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Top-Down and Bottom-Up

October 21, 2012

Good game design is iterative – This is something that is not under debate or scrutiny, and with good reason… Anyone who thinks that they’ll get it right first time is kidding themselves. However, there are serious limitations with treating simple iteration in one direction as your be-all-end-all approach. Where are you headed? Are you just going to stop iterating when you think it’s a lot more fun than it was? Of course it’s not wrong at all to let yourself stumble into a great game experience that winds up defining itself clearly – And when that happens, that’s fantastic. Unfortunately though, great games rarely happen by accident – More often than not, it requires being able to design from multiple perspectives.

There is a way to set yourself up to have a much greater chance of stumbling into gaming goodness, and that is to ensure you approach the task from two directions. Let us consider these two directions as ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’. The former is working from a small, discreet vision of your game experience, pretty much like a one-line description of your game, or perhaps an elevator pitch, but no larger. The latter is working up from the many components of your games, building and evolving the broader basic elements into something better.

The pyramid diagram shown helps visualise this… Note how the top end is small and discreet, and the bottom end is a big broad base.

As these are two different perspectives to approach your design work, it’s good to understand what you should be getting from each, and also, what can go wrong if you keep fixated on one of these perspectives for too long without switching to the other.

Designing Top-Down

This perspective is not natural to everyone, but is vital that game designers be able to adopt it if they wish to serve as creative directors. You can think of this as ‘big picture’ perspective, and it’s really important that your big picture looks nice, as that is basically how your game will look from ‘afar’ – And it’s from afar that most first encounter your game.

Top-down design is wonderful for establishing a neat definition of what your game is meant to be, and as a result it can provide you with filters that you can run all your ideas through. For this reason, it can be very useful to start with top-down, as it helps provide a validation mechanism for your work ahead. It is also a good way to identify possible meta-game structures – Things that span your whole game, or the entire player experience.

The peril with being in top-down mode for too long, is that it can result in a lack of innovative and emergent ideas. To give an analogy that explains why – Imagine your game production as a giant colouring book exercise, where you picture something in your head to provide the outlines for your team to draw within. Now, imagine that you go a step further and add extra internal lines that define areas where each shade and colour must reside within, based on the first mental image you had. Sure, it’s clearly defined, but now your team has no room to move. If you had just stuck to providing the major outlines, they could have coloured the image in a creative way that you had not originally considered, but actually makes the final image much richer and more vibrant.

The way to avoid this problem – Once you realise you have defined your core experiences, of which you should have no more than five at the most, switch looking at things bottom-up.

Designing Bottom-Up

Bottom-up design is quite obviously the opposition of top-down, but to help frame what that means in practical terms, it is the act of working off the systems, mechanics and content of your game. For example, if you were making a FPS, and you started exploring working on ways to have your weapons modify their behaviour, that is a bottom-up design approach. You already had something, and you built it up.

Avid/harcore gamers that tend to appreciate the benefits of strong bottom-up design work when they see it. They already have an understanding of what they like in games, so if your game clearly boasts well refined systems, features and mechanics, they will spot these and take an interest. For example, if you have a loot-driven action RPG, fans of this genre will instantly appreciate what is a clearly refined UI system that shows the comparisons between items so they feel they can make informed decisions about speccing out their gear quickly.

The key benefit you get when designing bottom-up is that you are more likely to discover opportunities to enhance and expand what you already have. This is quite often for most where their innovation and new ideas happen – This is the perspective where you look from where your systems are, and also how they interact. Sometimes you get stand alone systems that play a role that helps make a game better, but most of the time it is having your systems interact together properly that results in a great game experience.

However, the blue-sky opportunities that seem so wonderfully beneficial from going bottom up can also become your biggest risks of derailing your core gaming experience. Having a good idea is really easy, but if it’s just developed in a vacuum, then it’ll be hit and miss to have it serve as a part of a whole. This is where it is vital to reflect on your top-down perspectives and use those as a filter.

“Is my innovative new cat-milking system serving my multiplayer FPS game well?”

If not, maybe this isn’t the game for it.

Switch perspectives to see more clearly

The above rundown of the two perspectives may have suggested that you just start with top-down, establish some validation filters, and then switch to bottom-up, and you’re done. This is not the case. The key word that I’ve been using throughout this post  is ‘perspective’ – You are looking at the SAME thing when you switch views, you’re just seeing it in a different light. It’s very similar to the way a surveyor will look at the lay of the land from multiple points to properly form their plans for construction projects.

After starting top-down, then moving to bottom-up – Switch back to revisit your original top-down take afterwards. Some of your discoveries from working bottom-up will provide seemingly fantastic opportunities, and it will appear natural that they should stay… But they may not quite fit in with the original big picture. That’s okay! The chances your original big picture image of your game was spot on is next to zero. Just be mindful if this will mean you are seriously redefining your core experiences, it that could be a sign that you’re either:

  • Now making a different game, that possibly should be redefined entirely, or
  • Letting yourself mutate what was already a good project on the basis of one idea.

In the event you started a game project bottom-up without a big-picture of what it should be, and actually stumble upon an experience that is easily defined – Great news, you’ve found a ‘big picture’ that you can work with. Define it clearly for yourself, then return to bottom-up, using that big picture to see if it helps identify other systems that may help serve the game even better. Getting lucky with a throw-together is great, but don’t keep relying on it!

Regardless which perspective you started from, the key thing to do is to ensure you continue to switch repeatedly throughout prototyping. It is by adopting varied perspectives that will allow your vision for the game help guide how you create the parts that make it up, while remaining open to changes that improves upon the original vision.

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