Step 3 of Game Development: Pre-Production
Pre-production is composed of several fields including broad story, player interactions, game design, and the game design document. This is also where the designers explore visual aesthetics, the overall “look” of the game and more through preliminary concept art. The pre-production stage is by far the most important stage of development because the more answers you hammer out in the game design document (GDD), the quicker and smoother implementation of these ideas in the production phase.
To begin game design in the pre-production phase, the game developer basically pretends he or she is talking with someone who only has the vaguest idea of what video games are. The game developer compares their game to other similar games, or well-known games that have similar mechanics. The more questions answered in the game design document, the easier the actual production of the game will go. Some important points to include in any GDD are high level concept, game story, technical details, menu flow screen, outline of player navigation, and player tutorial.
Developers want to get the GDD as air-tight as humanly possible, since a loose GDD quickly leads to “scope-creep” and “spiral-development.” It also makes the already very difficult task of outlining an accurate production schedule 100% impossible. A lot of indie developers can be tempted to skimp when it comes to pre-production and ultimately the end product can suffer because of it. There can be inevitably long stretches of crunch-time for employees which is a huge drag on team morale and can result in needing extra financial investment rounds as the production phase drags on and on.
“Scope-creep” is a natural hazard when dealing in any environment where you’re working with tons of professionally creative people. Everyone dedicated to making the game fun and exciting is naturally going to have lots of ideas on how to do that. Unless a project manager can confine all those great ideas to the proper time (at the very start during the designing of the GDD) it’s a huge temptation to just say, “It would be so cool if players could do this, it’s just a small change.” That “small change” can have a cascading effect which introduces more complexity to the scope of the game along with a host of bugs that could potentially be issued in with the change. A project needs to be divided by task, matching each task to each teammate. All ideas must be finalized in the GDD before production starts. Creativity should never be stifled, but if it’s not made clear the appropriate time for these ideas is during pre-production, then the game will quickly go over time and over budget. If an idea is just too fantastic to ignore, it can be held back until after the game is released. A game that’s 90% mind-blowingly amazing released on time and on budget is infinitely better than a game that’s 100% mind-blowingly amazing that never gets released.
Skimping on pre-production begins with thinking “I don’t need to write this out in the GDD because it’s self explanatory,” or “I can’t justify taking this much time on the GDD, I’ll just figure it out later.” For example, if there is a complex character in the game, a lot of modelers are going to need concept art showing orthographic views of the character from the front, side, and sometimes even the back. It’s tempting for game designers to not spend the time drawing up orthos and use the perspective sketch instead. However, a lot of times this slows down the modeling process and the team can actually lose a lot of time having to tweak and re-work models to match the concept art.
When designing and choosing the visual aesthetics of the game, it’s important for the game developers to remain open to the influence of other, more talented artists. The importance of building a visual library can’t be stressed enough. Our game developer, Dave, follows a lot of amazing artists with vastly different styles so that when it comes time to choose a visual style for the game, he can pick aspects of different styles that he and his team feel fit the tone of the game. For Freepoint High, the goal was to pick a style that could be accessible to the widest range of gamers, without alienating anyone. Great games can convey the feel or tone of the game through just one screenshot, taken at random. For example, Gears of War does an excellent job conveying the gritty, hyper-realistic nature of the game tone. Pretty much any Mario game does the same - conveys the fun, light-hearted tone of the gameplay through the character and level design. Once a game developer picks the game genre and tone, it helps to pick a visual theme to reinforce it.
Determining the actions that players will have with the game is pretty easy once the genre of the game is known. For Freepoint High, we know it’s a 2.5D side-scroller/platformer, so right off the bat we know the basic controls players will need: movement left/right, jump, and attack. Then the game developers add from there. Will there be ladders? Then add “up” as a control. For Freepoint High, since players will be able to use a lot of different abilities, we needed an “abilities” button. Generally the less number of unique buttons players will need to play your game, the better as it’ll be easier for new players to learn how to play your game. So rather than trying to map out eight different buttons for all eight super powers, the “ability button” becomes context-sensitive and will do different things based upon whatever ability is currently selected.
Challenges at this stage of game development are all really about the GDD. This is a field of professionally creative people, so it’s natural for there to be more good ideas pitched than you’d ever have room to actually implement into your game.
The Ables Freeport High - Available December 15th on Steam