Ideal solutions are not practical and can rarely be applied to products in development. A project assessment to consolidate the existing organisation gives more immediate results.
For project management to be efficient, all departments need to play along. Production cannot, by itself, ensure optimal working practices. Here, I will talk about the dependencies with other disciplines. Part of production is to rationalise processes. But we cannot address everything with processes.
Imagine you are creating a game of high complexity. Gameplay was prototyped and the pre-production identified a viable approach. The technical solution is functional but has strict limitations. During production, a brilliant new gameplay idea appears… Which breaks some of the restrictions.
Could more experienced designers have anticipated the idea? Maybe. Could programmers with more time have engineered a more flexible solution? Maybe. Could a different process have avoided the issue? Not really. Everything to reduce the risk was done right.
What I mean is that I could write about my ideal production framework. But people wanting to improve practices do not start from scratch; they usually have a game in progress. There is no point changing what already works. It is more important to diagnose weaknesses for immediate benefits.
This article will help you review your project to identify deficiencies.
Game Design Documents – Clarity for everybody
A lot can be perceived about the maturity of the team by reading the design documents. As a general advice, the less text, the better.
The game pitch is crucial. Not only to publishers and investors but also to the developers. Clear guidelines guarantee everybody understands all the core elements of the project: genre, audience, platforms, economics, etc. It is easy to lose the big picture. The pitch is a useful reference.
The desired experience should be captured in gameplay narratives. Short texts describing what the player goes through, in terms of game content and emotions, during typical sessions. Choices and challenges, aspects of reward and excitement, etc. Have multiple narratives for different gameplays if necessary.
Granularity must be adequate. Ephemeral details change during the project. Documentation should be light and focus on elements that are stable! Mostly mechanisms to support the gameplay pillars. Use sketches wherever possible: it improves readability and maintainability.
Need a shotgun? High-powered, medium-range, low-precision; done. The balancing specificities are irrelevant until play-testing.
A sketch concept for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Global Chaos (copyright Marvel Entertainment)
A lexicon will standardise the terminology to be concise and accurate. What is this item the avatar can collect? A pick-up? A power-up? A bonus? Maybe your game has pick-ups, power-ups and bonuses. And they all work differently! Defining the terms will simplify communication across the entire project.
Design documents cheat code: the less text, the better. Focus on game pitch, narratives, sketches, and a lexicon
Art Design Documents – Not just pretty pictures
Oh, I like pretty pictures! But to organise and manage a project, we need more. Especially when it comes to reducing risks and maximising performance.
The target render is essential to capture the artistic vision. Trying to describe the aesthetic direction with words is virtually impossible. Individuals have different interpretations of text information, depending on personal culture. Use whatever you can to unify the perception: references, concepts, mock-ups, footage. A solid target render helps the team with consistency.
A target render concept for Overwatch (copyright Blizzard Entertainment)
A technical-art analysis explains how the desired visual result can be achieved. Lighting, effects, shaders, materials, and more. It studies and describes the necessary rendering techniques and types of assets to support the art direction. The goal is to translate the target render into an actual set of implementations.
Then come the metrics. They are budgets to balance the available hardware resources. Scene complexity, mesh polycounts, levels of details, texture sizes, variety and instancing, render passes, lights and shadows, post-processing, etc. They must consider both memory and computational costs, to identify suitable approaches. Metrics pre-empt performance and scalability issues.
Finally, we need properly defined art workflows. Each asset of a given type goes through the same stages, from concept on paper to integration in the game. Buildings, characters, vehicles, weapons, props, etc. all follow different, but consistent, authoring processes. Once identified, these creation pipelines must be documented to ensure uniform quality of the project.
Art documents cheat code: behind the scene. Focus on target render, art analysis, metrics and asset workflows
Technical Design Documents – Making engineering accessible
The programming phase is actually the easy part. But only if preceding stages have prepared for the implementation: suitable solutions, code architecture, performance considerations, etc.
The technical analysis of the project must present the challenges and explain the proposed solutions. Document ‘smart’ and focus on the elements exclusive to your game. There is little value in detailing thoroughly a technique that is commonly known. But if you have an innovative destructible landscape, now that is interesting!
The software architecture is often overlooked. Do not neglect code design! It is essential to visualise the high-level logic and flow of data. Integrate UML to represent the framework with class and sequence diagrams. They provide information that is not available via in-line comments. This is used by the developers to document modules and interfaces.
Performance deserves an entire section of the technical report. It is about confidence and expectations. Can the product run the desired content while maintaining good frame rate? Explain how the game behaves on the target platform. But also, how it can scale on better hardware. Include diagrams to represent frame structure, cores utilisation and threads parallelism.
Do not forget processes that are usually handled by programmers. There is a lot going on when working on large projects. Coding standards, framework management, versioning guidelines, branches workflow, build automation, continuous integration, code reviews, etc. These must be carefully defined and documented for the game to streamline development practices.
A typical git workflow to manage branches (copyright Atlassian)
Technical documents cheat code: beyond programming. Focus on tech analysis, code design, performance and automation
Production assets – Tools for project management
A good production framework offers all the tools to manage a game project. It captures and handles the data to make informed decisions.
We talked briefly about planning in previous articles. Short term, people must have work to do. Tasks need to be relevant and features prioritised. Medium term, iterations demand clear goals. Mostly through roadmaps and milestone definitions. Long term, the project requires a completion date. Also a good place for risk lists and mitigation plans.
The scope of the game should be easy to access. Feature lists, work breakdown structures and product backlogs serve the same purpose. The format must be simple to maintain to show an instant snapshot of the project status: features completed, features in progress, features to come. This connects to short, medium and long-term planning.
Tracking and reporting is what actually keeps the project under control. By quantifying and monitoring progress, we can recalibrate regularly. This implies a valuation process, and charts of some sorts to visualise evolution. But also review meetings to discuss developments and escalate problems. QA test plans fit in this category, as they ensure stability over time.
Extract of a feature board used to plan and track iterations for Country Home
Last but not least: people! They need their own set of production assets. A staffing plan helps understand the team capacity to adjust ramp-up and ramp-down phases. A team chart clarifies the structure and communication channels. Do not forget recruitment questionnaires and job descriptions. Also include knowledge transfer procedures with training and mentoring.
Production cheat code: informed decisions. Focus on planning, risks, scope, tracking, reporting and people
The single sheet summary! One more to add to your collection.
Have you identified weaknesses related to your design, art or technical departments? Now is the time to act! In the next article, we will expand on the last chapter, production, to start digging into the details of project management assets with roadmaps, staffing plans, risk lists and more.