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Ken Gruhl - Documenting your Concepts

Documenting your concepts

My best man at my wedding described me as the “both luckiest and least lucky person” that he knew, eventually alluding to meeting my wife as one of my life’s greatest strokes of luck. Another of these lucky moments was in the first year of my game design career, when I discovered the benefits of working on an abundance of ideas at the same time. In the following 9 years, this tactic for designing has paid many dividends, but none more important than the vast experience gained from processing and testing hundreds of game ideas every year. Part of honing this skill has been learning how to document my ideas in a way that keeps me on task and not be overwhelmed by the never-ending firehose of game ideas that go across my desk.

This isn’t rocket science, but I hope in sharing my method, it can help you think about the challenges you have experienced with your own creative process.

There are five documents that I use on the journey from brainstorming to a fully developed product. These documents keep me focused on what is most exciting, prevent wasting time, and easily track my ideas as they turn into games. It goes without saying, but when you are handling hundreds of ideas, having a process in place that adds even a bit to efficiency feels like a win.

Let’s start with the Trash Document. This is pretty self explanatory. Any concepts which at any point in the process start to lose steam, or have a bad test, will get placed into this document. I’ve gone through times where I used to delete trashed ideas, rather than keep them, but I’ve enjoyed reviewing these ideas for brainstorming inspiration, so I’ve started keeping them.

Alright, now that we’ve got the boring one out of the way, let’s move to the starting point for all of my concepts: the Ideas Document. When I sit down to brainstorm, this is where it all goes. I usually write a few sentences about the concept, or just enough for me to remember it if I come back to it years later. I stockpile ideas into this document until I reach my self-imposed threshold (most recently, 500 ideas), then I evaluate them and move them out of this doc. Good ideas move to the Test Document, and bad ideas move to the Trash Document.

All ideas which get me excited go to the Test Document. They could have a strong hook, or what I imagine will be addictive gameplay. These are ideas that inspire enough of my curiosity that I want to see how they perform. I try to start off with a solo test of these concepts if I can, to make sure they still excite me afterwards, as well as to iron out any of the wrinkles in the design. Games which solo tested well move to the Group Test Document, and ones with issues go to the Trash Document. On rare occasions, I can’t solo test an idea that I’m excited about and I move it directly to the Group Test Document because I feel it warrants some valuable playtester time to see it in action.

Before I do a “formal” playtest, I get at least 10 concepts moved onto my Group Playtest Document. When I run playtests, I like to see the games compete against each other, rather than whether they “pass” or “fail”. At the end of any playtest, I’ll ask my testers for their favorites of the group, which creates a nice platform for me to see the truly best games as well as set up my playtesters to give honest feedback about things that got them excited. At the end of the day, this helps me feel confident that the games that I’m working to finalize are well worth my time, and not just something that I think is cool. Games often take a couple rounds of playtesting, but the best ones are usually pretty clear and get moved to my Finalize Document. You’ve probably guessed it by now, the games that don’t make the top cut are moved to the Trash Document.

All concepts in the Finalize Document go through a final polishing step to get ready to pitch to publishers. Last touches, such as packaging ideas, tag lines, re-naming, adding a new hook, or retheming all happen before creating prototypes, sell sheets, and videos. Once these assets are created, these games are removed from the Finalize Document and tracked in my current library of games.

Just like asking my playtesters for their favorites, creating and curating these documents helps me think about my game ideas relative to each other. I regularly prune these documents, moving my favorites to the top, and my letting the least exciting of these concepts slide to the bottom, which occasionally get pushed into the Trash Document if they overstay their welcome.

Good luck with your creativity! I hope this small window into my process will help enlighten your process and thinking.

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