While artists have Photoshop and 3D Studio Max as their key tools, a designer’s most important program is far less glamourous. Microsoft Excel is probably something which we’ve all used but not perhaps thought of as an essential game design tool. This post is primarily for those just starting their design careers, and covers how to use Excel and its context in games design. Many of the techniques mentioned are likely to be familiar to you but I hope that there will be one or two nuggets of information that will be new.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I do not claim to be an expert in the finer points of Excel. So if you have any further tips not covered in this post, please add them in the comments.
A brief overview
Data in Excel is presented in columns (letters) and rows (numbers) with each cell being identified by its location e.g. cell B6 is the cell second from the left and six cells down.
In general, cells hold either numbers, text or formulas. Numbers and text are added simply by typing into the cell, if you want to add text that is actually a number e.g. “16 bit” just add an apostrophe to the start. This tells Excel to ignore the number and treat it as text.
To enter a formula in Excel start by typing an equals sign in the cell you want the answer to appear in. You can then either type the first cell location to reference (e.g. A7) or click the cell. For a simple formula then add a mathematical symbol (+,-,/ or *) and select or type a second cell reference. For example, typing =A7+C2 into a cell will give you the sum of cells A7 and C2.
Even if the equation is really simple, it is still worth using a formula as any changes made in cells referenced in formulas will automatically update when that cell’s information is changed.
Functions can be useful if you are looking to include many cells in your formula. If you are looking for the sum of cells A3 through A9, you could use the formula =A3+A4+A5+A6+A7+A8+A9 but you could also use the function =SUM(A3:A9).
You can even use this to find the sum of the cells in a block, the function =SUM(A1:C3) would give you the total of the cells A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3, C1, C2 and C3; the cells in a 3×3 block.
I don’t generally use functions beyond SUM, but there are plenty more available. Some useful ones are listed in this blog post.
While you can add text in cells to comment on a section of your spreadsheet, it is far easier and neater to use a comment. Especially if you need a lot of text in your comment.
Simply right-click a cell and choose ‘insert comment’ from the list of actions.
A handy tip
In a previous post, I talked about using Fibonnaci for game balance. When entering lots of data for something that is consistent, a handy tip is to highlight one or more cells and drag down from the bottom-right corner.
For example, if you want cells to consistently increase by ten, enter 0, 10 and 20 in the first three cells of a column and highlight them. Then drag down from the bottom-right of the highlighted area, this will increase all cells by ten for as long as you want to go.
Better yet, this also works for formulas!
Not just for maths
Something that sometimes seems overlooked in Excel is the ability to create simple flow diagrams.
I also use Excel to organise missions, showing where they unlock and whether or not they have yet been implemented in the game yet.
By using the arrows and boxes in the autoshapes panel, you can link all your missions together and move them around without fear of breaking the links. This becomes especially useful as more missions are added and you need to reorganise the structure as things become more complex.
The image below shows an early plan of the mission structure in Music Festivals.