These are two key questions that need to be answered right at the start of development. They need to be understood and agreed upon by whoever has the job of selling your game and they need to be thoroughly and absolutely communicated to your team by your vision holder. I’ll look at both questions over the course of a couple of posts, looking first at the concept of a game’s identity.
Who is Your Game?
Whether a dev team intends it or not, every game ends up having a personality. It’s in how the game feels, how the game plays and how the game communicates with its audience. You find it in the dialogue, the animation, the way the game punishes and rewards you, the environments, the characters, the audio and the GUI. It’s the first thing a player will sense and it’s often the only thing they’ll remember when the game is back on the shelf or sitting in a second hand bin in GameStop. The best developers spend a lot of time honing this personality, this vision and then make sure every aspect of the game oozes with it. The worst don’t even acknowledge its existence and their game comes out confused and weak; built by committee.
Coming up with a vision is a process that is particular to individual teams and designers. It can come by divine spark, from boardroom discussions or from great brainstorming sessions but it’s not the subject I’m interested in here and now. What I want to look at comes after you nail this vision; it’s about how you make sure it runs through the life of your game and how everyone involved in the game’s creation stays true to it.
Get the Vision Out There
Once your vision holder has the vision in their head, they need to get these out there to everyone else. Everyone on the game team should know the game vision. How is the game supposed to feel? Why is that important? What is the game’s personality? I wouldn’t expect everyone on the team to be able to answer those questions as succinctly as the vision holder or producer but I would expect them to be able to get the key points across.
My preferred method of communication here is to boil your design down to two key words, then work up a key phrase and branch out to some key images and rules. Once you have these, get them on a wall somewhere in the team area and make sure everyone sees them.
Nailing two key words is hard. You want more. You want sentences. You’ll argue about them with everyone if you’re brainstorming it and you’ll argue about them with yourself if you’re going it alone but keeping it to two words is a really good way of ensuring that you know the absolute top priority, nitty gritty elements of how you want a user to feel when they play your game. The last game I worked on ended up with two words only after a five hour meeting between the project leads, the vision holder and the studio design director. It was a nasty meeting – at one stage featuring only the word FUCK in block capitals on a whiteboard but we came out with something rock solid that we referenced right up until the dying days of bug fixing before release. Does this feature/art/bit of polish magnify one of the two key phrases? No? Then have another think about it.
Once you have your key words, you can move onto a key phrase. The most useful part of doing this is that it can be attached to the branding side of your game from an early stage. Brand people like a strong phrase because it attaches emotion to a product in the same way a strong image does – you can use this to help others get their heads around how your game will feel. Where the two key words are used as ideals to hold all project work up against, the key phrase is used to sell the emotion of your game. It can describe the game or it can be something a little more abstract, it depends on who you’re dealing with. Descriptions at this stage can be risky because they can start to list content and that’s something you want to leave until a little later in the process but likewise if you’re dealing with fairly literal people, they can be the most succinct method of communicating the game’s feel. Try to fill it with powerful words and active verbs and try to keep it short too, 50 – 70 words should be plenty.
Words are good but visual references are by far the quickest way of accurately selling an idea to others. If you’re lucky enough to have a vision holder who can wield a Wacom tablet, you’ll do well. If not, then Google Image Search and understanding concept artists are your only options. The vision holder needs to reference anything from games, TV, film, graphic design etc. that they feel helps get the game vision out of their head. These can serve as precise visual targets to hit or simply inspiration but images are so easy to point to and discuss that they can save hours of explanation during the development of a game.
It’s also worth noting that there are usually a few visual or character traits that people commonly attach to your game that aren’t relevant and it’s just as important to pick these out and make them public.
Once you’ve got these images, words and phrases picked out, do a PowerPoint and ideally present this to your team somewhere. I know, PowerPoint presentations are for sales people and marketing assholes but I’m a huge fan of what a well crafted PowerPoint can do. At their best, they provide a simple, lean message that cuts out the fluff of a Word document. Fewer words mean more eyes will read them all and that’s exactly what you need here. If you haven’t got a boardroom or area to present it, email it around and spend time with people making sure they’ve seen it and understand it.
This is by no means a new concept but it backs up your presentation beautifully. A vision wall is a tried and tested way of getting key images and ideas front and centre and gives anyone who visits your team area a clear idea of what you’re trying to make. Your vision holder should put up their key images and these should be grouped by game areas if necessary (GUI, level 1, boss encounters) and updated regularly to keep it valid. Your key words and key phrases should be up and you should also put regular screen captures from the game to highlight areas that are working well and strongly support the game vision.
We’ll deal with ‘who’s going to play your game’ in the next post.