Author Archives: threadbarecliff

Personal Profile: Cliff “Devinoch” Hicks

Oh boy. The fun of assigning personal profiles to other people means that you don’t have to do them yourself. Right? Right?! *sigh* Wrong.

My name’s Cliff Hicks. I’ve also been known as Devinoch for over a dozen years. I’m the producer here at Threadbare Games. I started in the industry just before the turn of the millennium, and have been working in games in one regard or another ever since.

I started as a gamer in the Dark Ages – back when the Atari 2600 was brand new, and Oregon Trail for the Apple IIe was still a nifty idea (along with digital watches). I lost a lot of time to Zork, and was eaten by a number of grues. Many levels of Lode Runner were played and developed. I still miss Kid Icarus for NES. I played through Final Fantasy VI (or III, as it was originally called in the US) at least half a dozen times. (I remember blowing on cartridges in order to get dust off the contacts…)We played Command & Conquer and Descent via modem when we were in high school. (Yes, this meant the phone line was busy the whole time.) My college dorm floor hosted many a game of Duke Nukem 3D, Quake and Warcraft 2. We were already popular, because our room had both the first Playstation and the first Nintendo64 on campus. I was one of the 1000 original beta testers for Diablo. (You can find my name in the credits!) Yeah, I’m one of those guys.

After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with degrees in Journalism and English, I moved out to California and started work for CNet in the Gamecenter division. (Never heard of it? Don’t worry! It’s not around anymore!) For my first year post-college, I wrote about videogames. Previews, reviews, you name it. Ah, that was the life. It didn’t last. From there, I bounced around (a very common thing in the games industry) but I’ve done stints at such venerable game studios as Westwood, Maxis and Konami, and worked for a number of startups such as IMVU and Kabam. I even went back and worked at CNet (this time at Gamespot) for a while longer.

You might ask yourself ‘What does a producer do?” Well, the short answer is that a producer typically wears as many hats as they can. They wear the marketing hat, they wear the designer hat, they wear the scheduling hat, they wear the testing hat, they wear the research hat, they wear the food delivery hat… A producer is practically their own haberdasher (60 points on a triple word score). We do a lot of everything. We fill in for any job we can, and sometimes jobs we’re not great at, just because the work has to get done.

Speaking of which, I should probably get back to work…

Early days

Starting up a game development cycle involves a whole lot of talking. It’s not sexy, but it’s the truth. There’s two phases we went through today – the post-mortem (a term Zach hates) and the scheduling for the next project.

Post-mortems are probably one of the least fun parts about making games, because by the end of any project, teams are usually a little burned out, and the entire purpose of a post-mortem is to figure out what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong, which means looking at all of the decisions of the past months with a magnifying glass. That said, post-mortems are also one of the most important parts of making games – the point where you figure out how to do better next time, no matter how good or bad you did this time. Nothing is off the table, everything is up for discussion. This involves a lot of discussion, and there’s always the danger of going down a path further than is useful. 

Scheduling often doesn’t seem like a lot of fun, but there’s a certain sense of excitement that comes with starting a new project. There’s lots of discussions and every door feels very open. But this is also a very fundamental part of building any game, because it’s the step where a mistake can be felt the hardest down the line. It’s impossible to estimate how long each and every task will take to perfection, but the team needs to make sure it gets in the right ballpark, otherwise the whole schedule will start to slip. It’s also important to have flexibility when baking the schedule, because game development, software development, is a very fluid thing, and things change all the time – needs, design, plans, etc.

We’re still in the early days of our next project and I can’t wait to tell you all more about it, but it’s far too early to talk about it yet. That said, once we get to the point where we can talk about it, we hope you’ll be as jazzed about it as we are! 

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!