Game studios all too often find themselves stuck in the same situation: Production should be underway, but the dev team is still somewhere in discovery mode. Rather than execution and content-build being in full flow, time is being spent debating over fundamental questions that should have been answered at the start. What is the game actually about? Why is it unique? How will it work? This frustrating yet frequent reality wastes significant time and money which, in turn, ramps up pressure on the project and all involved. At best, teams suffer severe burnout. And at worst, the studio may not survive.
The root cause, however, is typically the same. And thankfully, completely avoidable. What all game production needs, but often entirely lacks, is a proper product vision.
This is a simple-sounding solution. But creating a vision for a game is no trivial task. It requires a deep and intricate understanding of the business, art, and science behind video games, as well as clear, collaborative involvement from all parties to reach the end goal. I’ll explain the key ingredients of product vision that you can explore, define, and communicate with your team that’ll make your life easier and, ultimately, your production process a greater success.
Understand your business criteria
When creating a game, you’ve essentially been asked to capitalize on a certain business opportunity. In other words, “achieve these goals, within these criteria.” So, before anything else, you should understand the current strategy of your company and your project’s business objectives. That’s because the product you are crafting needs to be aligned with the business. This could mean you need to build dev team experience in a particular genre, develop specific tech or pipelines, or make sure your project has the right scope. Then, establish any constraints you need to take into consideration, such as the game’s expected quality level, price point, release window and so on. I wrote a separate piece on setting business objectives [look here], which will help unpick the detail if this is an area of uncertainty.
Know your target audience
I’d give this advice to all developers: making a game is not about you or about what you like. Instead, you’re making a commercial product for a specific group of people with particular motivations, needs, and wants. Broadly targeting ‘anyone who likes action games’ or ‘anyone with a phone’ is not good enough, as you’re overlooking the vast amount of detail that drives people’s choice of games and the way they consume them.
Consider the differences in playing a first-person shooter on a PC, console, or phone. Or a game that requires light-speed reflexes, vs. one that calls for careful critical analysis before making decisions. A 5-minute game session, or a 5-hour one. Each option leads to a completely different product for a completely different person. It might feel like something the marketing folks should worry about and, in part, it is. But as the game’s actual creator, you have the responsibility of ensuring the outcome matches both your company’s business objectives and customer expectations. Without a true understanding of your audience, you run the risk of creating a product that nobody wants, and pushing your business into the abyss.
The best piece of advice I was given about how to define your audience is, oddly, to ask who you aren’t targeting. Who won’t be drawn to an intense first-person dynamic shooter? Who doesn’t have the time to play a 60-minute MOBA match? Who won’t care about a walking sim with lots of reading and dialogue? By asking questions in this manner, you can gradually narrow your target to place a spotlight on a specific group.
I’d also recommend digging into QuanticFoundry’s player motivation model. In my view it’s the best model we currently have in the industry, as it is backed by solid research, and will help you understand why people play particular games and which motivations are critical for your game. You can also watch the GDC talk about it here.
Finally, you need to determine if you’re targeting casual, midcore, or hardcore players. This crucially will inform the level of accessibility, depth, and implementation of specific features. For example, you might want to opt for a first-person camera for its immersive qualities, but you’ll need to know that your audience can handle the complex associated hand-eye coordination and brain load.
In the end, defining your audience removes personal bias, and instead opens up meaningful discussions that help you make better decisions for your players.
Establish your USP
Whatever sort of game you create, it will exist in an immensely competitive market. And to pave the way for any kind of success, you need to make sure it has a reason to be there.
The easiest way to think about Unique Selling Points (UPS) is this. These are the elements of your game that blow people’s minds away.
Before anything else, you need to study your competition. What do other games offer that would give players a reason to choose them? And, similarly, what don’t they offer? This is the first step in finding the gap in the market that your game can fill. It could mean delivering a unique fantasy that no one else has. Or using groundbreaking tech to tell your story in a compelling new way. But it’s about finding individuality that fits, both your audience and the game seamlessly. Ultimately, you must give players, media, and partners an exceptional reason to care that it exists.
The best piece of advice I was given about how to define your audience is, oddly, to ask who you aren’t targeting.
Next, it’s crucial to learn the expectations associated with specific genres and product prices. This means understanding the production value, quality and amount of content present in games you’ll be competing with. Essentially, by demanding a certain price for your game, you’re setting certain expectations. And you need the right team, skills, pipelines, tools, technology and budget in place to deliver them.
It’s also vital to study the games that succeeded, as well as those that were promising but ultimately failed. Understanding the reasons behind both will keep you from making critical, avoidable mistakes.
Plan your fantasy
Fantasy is the heart and soul of truly unique gameplay. And establishing a distinctive one will guarantee people notice your game.
Case in point, the likes of A Plague Tale lets you assume the role of an innocent child, challenging the monotonous norm of playing another blank soldier or assassin.
But there are plenty of examples to prove that uniqueness can lie in the detail. Look at Joel from The Last of Us: a survivor in a postapocalyptic world. Not groundbreaking in itself. But he’s also a father who tragically lost his daughter. What’s it like to be him? How does he talk, how does he fight? What makes this experience different, in detail, from being Kratos in the latest God of War?
Again, in Diablo 3, all the characters are monster-slaying adventurers. But the experience of being a barbarian is entirely different from being a wizard. One could tear his enemies to pieces with bare hands, while screaming on top of his lungs. The other uses magic in a calm and composed manner. Both achieve the same outcome but arrive there in different ways.
Defining details of your fantasy directly influences the art and design of your systems, levels, and mechanics. In Call of Duty, you play as an elite, special forces soldier who shoots and moves between cover. So the mechanic of auto-regenerating health fits the game dynamic well. Whereas in Doom, you take your fight right to the enemy’s face. As a consequence, you’re moving from one end of the level to another, and heal by executing your foes.
So plan the fantasy you are trying to portray carefully, considering your audience and your competition. Which aspects you want to focus on, how it fits into the overall game experience, and what art, design and tech you’ll need to achieve the best version of it possible.
Define your game’s critical pillars
Having well-defined game pillars allows you and your team to have meaningful discussions, make unbiased decisions, and focus on what’s really important in your game.
Think of game pillars like this: If you had to boil down your game to five key elements, that you must get absolutely right, what would they be?
This example is from Hot Shot Burn — a game we defined as a party brawler.
Whenever the team looked to introduce a new feature or evaluate an existing one, they could refer back to these pillars and ask the right questions. If the idea didn’t fit the criteria laid out, it would be reworked or abandoned altogether.
This picture is of course just the pillars in a nutshell. Our product vision board comprised deeper descriptions and reference materials that demonstrated what each pillar represented. For example, our Party pillar was explained through a series of playful YouTube videos that related to specific situations we wanted to mirror in the game.
Lay down your game structure
Every medium has a structure that defines how content is divided and presented to the consumer. In the case of films or books, acts, scenes and chapters would feature. In the world of video games, the structural entities would be levels, systems and game modes.
In a game like Street Fighter, players choose from a variety of characters with distinctive looks and abilities, representing different playstyles. There are also several arenas to fight in, the choice to play on or offline, and access to the arcade mode and training room.
The bigger the game, the more complex your structure will be, and the more critical it is to define it properly. Do you have missions, rounds, levels? How are the elements of your game connected to each other?
Mapping this out allows you to fully understand your game’s flow, determine scope, and identify critical dependencies between the elements of your game.
Shape your art, sound and story
Visuals and audio play a huge part in crafting an authentic and believable game experience.
On one hand, you must consider how you want the player to feel. On the other, you have to think about the practicalities of achieving it.
Look at Joel from The Last of Us: a survivor in a postapocalyptic world. Not groundbreaking in itself. But he’s also a father who tragically lost his daughter. What’s it like to be him? How does he talk, how does he fight? What makes this experience different, in detail, from being Kratos in the latest God of War?
Given the effect you want, the tech and skills you have available, do you go with realism or stylization? What color palette will best set the mood? What kind of environments do you want to put the player in? The questions are countless. And while the art director will help you find answers, the most important task as a game director (or creative director) is providing clear objectives and consistent direction so your team knows what to strive for. (Little caveat to remember is that you need to tell people what to accomplish, not tell them how to do it 😊) Give clear feedback throughout the process and, in the end, the art and sound will give your game the soul it needs.
If your game supports some kind of narrative, or if the actual backbone holding all this together is the story of your game, then you need to pay extra attention to this area as well. What is the game’s core message? How is it delivered? Who are the characters and how will they develop? You’ll discover and adapt many of the finer details as you go, but certain elements will need defining before you start putting things together. The crucial part is limiting any uncertainty that could prevent executing and building content effectively in later stages of production.
Create a core gameplay loop prototype
At their core, games are interactive experiences where players are supposed to act and feel a certain way. And these experiences should naturally be enjoyable.
The point of the core gameplay loop prototype is demonstrating the desired experience in the smallest, cheapest, and fastest way possible. Depending on your game’s scale and ambition, your core loop will vary greatly. It could be a single arena with two characters for a fighting game, or something much more complex if you’re designing an open-world RPG with multiple systems. Whatever the case is, you first need to establish the true core of your game, keeping in mind your game pillars and Unique Selling Points, before finding a way to prove it in its simplest possible form.
There is plenty to learn from playing basic prototypes and seeing your game tested in reality. And by failing fast and failing early you actually save money and time allowing you to experiment more and test number of ideas. But perhaps the most important is if it isn’t working as you hoped, or it doesn’t evoke the emotions you wanted, you won’t move forward, full stop. No amount of extra visuals or features will help make things right if the fundamentals are wrong. So avoid making things beautiful at this stage. This will be the objective of pre-production, where you build your quality benchmark or vertical slice together with any tools and pipelines that might be required. For now, focus on making it fun to play at its most basic.
Plot a player experience timeline
When all this is done, you’ll need to weave the whole player experience together. The easiest way to do this on a timeline – considering the different stages or activities the player will go through and the emotions and behaviors expected at each stage.
Looking at Dying Light, you could observe differences in playing during the day versus playing at night. But you can get much more granular than that, down to the combat, the exploration, the crafting. Each individual activity contributes to the overall experience of the whole game. Every map, quest or mission might deliver a specific self-contained adventure that evokes different feelings and behaviors from the last. And it all needs to be planned.
Firstly, all stages of the experience need to be defined, along with the players’ associated behaviors, thoughts and emotions at each point. Then, a discussion with developers from individual disciplines – art, AI, level design, system design, and so on – should decide which features will help achieve that.
Of course, your plan won’t play out 100% perfectly first time, and you may need to reiterate elements in multiple ways. But you and your team must know what you’re trying to achieve. Otherwise measuring and adapting solutions along the way will be impossible. While this approach will take effort and forward-thinking, the alternative is attempting to solve a problem by throwing ideas at a wall and hoping one of them sticks – which, let’s face it, is risky, expensive and unsustainable. Bad planning should never ruin a great game.
Define, communicate, understand
In order to create the project vision I’ve been unpacking from the start, it doesn’t just need to be properly defined, but properly communicated. Bad communication is responsible for far too many game failures, but it’s one of the easiest ways to warrant success. A vision can’t stay in one person’s head. It should be on a wall, written for the team to see, spoken for all to hear, and discussed for everyone to understand. Your audience, game pillars, player experience – each crucial element should be a reference point for every decision you make going forward. Keep repeating them, talking about them, and answering as many questions as it takes to get everyone on the same page.
If done well, everything I’ve discussed so far – or the conception phase – can take months, or even years, depending on your game’s size. And while it can be difficult to figure it all out seamlessly, amongst so much uncertainty, it is absolutely crucial to follow these steps as best you can before moving into pre-production and production phase. If you don’t have answers, keep asking until you find them. Because if you end up on a train, laying the track as you speed full steam ahead, sooner or later you’ll crash.
Looking at Dying Light, you could observe differences in playing during the day versus playing at night. But you can get much more granular than that, down to the combat, the exploration, the crafting. Each individual activity contributes to the overall experience of the whole game.
Sadly, teams often pressure themselves or get pressured into moving forward too quickly, for the same reasons. Each individual – whether a programmer, designer, artist – will be good at what they do and want to rush to the place they feel comfortable, programming, building levels or designing beautiful art. But very soon they’ll find themselves blindly taking chances, making personal choices and wasting time on things they shouldn’t. It happens way to often that people forget about or don’t understand the business reason behind their work. You have things to do because there is a business case supporting that work. Whatever you do, you are solving a business issue. So keep that question in mind all the time, what problem am I trying to solve?
Alternatively, companies who struggle with resource allocation end up with huge teams who can’t work until the game concept is defined, so they throw vast numbers of people at it to try and solve the problem faster, which only makes things worse. The key thing to remember is the concept phase should be the work of a small, savvy team who know how to lay a solid foundation, and only transition into the next phase of the project when ready.
Great games rarely happen by accident. Conception time will never be wasted, whereas every hour you spend in development is a race against time – and moving your break-even point higher and higher. Get your product vision nailed and there’s a much stronger chance your game will follow.
I’d like to leave you with words from my good friend and mentor Stephane Assadourian: You cannot execute without vision. And if you want to learn more about the producer’s perspective on working with game vision and how to help your team, I’d highly recommend his fantastic talk.