Spinning up

Hey folks – Cliff “Devinoch” Hicks here. I’m a Producer over at Threadbare Games and I wanted to take a little bit of time today to talk about what it’s like to be in preproduction for a new title in the games industry. A lot of people think that video games spring fully formed from one person’s head, and that everything that a team needs to build a game is right there at the start. Oh, how we all wish it was so…

Preproduction is a nebulous, busy time during the game development cycle, when a lot of ideas are thrown out, and most of them are shot down. It’s the time in a project when everyone is encouraged to brainstorm and there are no bad ideas. This usually results in a lot of game ideas, themes, concepts, sketches, half-written pitches and various other snippets and seeds. During the earliest stages of preproduction, it’s entirely acceptable to be vague – you don’t know how every piece is going to work exactly, but you do need to start putting the groundwork down, otherwise ideas won’t be in a state where they can be fairly judged. So, say you were brainstorming chess as an idea, you wouldn’t need to know how each piece on the board moved, but you would need to know that you had a board, and that pieces would be moving on it, and that the board would be laid out in a grid. Key mechanics are fundamental – otherwise you may very well end up with something that won’t work, or isn’t fun to play.

As the designers and producers are working out some of the big picture items, artists are working to concept out ideas, thoughts, brainstorming based on some of the conversations they’ve been around in terms of game ideas. This tends to result in a lot of fun, unfocused art, which can, in turn, often inspire further tangents or game concepts. The key is to make sure you’re still being somewhat disciplined and narrowing down even as you widen out, because once you start working on prototypes, you need to whittle down even further, down to the very kernel of what’s fun about a particular idea.

Fun is the absolute most important thing in making a game.

If you don’t have fun in playing with your prototype, then you’ve gone astray and you need to figure out what went wrong. Once you start having fun, start showing the prototype to more people, and see if they have fun with it. Keep in mind, the term “prototype” is a pretty loose one at this point – in some cases, you might just be using pieces of paper or action figures on a table. I’ve even built rough prototypes at other studios entirely out of LEGO blocks and stickered up Magic: The Gathering cards. Doing so was a great proof-of-concept, because before a team starts work on a project, you need to make sure you have everyone on board as the process of building video games is not generally a short one. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so you want something that everyone is going to be excited about coming in day in, day out to work on.

Ideas that don’t get chosen for immediate production usually aren’t lost – they live in the heads of the designers, artists and programmers. Sometimes they fall out along the way, sometimes they stick around and get reconsidered later. And during that time, the person holding onto the idea is still working at least a little bit on it, in the back of their head, trying to figure out how to make it better, how to make it purer, how to get to the fun earlier. Game ideas come back to people at the oddest times, and sometimes you revisit those ideas, so it’s a good idea to never throw anything away.

There’s also a good amount of time spent examining other things – looking at games for interesting concepts, interesting mechanics, seeing where inspiration can be drawn from. It’s a fun but chaotic time, and requires a certain level of discipline, because it’s easy to just get lost in playing games and brainstorming, and not remember to focus on the important things, like how you can apply it to whatever you want to build. Like Walt Disney said, “keep moving forward” and be sure that you emerge from preproduction with a good plan, a clear idea of what you’re going to build and why you’re going to build it, and, most importantly, a sense of excitement about the project. Building games is a fun job, but it’s still a job!

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