without input from the designer; this is called blind testing, and should ideally replicate the experience of a customer opening the game for the first time. As before, feedback is collated and the design is refined.
Throughout this process the game’s balance is tested and iterated. This may mean changing rules or values for specific components, but should ideally not change the main rules of the game unless absolutely necessary.
As with mechanical testing, there is no hard and fast rule for when full testing is over. Once we are confident that the game is finished, we will declare that full testing is finished. Realistically, this often coincides with a handover deadline!
When full testing is over, this stage is complete.
The aim of this stage is to hand over the final prototype and rules manuscript, so that it can be laid out and prepared for printing.
At this stage, the manuscript and prototype files are handed over to the client, or to a graphic designer and editor.
Once everything has been confirmed as having been received, this stage is complete.
The aim of this stage is to tie up loose ends and finalise the handover process.
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. We’ll liaise directly with the editor or designer until everything’s squared away and ready for print.
Once the game has been sent to print, this stage is complete, and the game is finished!