Over the last 2 Sundays, I gave a presentation at the Canberra and Sydney iFest called ‘The Amnesiac’s Guide to Game Development’. Unfortunately, simply uploading the slides won’t really help you understand what was said. I used a lot of pictures…
So I’m going to try and recreate the talk in blog form. I think it’ll work. We’ll see.
My name is Paul, and I’m a game developer.
Saying that didn’t mean much in a room full of game developers: it didn’t really express who I am.
But maybe this will.
I’m one of the founders and the producer at SeeThrough Studios, where our goal is to make games that seamlessly weave narrative into gameplay. Being called SeeThrough Studios, we’re passionate about being transparent about our processes and giving insight to others who are on this game development journey. We also believe that a vibrant life outside the office is essential to both morale and to making games that aren’t about games.
More personally, I’m a programmer who can write. I’m a decent Creative Director, but am far better as a Producer. I believe that good deadlines limit scope and enhance quality, and that short deadlines can be pivotal in breeding creativity. I generally design games around themes of control and agency, and I can estimate the development progress of our team about 3 weeks into the future.
I could go on, but I’ll end with 2 more facts: I learnt about 70% of what I’ve just written in the last 12 months, and I don’t think that we’re even close to a true understanding of our studios’ identity.
As you might have guessed, I’m writing about identity. Why you should care about it, and how you can find it.
I’m going to look at the ‘why’ of identity from three perspectives: development; team management and communication.
As a Developer
I’m just going to say it: knowing yourself allows you make better games. If you know what you want out of a game at a basic, primal level, you’ll be able to prioritise features. Knowing your strengths lets you play to them. Knowing your weaknesses lets you avoid them. Even better, knowing your weaknesses lets you turn your weaknesses into limitations, and limitations are where the magic seems to happen.
An example of this is Flatland, which is a game that only exists because I suck at drawing. I was heading into a Ludum Dare having decided that I would only put on screen things I could draw algorithmically. I saw the book Flatland on my shelf, and voila! An awesome idea was born.
I call this effect ‘Allowing Serendipity’. The confluence of ideas that is Flatland was always out there, but I only noticed it because I understood my weaknesses and used them as limitations.
As a Manager/Producer
Managers and producers of indie game studios like us always have morale and momentum on our mind. To do this, you’ve got to know what you want, both as a studio and as individuals.
Do you want to make a million dollars? To make 200 million dollars? To be a sustainable studio? To move people creatively?
Each of these goals changes how you run your studio drastically. What games you make, whether you take on contract work, and how you approach your audience are all results of this basic question.
Knowing the identity of the studio as individuals is also vital. If you want all your developers to continue developing your game, especially if you aren’t paying them, you’d better make sure they’re allowed to do the things they love. Even more, you’d better make sure that the game your making is the sort of game they’d like to make, or chances are that they’ll walk.
On top of that, it’s important to know what skills you have and what you need. Do you have a good mix of starters and finishers? Do you have people that understand mechanics, level design, art, programming, writing, and all of the other skills you need? Do you have enough extroverts and introverts?
I’ve labelled this section ‘communication’ rather than ‘marketing’ simply because marketing implies a commercial end goal, and that simply isn’t the goal of every developer. On the flip side, I’m pretty convinced that in the indie games space, 90% of good marketing is good communication.
It’s really hard to tell other people what makes yourself or your studio interesting if you haven’t analyzed exactly who you are, broken it down and found the awesome gooey centre.
As a gross generality, people are interested in things that are personal and authentic. It’s simply not good enough to be ‘a game developer’ – you’ll disappear into the crowd. The great news is that you, either as an individual or a studio, have built-in individuality, but if you’re going to express it you need to understand it.
So that’s the ‘why’ of identity, but how do you find it?
The first part of this is a simple, 10 word sentence. You should ask it to everyone in your team at the start of every project, and it goes something like this:
What do you want to get out of this project?
This question has been one of the most useful tools I’ve had for teamwork. By simply asking this, you can make sure that everyone’s goal for the game is met.
The problem comes when you ask this and get a whole bunch of blank stares. This will probably happen the first time you ask someone this – chances are, no-one has asked them it before. They haven’t thought about it, and they’ll have to take some time to figure it out.
In the slides for this talk, you’ll see I’ve put in a number of questions you can ask yourself and other people to find out what they care about. I’m only going to talk about one of these here.
The question asks you to rank from 1 to 3, whether you prefer to:
- Generate and define ideas
- Build and enhance system
- Make content to a specification
This question comes straight from our pipelines, and is an extension of the question ‘are you a starter or a finisher?’. Our ignorance of this question is one of the reasons we’ve had so many problems with artists over the last few months: we keep hiring artists who are primarily content creators, when we really needed those who could generate and define ideas.
Once you’ve figured out a lot of this sort of thing for yourself, it’s vitally important that you compare your results with your team. It’s only then that you can come up with some sort of overarching consistent vision for your studio.
Some other exercises I’ve found to be useful are SWOT analysis (brainstorming strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of an individual, project, team or studio) and Life Building (which involves individually spending 1-1.5 hours just writing down a picture of your ideal life as a game developer, including work/life balance, studio structure, studio size etc.).
Finally, realise that your work is never done. None of these exercises really tells you who you are: generally I’ve found that the actual process of development does that. What these exercises do is to force you to look at what that process is telling you and making you pay attention. At the end of the day, the most important thing is for you to be thinking about identity, and to be asking that simple question:
What do you want to get out of this project.