My Game Designer’s Toolkit

I thought it would be interesting to share the tools and programs which I consider my “toolkit”, the various pouches in my designer’s utility belt. I consider these things my A-team of development tools, and have been refined and added to over the years.

Physical Objects

  • A design notebook

Behold, my abysmal handwriting! Cower in fear!
Probably the single most valuable tool I have, with the exception of my laptop. I write just about every game idea that pops into my brain down in this notebook. I used to be really obsessive about making sure I had an organization system to my notebooks (one subject per game, one notebook per game, etc.) but after a while I found that stifling, so my notebook is a pure stream of game design consciousness, where ideas can co-mingle. I find that doing this allows me to read through the notebook and re-enter a game design “state of mind” whenever I’m in a writer’s block.

Lots of people have surprisingly strong opinions about notebooks. The artist types I know have a love for the classic Moleskine, but I actually prefer a far more clandestine Five Star, five subject notebook. They’re pretty cheap, have a lot of pages, they’re bulky enough to last in a backpack (although they do that thing that spiral-bound notebooks do where the back cover and pages get all mangled), and in general I’ve enjoyed them.

The thing I like about spiral-bound notebooks over hard-bound is that I have access to more of the page. In a hard-bound notebook, it’s hard to write close to the margin, whereas in a spiral-bound I can write on the whole page. Also, I can choose to either have the notebook folded, for tight spaces, and to avoid visual clutter, or to have the whole thing laid out, to look at a large amount of writing all at once.

  • Nice pens

What does and does not qualify as a “nice” pen largely varies from person to person. Some people don’t really have a standard, whereas others will only write with fountain pens. I’ve flipped back and forth as to what kind of pens I write with. I wrote with .50mm Sakura Micron Pens for a while, but I found that they profusely bled through most paper. Currently, I’ve been using Sharpie’s fine point pens with great success. There’s not a ton of bleed through the paper, and the ink doesn’t smear too terribly easily (which is good, because I write with a heavy hand).

  • Playtesting notebook

On top of my design notebook, I have a secondary notebook which tends to live in a drawer most of the time. I break it out for playtests, to write down the notes I jot down during the game. Unlike the design notebook, there is a strict rule guiding the playtesting notebook: no two playtests share a page. One playtest can take multiple pages, but the second that test ends, there’s a page break. I want to remember every instance of playtesting as distinct.

Now, for my playtesting notebook, I actually use a hard-bound notebook, specifically the 5×8 Markings Ruled Notebook by C.R Gibson. I find that my playtest notes are usually pretty brief, and so I don’t really need to worry about maximizing my page space like in the design notebook. The other thing is that I try to give a certain degree of respect to my playtest notes. These are the closest things I’ll get to raw qualitative data about my games, and studying and learning this data is crucial to good design. Keeping it in a hard-bound notebook makes these notes feel, I dunno, official.

In reality, both the design and playtest notebook could both be either spiral-bound or hard-bound, it’s up to personal taste.


You don’t use Google Drive? The hell is wrong with you!

Google Drive, joking aside, is an amazing combination of a cloud service such as Dropbox with the entire Microsoft Office suite. Create documents, spreadsheets, drawings, and presentations from any computer, view and edit them from any other computer, and collaborate with any number of other people, offering them a variety of different editing permissions. Google Drive is a great way to organize and access my design docs, and allows me to seamlessly transition between my multiple computers to work.

Also, it’s free with a free Google account, so if you’re gonna sacrifice your data to one of the big corporations, why not pick the one with the coolest perks.

Continuing the trend of “free alternatives to expensive software”, Scribus is an open source alternative to Adobe inDesign, the industry standard for page design software.

For documents that have to be visually appealing, such as tabletop RPG rulebooks, Scribus is an invaluable tool which has a bit of a learning curve, but offers an amount of control and power that Word/Google Drive does not possess, and as someone who has spent hours trying to align a picture in the middle of a Word document, I can appreciate software that lets me manipulate my pictures to the pica. Scribus offers an extreme amount of control when it comes to placing objects on a page, and it also allows for PDF exporting!

Scribus was also what I used to lay out my card sheets for card games, due to its powerful Master Page system, that is until I found…

CardMaker is a free program which draws in information from a spreadsheet (either a CSV file, which is easily exported from any spreadsheet software worth its salt) or a Google Spreadsheet, and then imports that data into an easy-to-use card database.

Basically, you just lay out every card you want to make in the spreadsheet, and then CardMaker reads every column like a variable. Then, in CardMaker, you can dictate that you, say, want the “Name” column at the top of every card, and bam, every card’s name is in the exact same spot. The lack of a good drag-and-drop interface is the one item on my wish list for CardMaker, but it does let me generate a homogeneous deck of hundreds of distinct cards in a couple of minutes, so, you know, it’s fine by me.

GameMaker is the first piece of software I’ve mentioned that isn’t free (although it goes on drastic sale pretty regularly), but it’s an excellent first tool for learning how to make games. It’s not as full-fledged or “professional” as Unity is (you’re pretty much only making 2D games), but it’s still got quite a bit of potential. Hotline Miami, Undertale, Downwell, and Gunpoint are all GameMaker games, proving the engine can produce some really good games.

The nice thing about GameMaker is that it allows you to script at your own comfort level. If you have no experience coding, there are nice building blocks you can drag and drop, like Legos, to form simple logical structures. If you want to get into code, you can dive into Game Maker Language, the interpreted scripting language which powers the engine. It’s fairly simple to pick up, and your knowledge of “real” programming languages will translate at a 1-to-1 level with GML. However, it’s extremely forgiving, ignoring a lot of the syntactic elements of other programming languages (ex. semicolons at the ends of statements are totally optional).

All-in-all, GameMaker is an excellent tool for whipping up some really good games, that is willing to pick up the slack anywhere you might need to improve.

Ah, yes, the big guns. Unity is probably the most well-known and powerful of the free game engines (except Unreal, but Unreal isn’t really for-realsies free after a certain point, so..). Where GameMaker could only really build 2D games, Unity can build just about anything. 2D platformer? Sure. First-person shooter? Sure. Wanna use an NFC reader and an Arduino to make a response Duel Disk like in the Yu-Gi-Oh anime? DONE.

All in all, Unity has quite a few features, and also can have quite a steep leaning curve, but the range of possibility in what you can make with it is much greater. Sure, you probably do have to learn some real programming (Unity’s scripting is done in C#) and maybe even some real math (I’m still not 100% on what a quaternion is), but the payoff is well worth it.


Well, that’s about what I got right now. As I find and discover more tools, I’ll update and repost updated lists, but for now, quite frankly, this is all more than enough for anyone to make just about any game.

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