I always thought that Shigeru Miyamoto sat down and made a very detailed "plan" before they ever started programming and making assets for the game to actually construct it. And that this was how it was done in general for video games.

But then I realized that two of my favouritest games in the whole wide world, DOOM (1993) and Ocarina of Time (1998) had extremely "sketchy" beta/alpha versions.

DOOM was an extremely different game in every version up to the final (first shareware) version. I've played them myself.

Ocarina's alpha/beta footage, and leaked ROMs, show extreme differences in how areas looked then and in the final version of the game.

How is this possible? Did they not follow the original ideas? It seems like such a waste to create a whole 3D area which is just some sort of "placeholder" and then later "flesh it out". I mean, these aren't freeware hobbyist games made by one guy in his bedroom, working on it for 10 years and released (if ever) "when it's done".

I don't understand how it's possible, especially not for such a intricate masterpiece such as Ocarina. The in-development 3D environments look nothing like the finished ones, so they clearly did not have very clear instructions when they first made them. How can that be? Were these specific games extreme exceptions?

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    While you've already got your answer, know that questions about game design and development are off-topic here. Consider checking out Game Development instead.
    – Nolonar
    Feb 22 at 14:18
  • Tom Hall did try to do things this way with Doom, including creating a design document known as the "Doom Bible" before starting work. However, John Carmack disagreed, Carmack's vision won out, and the rest is history! BTW, I think Id Software consisted of five people (both Carmacks, Romero and Hall, plus office manager Donna) at the time, and Doom was released as shareware, so it's a lot closer to being that "freeware hobbyist" game than you think! Feb 22 at 17:41
  • I recommend reading Masters of Doom by David Kushner. It tells the story of how the magic happened. Certainly anyone who appreciates the games can appreciate this book. It will probably give you more of the kind of insight you seek than a Q&A site can provide.
    – Mentalist
    Feb 23 at 1:45

1 Answer 1


Iterative development is the norm in the Video Game industry

And in most software development in general, with the exception of cases where you start out from absolutely unambiguous requirements which isn’t typically the case in the wider industry.

But you seem to have something backwards here, apparently you’re under the impression that this means that they weren’t carefully designed. Just to be clear, as I said the situation where one or a few people sit down, work out an entire product on paper and then the rest of the workers just sit down and make that thing and then it’s ready basically never happens in real life, not in Software anyway. This goes doubly for anything involving new technology or interaction patterns, which was the case for early 3D games because 3D was still new-ish and it wasn’t at all clear how a 3D game should be designed to be the most intuitive and fun.

If a designer has an idea for what’s fun they’ll certainly have some reasoning, and good designers will come up with more good ideas than bad ones (or at least have a better eye for which is which), but no responsible person would sign off on a design that’s not actually been tested. Maybe this thing which sounded really fun on paper actually turns out to be annoying when you have to do it twice because you die in the middle. Maybe what the designer originally intended would theoretically work out great, but turns out not to be technologically feasible.

Then there is the work efficiency part of it - nobody just sits down and designs a whole game in 5 minutes. While, for instance, someone is working out level design for a particular area, work can still happen on implementing/improving the UI, the underlying 3D technology or internal tools used within the project. So it doesn’t make sense to stall all of that until every single design question has been worked out.

And finally, designers are often spontaneous people prone to inspiration. Very often when they see what can be done, or see how the implementation of their design actually looks/plays like in practice, they’ll have ideas on how to improve on it. Sheer imagination doesn’t always (or even often) yield you the same results that seeing and experiencing something in reality does.

So for all of these reasons, it is typical for games (and other software) to be developed in stages; Where you start off with a general idea that lets you scope out the project and start out on the technology basics, moving on to refine, redesign and recreate where needed. The same thing applies at smaller scales to parts of the project (like levels, UI, individual quests etc).

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    Plus add "placeholders". People responsible for character animation and user input handling report to the level design people that they need something to test their work, and are given a "placeholder" design whipped out in a couple hours to test things - like the early version Hyrule Field, or the super-primitive Kakariko - and they can continue their work testing how Link can jump, fight, transition between scenes, swim, hookshoot to roofs - while the level design artists painstakingly design the "final" version.
    – SF.
    Feb 22 at 13:12
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    Also, beta-testers are given complete areas to test, linked into the final configuration by incomplete placeholder maps, And if they find something is not good - not even buggy, just boring, or bland, or too finicky, they'll report that too and it will likely be redesigned. The original Deku Tree was way too big and too empty. Filling it with challenges would tire the players. Forcing to climb the empty'ish spiral ramp would bore them - the sheer size of the dungeorn broke the pacing of the story, so it was replaced with much more compact one.
    – SF.
    Feb 22 at 13:18
  • @SF.: I remember reading somewhere that Half-Life was originally an entire placeholder level that Valve built to test out all of the different setpieces they wanted to play with, and then they realized that the resulting level was fun enough to release as it was.
    – Kevin
    Feb 22 at 20:16
  • To complement your answer, here’s an interview with one of the creators of Diablo where he discusses how he was adamant it should be turn-based until the group forced him to prototype a live-action version and he realized… it was fun! That realization didn’t happen until he actually tried the implementation, and completely changed the game. youtube.com/watch?v=huPF3Gid7DE
    – DukeSilver
    Feb 22 at 23:39
  • And the classic Civilization game was originally designed as a realtime game, until they prototyped it and realized it did was not fun: youtube.com/watch?v=AJ-auWfJTts&t=3315s
    – MTilsted
    Feb 23 at 1:21

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