How to Get Your Game Design Ideas into Production
By William Anderson at Awaken Games
Have you ever asked yourself, “How do I get one of my idea or concepts into development?” In answer to that question, the following are some of the things I’ve learned over the years.
Before you start any new concept or design project, you should first analyze your current situation, as well as the needs or wants of your target publisher or developer. Without a clear understanding of these variables you are doomed to fail!
So let’s get started…
First, Review your Current Situation:
Before you start, always ask yourself, what do I need to pull together to create this concept and design.
If you can do it all by yourself — great, but more often than not you will need the help of some friends or colleagues. Generally speaking, people who can fill the gaps in your skills that are also on board with your leadership and vision.
Next, identify what style of products you would like to create, as there is really no point in pitching a game concept you have no heart in.
Make a list of the types of games you would really enjoy creating a concept or design for.
Hopefully, you will have more than one, as the more you have, the greater chance you will have to find something in that group you really want to do.
Do some research to see what types of games might be coming out soon, for if the market is destined to be saturated with shooting games, golf games or racing games, then publishers are most likely not looking for those types of concepts or designs anytime soon!
Even if you think you might have the killer idea that will push your game to the top, it will still be a hard sell to the publisher.
Lastly identify all of the possible publishers and or developers that are doing the types of games on your list. This may take some research time, but the clearer you are on this, the easier it will be to make important contacts down the road.
I’ve never met a publisher or developer yet who was not flattered by someone really knowing about them and their work.
Now with this done, it’s time to really get into the nitty-gritty of it!
Initial Review of the Publishers or Developers Needs and Wants:
Before you sit down to draft your concept, it is best to identify your target publishers’ or developers’ needs or wants — this is critical to your chances for success. By simply matching up what you can provide with what the publishers or developers are currently looking (or have a history of publishing) will make your job much easier down the road.
Next, you should always understand that there are two types of publishers and developers out there, the “Needs” type and the “Wants” type. Each approach from a different direction when it comes to selecting a project for development and each must be approached in their own way.
The Needs Publisher or Developer:
This is by far the best type of publisher or developer to work with as they are usually more savvy about market trends and money making opportunities. They are also however, the hardest nut to crack with a totally radically new game concept.
These companies have established a rhythm for selling products, and are extremely fearful of breaking out of that direction when it comes to selling or pitching an idea out of their comfort zone.
My advice with this type of company is to write a short description of your game idea with some simple drawings of game play and then pitch it in an informal way, just to test the waters. If you find the waters warm, then more than likely this company has reached a level of success that allows them to take more risks, or they are dying and desperately looking for a life raft product.
Obviously, try to avoid the desperate and dying companies. If they die in the middle of your project they could easily tie your concept and company up in years of legal and copyright headaches. But if the company appears stable, then work at evolving your concept while keeping them in the information loop. This will help you to avoid costly time delays due to reworking the concept back in their direction.
And, don’t get so married to your concept that you become inflexible to a publisher or developer’s ideas or suggestions. You will be surprised how far a little compromising will take you!
Now for the Wants Publisher or Developer:
The Wants type of company is normally looking for a killer concept that will set the tone for their company. Be it Sega® looking for their Sonic™, Namco® looking for Pac-Man™ or Capcom® looking for their next Mega-Man™ concept, they all want something that stands out, and are willing to put some major bucks behind it!
To be able to establish a mascot character and product, like Mario, Sonic or Tomb Raiders for a game is the Holy Grail of game design and should never be taken lightly by any designer, if so tasked.
Because this type of company may be risking a lot of money and company reputation to establish such a property, they may become more than a little nervous on occasion. If this proves the case, there are a number of key things you need to keep in mind when dealing with such a company:
1: Never showoff any idea, concept or design that is only half complete, this will only serve to freak them out. Remember that during this early stage most companies in this position consider themselves on the Titanic, and at the first sign of a leak they will head for the first life raft!
Concept art and storyboards should be clean and, if at all possible, in full color. All designs and level layouts should contain as many notes as possible, including arrows showing player direction.
Lastly, and possibly one of the hardest pills to swallow, if the main brain or visionary behind the concept is not very articulate with other people, then team him or her up with someone who is! I can’t tell you how many great concepts and designs I’ve seen go down in total flames just because the designer or producer presenting the product could not communicate well with others. Even if you have to hire someone just for this task alone it is money well spent!
2: Put as much concept art as possible out there to ensure your publisher and team that you are on the right track and really putting great thought behind what you’re doing.
I’m a very big believer in having lots of conceptual art behind a product. It serves a vital role in video game products. For one thing, it keeps the entire team’s eye on the end goal of the product. The more concrete the vision, the harder it will be for distractions to throw things off. It also gives great confidence to your publisher and the press that you are in total control of your concept and leaving nothing to chance and in the field of video game production, keeping your publisher confident can make your life really wonderful!
Remember the Golden Rule of Design: “Keep your Team Confident and Focused on the Goal, and Keep your Publisher and or Developer Confident in your Leadership of the Team”
If you lose on either of these maxims, you will have a hard time producing a great game.
3: Always keep every aspect of your concept and design communication tight with your team, publisher and/or developer. This is not meant to imply you should communicate everything to them — that would be impossible and impractical. But make sure, as much as possible, that the information passed on is correct and is not lacking anything they might need to know to perform their jobs.
4: Don’t be a “yes man” (or woman) when working with others! Some people believe that you have to totally be agreeable with your team, publisher or developer, or that you must have a quick answer to a question to get things done.
Well the fact is you are just kidding yourself!
If something is coming down that you really believe will negatively affect your team, product or schedule then speak up! And I’ll pass on one of the best pieces of advice I ever got while working as a Product Manager and Designer for Namco: “Don’t feel like you have to give an answer now!” Hold, wait, and think about it! Try to keep yourself from making quickly and off the cuff answers — in the end it will save you a lot of grief.
5: And, lastly, keep all appointments, schedules and milestone dates with them. Always inflate your time projections with this type of company as any delays will only serve to diminish their trust in your team, production and or company.
Diving Into the Documentation Stage:
Before we dive into the last part of this article, I would like to explain the phases that lead into a full production, just so you have a clear idea of the process.
First, with the ever-increasing cost of producing a full-length video game product, you would have to be completely mad to go into a large publisher asking for a full commitment of cash without, what we like to call POC or Proof of Concept.
POC is typically one stage of your game that contains enough to judge the following:
1: Global features of play-ability that will define the game.
2: Any killer-apps or signature game play features of the product.
3: Examples of the art style for the backgrounds, player character and non-player characters.
In short, your POC game needs to have enough to judge if it is going to good.
Now, you should plan for this POC development phase taking anywhere from 3-12 months depending on the target system, the type of game your developing, experience of your development team and the equipment you have.
There are a number of key documents that you or your company will need to produce in order to get things rolling and to keep things on track during production.
The Concept Proposal Document
This document should contain the following information and anything else you believe is important to pitch your concept. Note that these items are some of the ones I’ve run across during my years of design, but your concept may require some other key descriptions. Just use your best judgment.
1: Title of your concept.
2: Mission Statement that covers target system, ESRB rating and other key target points.
3: Concept overview or summary of what you are proposing. (Keep it to 1-page, if possible).
4: What makes this product stand out! (Please don’t say graphics!)
5: What competitive products are out there like this or somewhat like this?
6: Concept art for your lead character, if any! (Color always gets a stronger reaction!)
7: Some conceptual drawings of your lead character in action. (Also in color if possible!)
8: Flowchart of the scope of your concept, including Interface, worlds and levels.
9: Storyboards of some of the levels, worlds and some unique mechanics of the game.
10: What is your readiness to go into the POC stage of development?
11: What will you need after the POC stage to move to final product mode?
12: POC Schedule and Final Production Schedule.
13: Staffing needs for POC stage and staffing needs for final product.
14: Equipment needs, outside of current equipment on-hand.
15: Who is to main contacts at your company for this concept proposal, such as CEO, Creative Director, Producer, Lead Designer, Lead Artist.
16: Final summary of what you need from this publisher or developer to take your concept into the POC stage.
Remember that you may be asked by them to add some more details to your concept proposal before final approval, so a little back and forth is to be expected. Also, try to remember that if failure comes, use it to your advantage. For example, if a publisher or developer turns your concept down then ask them a few follow-up questions, like:
1: Was there anything lacking from this concept in your opinion?
2: Do you have any suggestions on how to enhance our concept or presentation?
3: If we make all of the changes you are looking for, would you be interested in another review?
Basically, just keep your eyes and ears open during the entire experience, and don’t get too caught up in any one event, good or bad.
You have a lot of work ahead of you and you will need to stay just as focused on the goal as your team.