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Feb 8

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Few things are harder than predicting the future. The people of Wall Street were paid vast amounts of money to do it and they failed miserably, causing an international financial crisis. I can’t be worse than those bankers, so it’s my time to make some predictions about the future — about game development’s future.

Times are tough for game developers: independant studios are falling left and right, Electronic Arts is cutting over a thousand job — a lot of talented people find themselves without a job.

Yet, when you look at sales numbers, things don’t look so bad. The gaming industry grew in 2008. If you ignore Nintendo (who was behind a lot of the growth), numbers stagnated but didn’t really drop. Publishers are cutting projects and jobs more in reaction to the drop of their stock rather than the drop of their sales. As such, they might be over-reacting to the situation.

Still, it’s going to be tough in the short to medium term. On the long term, things could get interesting. Times of crisis are when the status quo can change unpredictably. The gaming industry could be quite different from what we’re used to at the other side of this storm.

Here are some changes that I expect will happen:

  •  Cheaper Games
    At $60, games are expensive. While people will still buy games, they’ll spend more prudently and will prefer affordable titles. Game prices will drop and free games (supported by ads) will become more common.
  • Longer Games
    With the same intention of getting more for their money, customers will prefer long games to short ones. More unemployed people also means more players with a lot of free time to occupy. As such, long games will become more popular. RPGs, turn-based games, games with strong multiplayer and other games that can be played for a long time will rise in popularity.
  • More Independant Studios
    Independant studios are having a hard time right now because publishers are cutting projects left and right. Once that wave of panic has passed, publishers will still need games to sell. After gutting their internal studios, they’ll have to look outside for teams. At the same time, all those developers who lost their jobs will be looking for new ones. Some of them will create new studios. After years of consolidation, the gaming industry will quickly get back to having lots of third party developers.
  • Games from the Rest of the World
    Development in Silicon Valley is expensive: salaries are high and office space costs a lot. There are lots of talented teams working elsewhere in the world that are much less expensive. The crisis has been softened here in Montreal for that reason — projects here cost less than American projects. I expect more quality games to come from outside the US and Japan: China, Korea, Eastern Europe and Canada have the advantage when budgets are cut.
  • More Downloadable Games
    Large publishers are being extra cautious about which projects they sign. Stores stock fewer games, focusing only on the sure-fire hits. Downloadable games, on the other hand, avoid those hurdles entirely. Lots of developers are turning their eyes to downloadable PC, XBLA, PSN and iPhone games. As it becomes harder to get games into stores and easier to distribute them online, I expect the move toward downloadable games will accelerate.
  • Fewer Casual Titles
    By definition, casual gamers aren’t very passionate about gaming. If time are tough, they’re likely to stop purchasing new games. They might turn toward free games, but that will make it harder to sell them titles directly. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to see fewer casual games.
  • Lower Budget Games
    Games will have lower budgets. That means it will be harder to compete strictly by having higher production values than the competition — you can’t just throw money at the problem anymore. Efficiency and creativity will be more important than ever. This will affect marketing too: social games that create buzz because people are playing together will become popular without needing huge marketing budgets.
  • PC Games on Netbooks
    Netbooks, those super-small sub-$500 laptops, are all the rage these days. People want small computers they can carry everywhere without paying through the nose. Netbooks are not very good gaming machines, but developers will have to adapt: there will be good business making games for these new systems.
  • More Episodic Games
    Making a game is a huge financial risk. Episodic games reduces those risks by splitting development in smaller chunks. If an episodic game is unpopular, it can be changed or even cancelled before further episodes are developed. What’s more, individual episodes are cheaper to purchase by players, are downloaded rather than bought in stores and the entertainment is split over a longer period of time — all factors I mentioned above.
  • The End of the Gaming Gizmos Fad
    Gizmos have been popular in gaming lately — how many fake musical instruments and plastic thingies to put wiimotes into do you have? Publishers love these things because they raise the profit margins of their games. Higher prices mean people are less likely to buy them in a recession. Guitar Hero World Tour and Rock Band 2 sold below expectations in part because of this — you don’t buy a $200 game when you fear you’ll lose your job. I suspect the popularity of games requiring special hardware will drop very fast.

Chances are, I’m completely wrong with these predictions. The future is hard to predict when things are going smoothly and near impossible to divine when things are chaotic like now. Chaos brings change — some will be good, some will be bad. A crisis can bring change in the status quo; those at the head of the current status quo have the most to lose.

May 26

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Somebody at work asked me today for a list of good book recommendations for game designers, so I figured I’d put the list here to help as many people as possible. All of these books have taught me important things about design or have helped my work even though they’re not directly about games development.

Creativity and Innovation

Project Management

  • Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering by Robert L. Glass: Quick overviews of lots of interesting topics on software development — nothing really in-depth, but you’ll get a lot of information in few pages
  • Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timethy Lister: A classic on project management. The only management book I’ve read 3 times — it’s that good.
  • Patton on Leadership by Alan Axelrod: Leadership methods based on General Patton’s approach to leading his troops

Interface Design

  • The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman: Essential tips on creating interfaces that are easy to use
  •  Emotional Design by Donad A. Norman: Going beyond interfaces that are easy to use, how do you make people have an emotional reaction to your design?

Writing Well

  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk jr. and E.B. White: A small book with a ton of tips on improving your writing.
  • Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger: How to create believable and interesting characters for any kind of fiction.
  • Story by Robert McKee: Learn how to be a great screenwriter

Communication

Marketing

  • Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath: Learn what makes ideas stick in people’s mind.
  • Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout: Essentials of modern marketing
  • The Anatomy of Buzz by Emanuel Rosen: How to create word-of-mouth marketing
  • The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell: More on word-of-mouth marketing and the effect of social networks on the popularity and impact of things.
Mar 20

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A lot of games are boring and bland, with nothing really cool or original in them. With all the money behind modern games, you’d think games lacking that little extra something that makes a game stand out would be canceled so the budget can be better spent.  Why isn’t it the case?

Here’s a short list of the people who can veto any idea in a typical licensed game:

  1. The designer of the game
  2. The studio’s producer of the game
  3. The owner of the studio making it
  4. The producer responsible for the game at the publisher
  5. The higher management of the publisher
  6. The producer responsible for the game at the licensor
  7. The higher management of the licensor

Optimistically, that’s 7 people who can say “No” to anything going in the game — realistically it’s probably more than that.

By definition, creative ideas are unproven. How likely do you think it is for an unproven idea to survive through 7 levels of approval? Most games are bland because only safe, boring, proven idea can get through this process. Truly creative stuff must usually short-circuit this process to get made.

Mar 5

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I’ve been struggling for a while between two seemingly contradictory approaches to games development I believe strongly in:

  1. You should know what game you’re building at the start of the project, otherwise your game will lack focus and will take forever to build.
  2. You should be very agile by iterating a lot and adapting your game as it’s built to take it in the best direction, which you discover as you build the game.

The two method are opposed in that the first tells you that you should know what you’re doing ahead of time and the second tells you that you can’t know what you should be doing until you have something running. By following the first approach, you risk painting yourself in a corner when you discover, too late, that a feature that sounded great on paper isn’t so great in reality. By following the second approach, you risk running around in circles for a long time as you don’t really know where you’re going and you keep adding and removing stuff.

I now believe that the best approach is a balance between the two methods: for each decision, you iterate using a method that’s appropriate the level of the decision and avoid changing the decision you find is best unless it really proves wrong.

What do I mean by the level of a decision?

A high level decision is an issue that concerns the game as a whole: what’s the high concept, the environments the game takes place in, the story, etc. Iterating in software at this level of decision would be really difficult, so you’re better iterating on paper by brainstorming, drawing concept art or writing ideas and seeking feedback on them.

A medium level decision is something that affects a sizable chunk of the game: enemy types, control and interface decisions, overall level layouts and so on. Testing these elements directly in the game might be difficult because of the interactions with the rest of the game, but you can build a separate prototype to test them out independently. Iterating in a separate prototype lets you see these ideas closer to what they will be in the game without risking to break the game to test them out.

A low level decision is fine-grained element of the game that need to be decided: the specific stats of an enemy, the placement of those enemies within a level, the details of the working of an interface, etc. These decisions are small enough that building them and testing them directly within the game is the best approach — more abstract methods would just take too long. Iterating directly within the game is fast and lets you see the decision’s impact to the game immediately.

Let’s say you’re building a first-person shooter. A high-level decision might be to decide that a quarter of the game will take place in a secret Nazi laboratory in the Amazonian rainforest (you’re not making a very creative FPS). You decided this after carefully considering a lot of other potential settings. A medium level decision might be the general layout of the Nazi base, which you quickly modeled in 3D using SketchUp to quickly communicate with artists what you have in mind. Using SketchUp, you can quickly modify the layout without concerns for small details. Low level decisions in this case are all the details of the map: where to place enemies, what each part of the level should look like and so on. You can quickly put those in the game and tweak them by playing the level directly.

So that’s where I stand right now in the “design upfront” versus “iterate, iterate, iterate” debate. My approach is to take decisions and stick to them until proven wrong, but iterate to find the best decision. It’s not perfect, but I find it’s a good balance between flexibility and decisiveness.

Feb 12

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Xemu has posted detailed notes on many of DICE’s presentations:

Jan 28

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Jamie Fristrom, over at GameDevBlog, has written an interesting series of articles on the theory of drag in project management. It explains how the development of a game doesn’t progress linearly (it slows down over time), what this means for your project and what to do about it. Lots of graphs and examples from his current project make the theory concrete. A recommended read for anyone managing a software development project — and don’t forget to check the comments where people contributed interesting thoughts on the matter.

Jan 21

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Here’s a fascinating read on Results-Only Work Environments (ROWE), or offices where employees work where and when they want — only the results of their work is evaluated, not the number of hours they’re at the office. It would be really interesting to test that approach in a game development project…

Jan 17

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There are 3 big factors behind the development of every video game: the quality of the game, how large and complicated it is, and the development budget in both time and money. Common wisdom is that you must be willing to compromise on at least one of those factors if your game is ever to ship.

  • Triple-A games aim to be big and good. That’s why they’re often delayed: they’re big games and they must be of high quality, so the budget expands when it looks those objectives can’t be reached.
  • Indie games aim to be good and cheap. That’s why they’re often very short, they focus on one type of gameplay and they feature simple graphics: the budget simply isn’t there to create anything more ambitious.
  • Licensed games aim to be big and cheap. That’s why they often get poor reviews: budgets are set in stone and the games are large to fit the license (multiple playable characters, multiple gameplay modes, etc.). The only thing that can move in case of problems is the quality.

It’s better to make the choice of what you’re willing to compromise on at the start of the project. If you try to make a game that’s good, big and cheap, you’re headed for trouble. Either the game will get canned or you’ll be forced to make a compromise you weren’t prepared to make.

What do you do if you want to get out of the stereotypical projects above — say, by making a good licensed game? You need to be able to compromise on another factor instead. In this case, you could try to make a very small and focused game, or you could try to get the publisher to be flexible with the budget when quality targets aren’t reached. None of those is easy, but hey, if they were then everybody would be doing it.

Sep 30

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A couple of time each month, somebody sends me an email: “I’ve got a great game idea, what can I do with it?” I’m happy to answer questions, but I figure a lot of people wonder the same things without emailing me - or anybody else - about it. That’s why I’ve decided to write these answers to common questions.

I’ve got a great game idea! Can I send it to a publisher or a game studio so they’ll make a game out of it? I’m confident it’s going to be a big hit!

Sadly, no. Barring the occasional contest, I don’t know of any studio or publisher who accepts outside game ideas for development. Believe me when I say I wish it were different, but that’s the reality of things. Other people won’t make your game for you, no matter how good you think your idea is.

I’m serious about this and I’m willing to work hard to make this game a reality. Isn’t there a way to create this game?

While publishers and studios won’t just take an outside game idea, it’s still possible to make your idea - but it’s going to be tough. Obviously, the bigger the game the harder it will be to make. If your idea is for a variant of Tetris, it should be fairly easy to make, if your idea is for a MMORPG in the real world like Grand Theft Auto (only bigger) it’s going to be very hard. Somehow, most people seem to have ideas that fit into the latter category.

The two basic approaches to transforming your idea into something concrete are:

  • Join an existing team and convince them to work on your project
  • Make it yourself

How do I join an existing team?

You need to get a job working there. The higher up you are in the hierarchy and the closer you are to the production of new projects, the more likely you’ll be able to get them to accept your game concept. A studio’s creative director has more chance to see his ideas created than the human resources intern.

Obviously, if you have no experience in the gaming industry, you’re not likely to get a job at the top echelons. The exception might be if you have professional experience in management - many studios are willing to hire managers from other industries, especially from other entertainment fields (TV, movies, etc.) or from software development firms. If you don’t have that kind of experience, you’ll have to get a “regular” job and work your way up.

Getting a job in games development is beyond the scope of this FAQ, but there’s plenty of information on the subject. I recommend you go take a look at the IGDA FAQ.

Ok, I’ve joined a team. How do I convince them to take on my project?

That’s the tricky part, and there’s no silver bullet. Try to see first if the company is interested in creating original games. A lot of studios only make games as requested by publishers (e.g. games based on movies and such) so convincing them to take a chance with a different approach is going to be tougher.

Many studios have a process to submit ideas internally. You can try submitting your idea this way and follow up to make sure it’s not forgotten. You’ll probably have to work hard to convince people that your idea is good - it might be obvious for you, but it’s not obvious for others.

How do I convince people that my idea is great?

The best approach is to show rather than tell. Show them a prototype of your game and they’re likely to believe it’s good than if you just talk about it. Games must be played to be enjoyed, so a playable prototype will speak much louder than words. You can make a prototype in many ways, from actually coding it (Flash makes that fairly easy) to making a boardgame version of your concept. Use your imagination - the more concrete your concept becomes, the more convincing it will be.

I’d rather create the game myself rather than join an existing team. How do I do that?

The best approach depends on the scope of the project you’re making. If you’re making a simple, casual game then it’s not too hard. Just a few people can make a small game fairly quickly. An experienced programmer and an artist can make a professional quality puzzle game in just a few months. The scope of those projects is small enough that they can be done part time, so you can keep your day job while your work on your game.

My idea is for a bigger game than that - it’s for a top of the line, triple-A console title. How can I make that?

Modern day games have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars and require large teams working full-time for years. Unless you’re rich, you can’t make that by yourself. The typical approach is to get a publisher to finance development. To convince a publisher, you’ll need an impressive prototype of the game.

The prototype for a project of intermediate scope (say a Nintendo DS title) can probably be done in a similar way to making a casual game: by assembling a small team and working on it in your spare time. The prototype for a large project can be a fairly big project in itself, bigger than what you could possibly do in your spare time (some prototypes have a million dollar budget).

Once you have your prototype, you can show it to publishers and hopefully one will pick it up. This is far from certain, however, especially if this is your studio’s first project. Publishers are wary of giving millions of dollars to a studio who hasn’t proven they’ll do anything good with those millions.

This doesn’t seem easy. Isn’t there another way to get to the point where I can create my own game ideas?

Most studios don’t start by making big original titles. What they do is start small and save profits until they’ve got enough money to finance the creation of a prototype to shop around publishers. This means you don’t get to work on your own creation for a while, but it’s safer.

How do I start a small studio?

What you can do is make small games with just a few people and expand as your income grows. Good types of games to create this way include:

  • Downloadable casual games: This market is booming right now and you can create your own game ideas rather than work on a license. Competition is increasing, and so are budgets, so it might be harder to create a competitive game.
  • Mobile games: The field hasn’t grown as quickly as analyst thought it would and there’s stiff competition, but the games are very small so there’s still space for a start-up team. In fact, I know of a small team of students who were recently able to find a publisher for the mobile game they’d been developing in their spare time. Most games are created from specific requests by publishers, though.
  • Advergames: They’re games created to advertise products. They’re mostly web-based games that companies put on their website. The field seems to be doing really well right now, with demand from companies outstripping offer from studios, based from what I hear from a friend in the field. Working on a game based on Cheetohs may not seem exciting, but the companies usually leave you lots of creative space about what to do from a gameplay standpoint.
  • Indie games: Downloadable games from independent developers are gaining in popularity. If you can find a good niche, you can get a devoted fanbase. The games are small, but you have full creative control. Becoming profitable might be more difficult than with other approaches though.

Overall, the safest approach is to do the games that somebody with money is willing to pay you to do (mobile games or advergames). You save some of the profit from those projects to invest in slightly bigger projects that give you a larger part of the profits (casual and indie games) and keep growing until you have the money, manpower and contacts to make a prototype of the big game you’ve always wanted to make and pitch it to a publisher.

Is that approach really safe?

It’s about as safe as starting any new company, which is to say “not at all”. Most start-ups fail, so you should be aware of the risk. That’s why starting by working in your spare time is a good idea: if it fails, you still have your regular job to fall back to. That said, it’s certainly possible to succeed and to do very well.

Can I get funding from other sources?

Of course. Just like any company, you can get funding from just about anyone willing to give you money: the 3 F (Family, Friends and Fools), governmental programs, venture capitalists, etc. There are plenty of books on entrepreneurship that can help you with this better than I ever could.

How can I protect my idea?

Copyright is your best protection, since it prevents other people from copying the expression of your idea. It doesn’t protect the idea itself, however, so somebody could clone your game concept by changing some aspects of it and there’s nothing you could do about it.

Patents may be usable in theory - I think the rules for Monopoly have been patented for example - but nobody does that. It’s a very complicated and expensive process and it’s not certain it actually works legally. Most people in the industry see very negatively the idea of patenting gameplay, so trying to patent your game might hinder you more than it might help.

Trademarks only cover brands, so they could only be used to cover the name of your game. Since the publisher is likely to change the name of your game before it goes on sale, it’s not worth registering the trademark for an unreleased game.

I personally believe that most people with game ideas worry too much about protecting them. It’s hard enough to convince somebody that a game is good enough to invest money in it, without putting legal hurdles in your way. You’re better to tell about your idea to everyone you meet than to try hide it under a veil of secrecy. People willing to invest in your game have very little to win and a lot to lose if they decide to steal your concept, so they’re unlikely to do it.

I’ve got more questions, what can I do?

Ask them in the comments below, so everyone can see the answer.

Jun 2

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Game design documents are almost universally terribly boring to read — a paradox considering they’re describing something fun. That’s because they describe every part of the game in a lot of details, just like software specs, and software specs are boring.

What we need is to describe the experience we want to create, rather than the piece of software that will create that experience. It occurred to me that the best way to do this would be to write design docs in the form of a walkthrough of the game: describing everything in the game as the player sees and feels them, introducing new gameplay elements at the same pace and order the player encounters them. A bit like movie screenplays: they tell the story and it’s for the movie-making team to determine how to make that story on paper into a movie on a screen.

That approach would make for a much more readable design doc, so members of the team would be more likely to read it (something that happens too rarely with traditional design docs). It would also be easier to get a feel of the game to see if it has the potential to be fun, and some problems with approachability and pace could be resolved before production even starts.

On the other hand, the document would be harder to refer to — if you’re looking for the behavior of one specific enemy, there wouldn’t be an easy-to-find section called “enemies” to refer to. That means more work for planning and separating all the tasks to be done. A separate reference document could be useful for this. It wouldn’t be made to be read from start to finish, but it would contain all the technical elements that are needed in a format that’s easy to refer to. Writing the design as walkthrough would also be harder for non-linear games — how could you cover Civilization entirely that way? — bu that wouldn’t be an issue for most games.

That approach would be a radical change from the established approach: as far as I know, nobody writes design docs in that way. I think the potential for higher quality of design outweighs the cons, so I’d have to try it out to see if it’s still the case in practice. Any thoughts?

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