In my previous post, I talked a little bit about myself and what got me into making my own game. I also talked a little bit about the creation of my own game editor. There’ll be more on that in a later post for those who are interested to learn more about it! Today, I want to talk about the process involved in making a game and its implications as well as what drives the creation process of making one. It usually starts with a single question…!

What Is “Progress?”

As we all know, a video game requires a bunch of elements to make it work. On an abstract level, you can separate the elements of a video game this way (in no particular order):

Gameplay -> Story -> Art/Visuals -> Music/Atmosphere

The key element here is “gameplay.” It is the thing that makes games more interactive than any other form of media out there. With this powerful element, you can create ways to tell something to your players/viewers that films and books cannot do. Gameplay can mean a lot of things, from controls to camera to even game systems that allow the player to progress in the game. Progress is also something that comes from the action of playing or watching/reading/doing something: it is implied. You do something, you expect some form of feedback in return. This is something that comes for free by combining the elements I’ve mentioned above. It is also something you can control, in a way, but making progress “feel” like something or make it relevant and/or worthwhile to the player is a whole other question in itself and depends on what exactly you want to do. For example, progress can be felt when your character levels up in a role-playing game or when you get to another chapter in a story-driven game. We can call this “vertical progression.” There is an end goal and it’s usually reaching the end of the limit of a constraint: the “golden path.” For example, a story has to end at one point. Ideally, you always want this as well as something that is not particularly defined as an end goal. Replayability, for example, “can” be defined if you explicitly create a gameplay loop that encourages players to keep coming back to your game every day (in MMOs, the simple trick is to create “daily” quests that will make your players come back for the daily rewards), but there’s also replayability that comes intrinsically, sometimes, because a game is just “that good.” You’ll replay it and replay it just to relive the important sequences, the “oomph” moments. It’s really weird to explain honestly, but I believe this is what makes some games stand out compared to others out there. There’s always “that part.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good or amazing game, but you’ll remember it for that reason! If you succeed in combining a little bit of all the elements I mentioned above, this will contribute in creating meaningful progress. If this succeeds, your players will want to play and maybe even finish your game. The thing is though, this is all just theory! Combining all the ingredients into a big creative soup can have many different outcomes, good or bad. This is when scoping comes into the process and this will happen during the whole creation of a project: you need to decide on what you will focus on and the resources required to accomplish the tasks and goals.

The “Question”

In my case, I’ve always been trying to find an answer to a question I’ve been asking myself for a very long time :

“How can you make a game “cinematic” and the story interesting without it being detrimental to the progression of the gameplay?” – Nicolas’s existential question

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no, another Western developer thinking about story before gameplay!” Trust me, this is not the truth about this project! Still, I believe games can deliver stories that can define a person as much as books and movies. As human beings, I strongly believe that lessons and morals need to be shared and taught. It is our duty, as entertainers, to make people learn stuff as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be explicit either, it can be introduced in many subtle ways. As a writer, you will sometimes want to put a little bit of yourself into the story without entering into “Mary Sue” territory to tell a bit of what you’ve lived throughout the years, lessons even. I digress, in the end, you can write whatever you want! The fact of the matter is that the challenge is to deliver that story in a way that is still impactful, but most importantly doesn’t stop the player from playing a video game (note the keyword “game”). To me, there’s nothing more infuriating in games than unskippable cutscenes or forced story sections where you have no control over your character, basically removing the main aspect of your game, especially if it’s not a story-driven game. Breaking immersion is one of the most prevalent things that still happen in gaming today because it’s not easy to fix! This affects the whole pacing of your game and it can be really bad. Usually, games that are more focused towards gameplay tend to introduce story elements at specific moments in the game: the easiest way to solve this is to have your cutscene play before starting a mission for example. It worked for years, I guess, but to me I don’t think it’s enough. Players will skip those cutscenes, we all know it! Can you see how tricky and contradictory my previous statement about not being able to skip cutscenes quickly becomes? We still want them to happen, but differently! I believe we can do much better with all the tools that we have nowadays. During the years, we’ve seen many attempts at changing the formula and making it part of the game itself. There are things that can be used like “scripted events,” which are prevalent in games like Call of Duty (at least in the single player campaigns). Just recently, the latest God of War game makes use of a single “one-shot camera take” to clearly show they have that “no loading screens in-between levels” tech, which is pretty impressive in itself, but the most important thing that comes with this tech is that it allows to put emphasis on important story sections while still being able to control the camera and character. They’re not the first ones to try it, sure, but at least they’re the first ones that succeeded at doing it correctly and I’m glad they’ve marketed it heavily as a feature to make sure players noticed it! There are still questions that need to be answered related to features like that though: when the game is over 30 hours long, don’t you think the novelty of it wears off really quickly? In movies, these kind of scenes usually happen once or twice and they will keep you at the edge of your seat because it’s usually unexpected: you will want to follow the action and feel what the characters are going through in those scenes. The “10 million dollars scenes” in movies & TV shows like Game of Thrones are not taken lightly for a reason, it is a well-known trick in the industry! With that said, these are the kind of tools that we can use nowadays to make a game “cinematic” without necessarily touching the gameplay element of a game in a bad way. Anyways, trying to find an answer to this question is what drives me to create my game and I think I’ve found a pretty decent answer. More on that later!

Scoping the Solution

So now that you have a decent idea of what you want to do, you need to make that dream project a reality! The reason why many fan games or indies never finish their projects is because they don’t have the proper resources or proper understanding of what is required to complete them. Let’s talk a little bit about project management and what types of constraints we have to face in order to even meet that project’s end! There are three main constraints that we need to fulfill in any development process in order to obtain a meaningful product :

  • Cost: which includes resources (humans, technological environment, location, etc.) and budget;
  • Scope: which includes the features/functionalities that we want to produce for the project;
  • Time: which includes the schedule of how long we have to complete the tasks we have defined.
Caption 1. The project triangle: the principle of project management.

 

As you can see in the image above, “quality” only comes if you manage to meet all of the goals you’ve set within these three contraints. If one of the contraints fails to meet whatever goal you’ve set for the project, quality will be affected. As self-assigned project manager, it’s up to you to decide what needs to be cut in order to obtain the minimum level of quality that you believe is the correct one: cutting features is an easy way out for example. In the end, in gaming especially, quality really is a subjective matter as it can mean many things to you or me. If you’ve read my previous post (psst, link to part 1 here), if you’ve been playing games for a long time you will have established a list of things you liked and didn’t like about games or other things in general. These will be your standards guidelines. If you want to create something entirely new, kudos to you, but be aware that it might be harder to scope certain aspects of your game as you will for sure enter uncharted territories! Anyways, you are the creator of your project/feature, you know what you want to achieve!

The action of adding/cutting features or setting deadlines is what we call “scoping.” As I’ve said before, it comes into the development process and this will happen during the whole creation of the project. Your typical video game development cycle will look like this on an horizontal level :

Caption 2. The “standard” game development cycle.

 

From the conception phase to the launch of your product, you might need to readjust and cut features/lower your budget/allow more time for it to be done. In the above image, the dotted arrows going back to previous big ones (the phases) means that if something is not on-par with your defined level of quality, the previously mentioned “standards guidelines,” you will need to go back and redo it over again. There is no way around it and sometimes you don’t have a choice because your project has to meet certain expectations: for example you have stakeholders that are investing money on a specific feature and they expect it to work, but they see that it’s just not at the right quality level, you can be sure they will want you to go back and reiterate on it! It always depends on the project. If you’re a one-man team, it’s usually easier to meet your expectations as there’s no one else telling you exactly what it should be but you.

Obviously, the image shown above is not perfect. For certain projects, if the time and budget allows it, the longest parts could as well be the conception and pre-production phases. It can take more than a year to come up with a concept that makes sense and actually “works.” To make sure it actually works, you’ll usually prototype it, or at least it is highly recommended to do so. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is not a joke, in my case it really helped me push certain ideas forward to my leads during my daily day job! There are many tools that allow you to prototype concepts and ideas. In the case of video game making, you can use already existing game editors to give you an idea of how it could look like.

Caption 3. For this prototype, we used Game Maker to simply test the “look & feel” of a “fast-falling” mechanic, which is prevalent in games like Super Smash Bros. games. Obviously not final!

Assembling a Team… of Video Game Lovers!

Regarding the project triangle, to me, the most important element of any project is to be surrounded by people that are skillful and knowledgeable at what they do, sure, but most importantly and especially in the case of a video game project, they must know about video games. They must be video game players at all cost! This is something that I feel is neglected as a soft skill, but it really is important. Just a quick example: if you’re planning on making an “arcade” kind-of game, you need to inspire yourself on what has been done in the past but also be aware of what has been done already. Logically, you must know what has been done in the past in order to improve on what should come next! It’s all a matter of opinions, but your feedback has more chances of being considered if you sound like you know what you’re talking about! You need to have that minimum “standards guidelines” (I keep repeating myself, but it’s important) to be able to challenge things or propose actual “new” ideas.

“The only way to win is to play.” – Nicolas’s wise words ^^

As of right now, there is me, another programmer and an artist. We have been gaming since our early days. That’s already one constraint been taken care of! As for the location of where we do the work, this can be a little more complicated. At the same time, you don’t necessarily have to own an office with prebuilt PCs and a coffee machine right at the start! In the beginning, everything can be done in the comfort of your home!

The Fun Part: Conceptualizing Your Ideas! Design Document Templates and Best Practices

I’ll be honest, there isn’t a “best” way to design stuff. You have an idea in mind? Maybe your first reflex is to write it down on a piece of paper. Draw it, show it, prototype it even! In my case, I like to keep it all in my head and think about it and reiterate about it by mixing this idea with another one until I figure something out. I even share my ideas with friends and family to get a feel of how they will react to it. Are they interested? If not, is it still worth reiterating on it until they “get it?”

In our case, we’ve been maintaining a “big” design document over the years and it’s divided in separate sections that will really define the experience. To create that document, we had to “sync-up.”

Since everyone’s schedule is different and this is still mostly a part-time project, to sync-up, we hold meetings on Discord and other available communication tools. It can be weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, it’s up to anyone’s schedule really. At the end of the calls, we come up with a summary of everyone’s accomplished work for the week and update the project’s timeline accordingly (the project triangle’s “time” constraint). We use simple tools that everyone can use to do these sync-up meetings. In our case, we use Google Drive, because we can edit documents in real-time as we’re speaking on the microphones:

Caption 4. An example of what our “weekly” meeting documents looked like. Open discussions and ideas are written in the documents and later incorporated in the “big” document for everyone’s view.

 

This whole process helps us define the scope of our game. This is what we have, a design document that defines precisely what the game is and the goals it will try to accomplish:

Caption 5. “The” ultimate design document, not formatted, but with the big lines.

 

What’s Next?

There is one thing that I think is worth mentioning as we were building this document: at the same time as new games were being announced at E3s and all, it happened a few times that we found our owns concepts actually being used, or at least we found inspirations of them in these newly announced games (some games that come to mind are Final Fantasy XIII-3 & Final Fantasy XV, for some weird reasons!). Just to say that “great minds think alike!” It’s also one thing that is very important to note and I think is relevant to consider in the video game industry or any form of media: your ideas are usually not that original. Competition and trying to release your game before the other’s is something that needs to be considered in the “time” constraint. How will your game manage to get the most impact out of players and really inscribe a mark in the industry? The “hype is real” is not a joke, it can sometimes make or break a project. I have many examples of that and we could go into details if necessary!

Anyways, this is where we’re at right now. We have a couple of things done already, check it out over here : magnum.games

Make sure you follow me on social medias to read more about the making of this game! See you in Part 3!

-Nicolas “KEURQUE”