Pie in the Sky Phase of Design

Pie in the Sky Phase of Design

Just about every game designer in our industry has their own way of approaching the kick-off of a new game design, so I thought for this article I would take you through mine and explain why I’ve found it so valuable.

When someone comes to me with a new game concept to work on or it’s just one of my own crazy ideas, I like to start off with what I’ve come to call the Pie in the Sky Phase.

It’s a lite design phase in which I do lots of competitive product research across all of the relative platforms and markets, while at the same time I go totally nuts on drafting up as many cool ideas as I can for the product.

During the phase I take my grid paper and document out all of these ideas, in a shorthand form just to get all of the ideas out of my head and down on paper so I can explore the ideas more later.


Yes, I know there are lots of you out there who will say, why not just write them down in a MS Word document or use Photoshop to make your diagrams.

Well, I have found that when designers turn to the computer during this brainstorming phase, they tend to spend too much time worrying over trivial issues, such as format, grammar or presentation.

None of this really matters during this early design phase.

The goal is to brainstorm up as many cool ideas as you can for your product as quickly as you can, and learn to remove from your mind any thoughts about art or programming issues that might or might not eventually stand in your way.

When the Wright Brothers thought about flying, their first thoughts weren’t on the mechanic difficulties of flight, it was on how exciting flying would be.

This is the mindset you need to have when approaching any new game design project.

Try to focus just on the “Is it Fun Factor!” during the process, for it’s your job to plan the future or road tip if you like and not to worry about the flat tires or fluctuating gas prices that might come along the way.

If you focus on the “What If” too early during your game design process then you’ll be holding back your best ideas and sabotaging your efforts moving forward.

So, in moving forward you will want to set aside some time to devote to this effort, without distractions if you can.

How much time will really depends on each person’s ability to brainstorm out ideas and if you want or need to include others during this process.

From my standpoint, if you’re assigned as the Lead Designer on a project or it’s your own game concept, then you and you alone should at least spearhead this first effort and only include others once you’re happy with the direction the ideas are going for your product.

Involving too many people too soon will only slow down the process, or worse, discourage you when others start picking apart your ideas, before you’ve even had a chance to explain how they fit into the full vision you have for the game.

Many of us whom have been in the industry long enough have heard of the dangers of “Design by Committee”, and it’s something you truly want to avoid.

Now, once you’re done with this phase you should have a bunch of notes that look something like these…

pic0056.jpg pic0055.jpg pic0054.jpg pic0053.jpg

These are just some of my many notes from the Pie in the Sky phase from Maximo Ghost to Glory by Capcom, and you can see more of them by clicking (Here!)

These notes would go on to make up the starting point for the final game design processes, but first I would have to take each of these ideas through a qualifying process next.

If it helps, think of the process like this diagram…


You’ve just finish your Pie in the Sky process and have lots of ideas for your game. Some of them may be good, some bad and some totally strange, it really doesn’t matter, yet!

Your next job during the qualifying process is to just take each of these ideas through a qualifying process, just to figure out if you want each going on to the next phase of your design process.

How do you qualify a game design idea to see if it should move forward?

1: Ask yourself first off, how unique is this game play idea?
It’s vitally important to establish a baseline of game play ideas that you feel will set your product apart from the competition.  This is more commonly referred to as the Killer-App’s, and if you haven’t defined any of these during your Pie in the Sky phase then it’s important to return to your brainstorming phase to come up with some.

Every successful game has one of these and the more of them you have the better chance your game has to be totally successful.

2: Is this type of game play mechanic expected in the game genera your work in?
You will find that there is specific game play mechanics that have woven themselves into many different game genera’s that you’ll be designing games for.

Departing from these norms can lead your product off into uncharted territories which can spell disaster for your game, so be careful in trying to recreate the wheel within an a well establish game genera.

3: Does this idea fit the play style you want to establish for this product?
Just because it’s a cool idea, doesn’t mean that it will fit in well with your overall vision for the game.

4: Is this idea providing a good bang for your buck?
You really don’t want to spend a great deal of time developing a game play mechanic that isn’t going to bring a large return to the player in fun.

5: Is this a practical idea?
The one thing that kills game developers and it’s a lesson I learned to hard way when I was developing my own games back in the 1980’s is, designing game play mechanics that are beyond the skill set of your team.

Yes, it may be the best idea in the world, but if your artist can’t create the assets for it and or your programming staff can’t code it, then you’re lost.  You also don’t want to grind your production to a halt because they can’t figure it out.

As an example, when I started the game play design for Abes Oddysee, I knew that the owners of Oddworld Inhabitants really wanted to do an awesome looking 3D game, but with no qualified 3D programmers around and none coming in, I just had to explore other options to pull off the illusion of a 3D game.

When faced with this situation you also only have a limited number of choices, these being to either hire someone qualified, modify the idea to fit the skills of your current staff or drop the idea.

Now these are just 5 of the basic qualifying steps you can use during this phase, and don’t be afraid to add some others that you feel might fit your situation as you move onto the Sort Idea Phase.

This phase is fairly straight forward, for it’s the phase where you will classify each of these different ideas into categories.

You’ll find this phase important to you in two ways, for one it will help you see just how many ideas you’ve defined for each of the different categories of your games and two, it will help you when it comes time to fill in the different areas of your final GDD (Game Design Document).

What are these different categories?

Well, it will vary depending on the type of game product you’re working on, but here are some basic categories just to get you thinking in the right direction.

1: Player Event or Mechanic.
2: NPC Related Event or Mechanic.
3: Autonomous Related Event or Mechanic.
4: Time Related Event or Mechanic.

Once you’re done with this Sort Idea Phase you should now schedule a meetings with your project leads for the final approval on your ideas for the game.

This meeting should initially focus on ideas you’ve established for the Player, for that’s always going to be the focal point of your product design, unless you’re designing a screensaver or puzzle game.

Then move onto to other game play ideas, in order of importance to the game, such as walking them through your Killer-Apps and getting their feedback.

This is vitally important, for if your project leads are not in agreement on what is going to make your game great then you’re in big trouble.

Once all of your Pie in the Sky ideas have been Qualified, Sorted and Approved then you can move them into your final production GDD and flush out each of their designs to their final state, making sure to include your Lead Artist and Lead Programmer along the way. Just to insure you’re not introducing something that is going to cause them grief down the road, or deviate from the ideas you’ve all agreed to during your Approval meetings.


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