The Designer’s Production Guide
By William Anderson
There are many “do and don’t” rules in game design, and most successful designers abide by many, if not all, of the same ones. Although they may vary from designer to designer, depending on products and experience, for the most part, these “rules” fall along the same lines. In this article I will address the most important rules I have used when starting a new project for a company, as well as outline those questions you should ask as you head into a production.
Designing for the situation and your team!
This is a very simple rule but one frequently overlooked by Designers, Producers, and Managers. They get so caught up in the desire to realize their vision that they don’t stop to ask the important questions: “Is this concept beyond my teams ability to make?” or “Do we, as a company, have the know-how to bring in the right staff and technology quickly enough to do the game on time and in a cost effective manner?” Failure to address these simple issues has needlessly killed many projects, teams, and companies.
Making a great game is easy, the truly tough part is managing creative people and their different creative personalities. This is made even more difficult today as an increasing number of game companies are, at their core, run by accountants and marketing people. These are professionals who are trained to be extremely organized and who avoid eccentricities (or about 85% of a game development team!) If you think Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, then Game Developers must be from Pluto! Of course, this sort of organized leadership is not a bad thing as long as there are some simple and well understood rules laid down by the company and project managers who are skilled at heading off creative conflicts within a team, and who can interface with higher non-production managers.
The first rule, or what I like to call the First Law of Design, is to simply review what is possible before you make a commitment to a full production. This goes for Designers, Producers and Managers alike — you only have one shot at this!
The following are basic questions I like to ask myself before starting a project. Please keep in mind that upper managers may be so in love with a concept that their optimism will veto your position. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the interactive entertainment field. Outside of reminding them that if the game never gets out then no one will enjoy their vision, there is not much you can do about it.
Questions to Ask:
Does a concept exist for this new project, such as from a license?
This is a very tricky situation. Anyone who has ever worked with a Licensor will tell you that licenses often come with a legion of legal people, agents, and producers who know little to nothing about the interactive entertainment field, but who will not hold back on their demands for changes. There is a comment very often used by Hollywood agents when addressing game companies and it goes something like this:
“Now we will show you how real entertainment is done!”
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve not seen a movie with a game controller attached, or one that let the audience wander into every corner of the set. There is a big difference between non-interactive and interactive, and as long as your company is willing to stand their ground you should do fine.
Here are some of the basic questions to ask when dealing with a licensed concept:
- Is the Licensor offering enough flexibility to actually make a game?
For example, many years ago I was approached by the president of a game company who was talking to a advertiser about doing a game based on one of their character commercials. It was an extremely well known character and I was very excited about the game prospects, until I went through the proposed contract. In short, they did not want the character to do anything that was not in the TV commercial and that was about 3 basic movements. Not exactly what players would expect. After seeing that the advertiser was not flexible on this issue, the company dropped the proposal.
Even If there is enough flexibility, make sure you have all the dos and don’ts in the contract to avoid any misunderstandings during production.
- How much oversight will the Licensor have on the project?
If they do give your company flexibility, just make sure they don’t bog you down in a long corporate review process for each milestone. Some companies are large, and getting information through to the right people for sign-off could take days.
- Who will be your review and sign-off contacts with the Licensor?
You must have clear and direct contact with the key people responsible from the Licensor side. This is most critical during the concept design phase and during final production. However, avoid involving them in staffing issues and small studio or resource problems, it will only undermine their confidence in your production.
- What is the understanding for the target age group?
This is critical to clarify before the design phase can begin. The licensing company must have a clear understanding of the target market and the level of return in that market. And don’t be shy about educating the Licensor on what the state of that market might be at the time of product release. If you’re making a racing product and 5+ other racing games will be coming out at that time, then you might want to hold on the concept until the market cools down.
I know plenty of developers might say that if they want a racing game then make a racing game! But, in the long run, this will only hurt your studio and more than likely end your business partnership with that Licensor.
Note: If you are a Producer or Project Manager you would add questions about joint properties, royalties and other legal issues not focused on for this article.
What if there is no preexisting concept?
As a designer, this is a much simpler situation to deal with, but it comes with its own set of important questions. Companies that make products without a license and a known character are much more skeptical about “sell-ability.” In most cases, the designer of the proposal must work doubly hard to make clear his or her vision and enthusiasm for the product.
Some of the questions you might ask in this situation:
- What are the studio’s procedures for presenting concepts?
Each company you work with may have totally different procedures for presenting ideas for consideration. One company I worked for wanted 3 concepts based on their own characters, and 3 totally original concepts before any new project proposal meeting could be scheduled. On the other hand, other companies may have a rough idea in their mind that they want you to flesh out into a full design.
Before you start to brainstorm, it’s good to spend some time getting to know the likes and dislikes some of the managers might have about different styles of games. It might also help to understand their concerns about marketing different types of games. This is also a good way for you to show respect for the job they have to do, and it helps you design a product they will feel more comfortable selling.
Also use this time to find out if there is a concept floating around that the company managers are considering that would make them more comfortable. By taking this on as your project, you could avoid a lot of political headaches down the road and show the company what you can do. Then, when the next project comes, they will be more open to trusting your concept proposal directions.
- What is the timeline for producing, pitching the concept and starting production?
Knowing a company’s schedule idea up front is critical to your design efforts. It will help you effectively communicate back to them what is possible. For example, if the company wants 5 concept proposals done in 30 days, then you need to ask them what level of depth they require for concept approval. If it’s significant, then you might need more design and conceptual resources to accomplish the task.
- Will the game be published in different markets, such as Japan or the UK?
This is where a designer must do his or her homework. There are many different styles of game concepts and just because one sells well in the States does not guarantee sales overseas.
- What are your current resources for producing a new concept?
If the company is looking for a really professional presentation then you will probably need help, from conceptual artists to assistant designers. Personally, I like to have a conceptual artist help with all concept proposals just because, quite simply, a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Marketing managers don’t have the time to go through a long technical breakdown of how the game is going to play and look. Show them a picture.
What is the target platform?
Game systems are not alike and you must know what you’re getting into. For example, when developers jumped onto the Sony Playstation 2 bandwagon, they made the wrong assumption that they could get up and running just as fast as they did on the Playstation. Wrong! Game systems have become extremely complicated pieces of hardware and the PS2 is no exception. Unless you work out the capabilities of your target platform, you are just producing a wish concept.
Here are some key things to find out:
- Has the company worked on this platform before?
If a publisher or developer has never worked on a system before there can be plenty of hidden problems like delays in getting contracts done and getting needed equipment, software, and support.
One of the biggest pitfalls I’ve seen in this field is when a company makes assumptions about producing a game on an unknown system. The main one being that if a game could be done in 12 months on one system, then it should take the same amount of time on the next. Sure, that would be the case if all game systems used the same operating system, but that’s just not reality. The truth is that in a rush to get a new system to market, the manufacturer takes many shortcuts in design and documentation on the system, and developers pay the learning curve price. This is why 2nd and 3rd generation games on a system tend to be better. At that point developers know much more about the hardware and all its tricks.
- What type of development equipment do they currently have?
If the company has development equipment then you need to find out if it is owned or on loan from some other source, and what agreements there might be for that loan. You will also need to find out if the development equipment is up to date on the most current software library and documentation.
If the company does not have any equipment then you will need to know if the company has agreements to obtain systems, or if that’s your responsibility.
Sometimes a company like Sega or Nintendo may request an overview of your project before granting your company a license to develop. During this process be extremely cautious when disclosing too much information about your upcoming project. Now that these companies also develop software themselves it puts them in the strange situation of evaluating a concept that might be better than one of their own. In the past, I have asked that any producers or designers who are currently working on games for the system manufacturer not be allowed to attend these meetings, and I leave the technical details out of the conversation.
- What is the availability of programmers for this system if required?
This is extremely critical for you to know before starting any new project. High end programmers are paid top dollar by the big developers, creating a shortage for smaller developers.
If the surplus of programmers is really low and the price range is really high then you might want to target your product at a less costly platform. After your company has built up a better financial base, then go for the higher platforms. This is where I see many start up companies fail. They just don’t understand the vast cost of trying to target a cutting edge system.
Do you have a Project Staff in place?
Once you get past these other questions, then it’s time to evaluate the other staff required for the project. Just because there is a current staff in place does not mean that they can do the job. For example, when I was asked to start a new project for a small game development studio they told me they had a full staff of artists and programmers in place. What they did not know is that most of the artists did not liked to work on video games, and that some of the programmers did not fit the minimum professional requirement for the position. It showed in their work and dedication to the company.
This is why it is extremely important that you review the backgrounds of your staff before you propose a production to a company. If the staffing is not right, your schedule will not hold, and money will be lost.
Here are just some of the things you should know about:
- What are their backgrounds and strengths in development?
- Do their skills fit what is needed for the upcoming project? If their skills are not up to par, can they be quickly brought up to the project’s required level? If not, then can you bring in staff quickly enough to fill the project needs?
- If staffing is required does your company have the capability to bring in the right staff? Some companies are so new that they just can’t move that quickly and if a tight schedule is a concern then you might want to propose a smaller initial project.
What is the technology base of the studio?
If you’re extremely lucky then you will land in a company with game engines and tools already in place. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
Things to evaluate:
- Is the game concept being targeted to a pre-existing engine?
- Is the engine solid or does it need upgrading and, if so, to what extent?
- Is the engine code well documented or remarked?
- Was the publisher happy with the performance of the engine?
- Are the programmers of the engine still with the company?
- Are tools in place for working with the engine?
After you answer these questions you will have a good understanding of what can be done technically for your concept design.
Do you have any tools for this project?
The right production tools can save a company almost immeasurable time and money. So it might surprise you to find out that most game companies shy away from investing in such tools. It’s been the mindset for many years that if it’s not going in the game then why spend money on it? Well, the wake-up call is that the most successful projects that have ever come out of this field owe their existence to these types of tools. Not only did they make productions faster, but they took away much of the team stress during production.
If you are lucky enough to find a company or studio that understands this point, then the next step is to have a clear understanding of what you are trying to make before buying or creating your tools.
Please keep in mind the word “flexibility” in designing and making tools. Any tool that can be used for only one type of game is a poor investment for the company or studio.
What are the current art tools?
This can get very tricky for a designer or manager to evaluate as it changes from studio to studio. Some may use Mac’s where others use PCs and so on. You will have to weed through all of this to decide if the current art tools will fit the needs of your project.
Here are some basic questions:
- If the game is 3D or 2D do you have the equipment and training needed?
- Is your art staff up to speed for the task at hand or is more training required?
- Do you have enough artists and equipment to do the concept?
If you cannot staff up or get more equipment to meet the needs of the design concept, then think about scaling back on the idea to fit your available resources. Don’t think that you can just push your staff extra hard to get what you need. A good economy plus low unemployment rates equal an empty studio and a dead project to show for it. In short, it is best to work with what you have and that what this article is all about.
Clearly there are plenty of other questions that will pop up as you work through this article, but these should give you some idea of how to ask the right questions as you move into a production. Asking these questions breaks you out of the rush and enthusiasm of the vision long enough to find out if you are heading for a crash, and how to head off potential pitfalls.
After asking the right questions, you will have a better chance of designing a game that matches the situation and your team while removing much of the risk of creating a monster concept that would, ultimately, eat your company, money, and team.
Finally, before jumping into production, a project designer, manager, or producer must look out for a studio’s ability to enforce professional boundaries. This is extremely critical. If production staff members start to assume overlapping job responsibilities it will destroy the morale of your team and rob you of the ability to really judge individual contributions and performance. Unfortunately, this is a problem that runs rampant in the gaming industry, so don’t be surprised when it pops up. To head it off, and to avoid any confusion, it’s best to make changes in project duties official and clear to all staff members. Game productions can be stressful enough without adding an unclear management system.