I have been involved with a number of educational institutions that have created game design curriculum in recent years. I have seen a dependency on game design documents (GDD) as the hammer of game design eduction. As if having a GDD written, regardless of the quality of its content, has given a student what they need in their game design education.
These GDDs are often templates, taken from AAA console titles, that the student fill out with their game idea. These GDD templates are overloaded with details such as technical specs or marketing plans, things a first-time designer should not even think about. The game ideas within have not been scrutinized (by students or teachers) for validity or quality. Too often, these game ideas are simply rehashes of popular gaming franchises, such as Zelda or Metroid, modified with the student’s own story and art.
Throwing students into writing GDDs is like asking an art student to create a painting when they have no understanding of the fundamentals of art such as color, shape, line, composition, space and value. Just like classical art, game design has rules and a language of its own.
While a I am very big proponent of the best game development education being to “just go make games,” institutes of learning are one of the few places where students have the opportunity of a formal education. There is value of drilling fundamentals until it becomes second nature. A formally trained painter doesn’t even think about the above rules anymore because they spent a thousand hours in life-drawing but if it came down to it they could tell you why a piece of art is “good.” Game designers however, fall back on the term “fun” never fully understanding the rules of fun because they never learned the rules in the first place.
Students need to start from a basic structure and set of rules. There are some good systems and collections of rules available from which to pull. I fell students should produce short documents (3-5 pages) detailing their design mechanic and the dynamics their rules create. Short descriptions and sketches of their system would suffice. Once these designs are raked over the rules of design, they can move onto prototyping.