In the fifth GDC 2015 takeaway, Eric focuses on two talks, given by independent game designers, with the same goal: finishing a game.
The first focuses on efficiency, while the second focuses on polish.
The two talks I’m about to summarize hold special interest for me, because we’re in the latter half of development for our top-down 2D cowboy game, Project Spaghetti. Starting a project is easy. Sure, it’s not as easy as “not starting” a project, but it’s a lot easier than finishing one.
Back in January, I was wondering how many people would be interested in seeing me do the polishing work on Project Spaghetti during our Live Game Development Show. New ideas are the exciting ones, the ones with endless possibilities, the ones without bugs to fix, so they tend to be the ideas that motivate game designers. Many developers are happy to work exclusively on prototypes and game jam projects, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Projects in the beginning are usually more fun than they are in the end, and if the goal is having fun, experimentation, or learning, moving on to a new idea when you can predict where the old one is going is a viable strategy.
However, if the goal is completing a game, at some point, you have to chomp into the tough bits of game development that almost no one talks about, either because fewer people reach that point, or the ones that do are in crunch and in no mood to talk about the process. I mentioned when we entered the latter half of this season that learning how to finish is a valuable skill in itself. Although it doesn’t sound much like a skill, it is. It requires tough decision making, compromising, thinking about the player, and a lot of work that’s not very fun. In other words, it requires all of the icky stuff that producers or directors normally have to force on their teams to get a game shipped.
The first talk that required consideration of an end goal was Efficiency for Game Designers by Tom Francis (Gunpoint), who I mention almost every time I start up GameMaker: Studio. After all, he’s the reason I’m taking on Project Spaghetti in GameMaker and one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing on Blue Tengu. In his talk, he focuses on a very Agile principle: making sure you’re working on the most valuable thing that requires the least amount of work.
He wanted game designers to ask themselves three questions before starting a new task: How many times will one player get value out of this? How many players will even experience this? and Is this the kind of value you care about creating?
One other question I would squeeze into that deliberation is schedule: Will this fit in the schedule I’ve set for myself? Even if you don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck, it’s worth setting a deadline. Deadlines are not a bad thing; they motivate us to keep going, and motivation is one of the most difficult things to maintain when you’re undertaking a game project. If a project doesn’t have a deadline, odds are stacked against it ever getting finished because we humans aren’t very good at completing things without pressure. And with games, like art, there’s always more that could be done.
Tom emphasized that it was better to search for “efficient” ideas, rather than just “good” ideas because, if a good idea is going to take half of the development time, is it really worth the other ten ideas you’re forced to give up? That doesn’t mean compromising on quality; the goal is the opposite: by maximizing your efficiency in putting interesting ideas into a game, you’re adding the most possible value you can with the limited time you’re given.
He also mentioned that, if you work efficiently, you might have a chance at being satisfied with your work, which is difficult for any game designer, indie or AAA. If you always put in the time you promised you would, working on the most efficient features, then at the end of the day you can look back and say that you made the best use of your time possible. Tom asked us to imagine we were our own bosses, and if you had a boss that rode you over all of the could have / should haves, you’d probably hate that boss. It’s easy to complain about bosses who ruin the fun of making games when you’re on a large development team, but that should still hold true when the boss is yourself.
Tom did say something that resonated with me and the work I’ve done writing novel-length stories over the years: the best place to save time is in the concept phase. If you can go into a game with a strong concept, and perhaps even a strong emotional goal (as mentioned regarding Laralyn’s talk), you can avoid some of the backtracking and waffling that becomes expensive as a project comes together. With books, a strong outline makes it quicker to write and can help avoid a lot of the logical snags that take forever to untangle after the book is written. (Imagine changing “III) Darth Vader is Luke’s dad” in the outline for Empire Strikes Back versus rewriting the whole script to make Darth Vader Luke’s dad)
With games, the same holds true. Most development teams have concept artists not just for maintaining consistency, but for making sure the artistic direction is nailed before modelers and animators have to pour weeks into the task. For game designers, having a solid concept worked out in advance can save programmers and artists months of work. (Game designers are traditionally called “planners” in Japan for that reason)
The second talk that had to do with getting a project finished was Indie Polish: Making the Most of the Last 10% by Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone, Volume, Steam). The talk was short, but Mike had good tips for people trying to take their game up a level.
1) Learn animation basics
If you can get a hold of it, Disney: The Illusion of Life is one of the best books you can read on the subject. There are abbreviated versions online, and I even mentioned it in a post last year, but understanding that characters have mass and volume and that this needs to be maintained, even if distorted through the squashing and stretching that we all experience to our own bodies as they interact with the world, is a wonderful starting place for making animations pop for people.
2) Get proper voice actors
The best voice actors can turn the worst line of dialog into something worth listening to. That ability takes years of dedicated training and experience to develop, so if you go with an amateur voice actor, you’ll at best get what you put into the script, but if you hire a true pro, you’ll always get more.
3) Learn color theory
Good use of color can make the difference between a piece of art that looks placeholder and something that catches eyes. Having some knowledge about the ways colors interact can help raise the overall quality of the game’s look, and if you do go to a real artist for help, it’ll help you to converse with that artist. Mike also dropped two specific hints for color in games: shadows should be blue, not black, and there’s value to keeping a color palette limited. Although I sometimes find the original Commodore 64 palette limiting in Project Spaghetti, it prevents waste, and, because I’m using a limited set of colors, it keeps the game visually consistent. Red in one stage is red in another, and this opens up the opportunity for symbolic color usage.
*) Learn music theory
Although Mike didn’t mention this one in his talk, for the same reasons as “learn color theory”, I’m adding it to the list. Even if you’ll never be a musician, an understanding of the basics will help you communicate with professionals. At the very least, an understanding of how difficult music is to get right can go a long way towards appreciating the job of the person making the music for you.
4) Know what not to polish
Knowing when and where to polish came fourth in the list, but this might be the most critical advice for game designers, independent or not, and it ties into Tom’s talk about being efficient. Mike threw out the example of giving a character a mask to avoid having to do the facial animation. His point wasn’t for everyone to throw a mask on their main characters, but to find ways to avoid work where the work won’t do much to help the game. Obviously, had every character in LA Noire been wearing a mask, the game wouldn’t have made any sense because facial animation was important to the game concept, but if a system that requires a lot of work isn’t important to the main game concept, it’s worth exploring ways to avoid that work.
Many PlayStation era 3D games used fog, for example, not just to add atmosphere, but to cut down on the number of things that needed to be rendered. Had they skipped the fog and tried their best with the technology they had, the resulting games might have felt empty rather than mysterious.
5) Hire a sound editor
Mike noted that most professional sound engineers have access to large libraries of sound effects – a barrier for many indie game developers, who can’t afford to buy the sound libraries themselves – and the cost of contracting a sound designer would be worth the access to the libraries alone, though of course the experience they bring adds to how much they can contribute to a project.
From both Tom and Mike’s talks, it’s clear that with a limited amount of time and money, picking the right battles is a test of a good game designer. Knowing what to focus on and what to give up, as well as when it’s not only better for the game, but cheaper to hire outside help, can go a long way towards making game designers more efficient, and I’ll do my best to keep their tips in mind while polishing Project Spaghetti.