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Recently, I interviewed for a number of positions (specifically executive producer, producer and game designer) at various game companies. Throughout each interview, many principles learned from my 16+ years of industry experience were recalled. In keeping with my philosophy that game developers should share and exchange information relevant to our industry, I present ten principles of game design and production that everyone in the industry should be acquainted with.

Principle 1: Understand The Role of the Designer and Producer

It’s vital to know what lines of responsibility are drawn within game development organizations. This knowledge gives you an understanding of which people are responsible for which game components, who makes design and production decisions, and so on.

The game designer. The game designer is the visionary, somewhat like a book’s author. This person has outlined the scope and description of the product with sufficient detail so that others can understand and develop the product. Just as a book author sees his creation develop differently when made into a film, the game designer needs to accept and solicit modifications from the team members, the publisher and the public during the development process. Often , one of the game designer’s tasks is to create the project Bible - the game’s lengthy technical specification. This document details the gameplay, describes characters and settings (possibly including diagrams or drawings), includes level descriptions and possibly maps of areas to explore, positions and actions for each character or class of character, and so on.

The producer. The producer is the project’s manager, its champion. The producer must keep the entire team productive and the lines of communication open. This person is a diplomat, a politician, a trouble-shooter, a force needed to produce the product. The producer must keep marketing, advertising and public relations teams up to date with the progress of the game, and honest about its features, performance, and other claims that will be made to consumers. These teams must understand the gameplay, its features and story line to generate great ads, media hype, magazine previews, and so on. In return, these non-technical team members, by virtue of their continuous contact with the public, provide the game developers with feedback from the public, magazines and retail channel about what features are currently hot in games.

The producer needs to facilitate communicate between the whole team, and provide timely support for each developer, which includes ensuring that:

  • Artists and animators provide artwork, animations, temporary placeholders to the programmers on time, until the final artwork is available.
  • Programmers provide the artists with current versions as to see their artwork in a real time gameplay mode. The producer must also make sure that the programmers provide a current version of the game to the sales, public relations and marketing teams, along with various reports about the latest version of the game. These reports describe gameplay, special features, hardware requirements and supported hardware and peripherals, screen shots that best portray the product for ads, promotional sheets, previews and reviews for magazines. The producer also needs to make sure that programmers work with the quality assurance (QA) testers and provide them with the play instructions, special key combinations, hints, undocumented features and actions.
  • Audio and sound engineers provide voice, background and atmosphere sounds and music. These engineers also need to view and play the current version to check and validate the timing, usage and clarity of their work.
  • The designer (if not a member of the day-to-day team) sees the current version to confirm that the product is in line with the technical specifications and design originally set forth.
  • The QA testers report problems to the producer. The problems must be categorized as major (crash, function or action not working), minor (text misspelling, character movement to fast or slow, response time feels wrong), glitches (sound or graphic problem), improvements (add a new feature, improve the character’s interaction or behavior, clarify a confusing aspect of the design or gameplay), a videogame standards issue (the triangle button does not perform as the standard function definition), and multi-platform inconsistency (PC version vs. videogame version).

Whether one person assumes the role of both producer and designer, or several people handle these tasks, there must only be one producer whose word is final, whose decisions are followed and whose leadership is trusted and motivating.

Principle 2: No Designer or Producer is an island.

Gathering information throughout the product development cycle and knowing what to do with it is the trait of a great designer and producer.

Designers should research their subject matter and evaluate outside suggestions and opinions. The audience demands and expects films and books to seem realistic and accurate. The computer and videogame audience should accept nothing less.

When undertaking the development of a sports game (e.g., Baseball), a designer may feel that he knows the sport from playing it as a child and viewing it on TV. However, much more research must be undertaken to create an immersive experience for consumers. Whether the game genre is sports, RPG, adventure or simulation, the first step is to research similar titles in that game genre. You can do this by surfing the Internet, visiting the local store and purchasing competitive games, reading reviews of similar genre titles, collecting marketing materials and advertisements from other publishers’ websites, and so on. This information is invaluable when you are designing a new product.

If you are the producer of an upcoming baseball game, you ought to know the common elements found in other Baseball titles, as well as special features that differentiate each product from its competitors. You should read reviews of similar titles and the competing titles’ list of features. From this freely collected information, a designer can understand which features and game play customers expect, special features that the competition offers, and the criteria upon which the reviewers will base their critiques.

As the designer and/or producer, you must ask yourself:

  • Does your game suffer the same poor or awkward design flaw as a previously released title or similar genre titles? The design of the game needs to address how to be better than its competitors. The design must be able to handle flaws, difficulties and problems that reviewers and customers have complained about in previous versions of this product or in other similar genre titles. As the decision maker, you must listen to your development team, your marketing and sales team, retailers, and your game playing audience.
  • Do the ideas of the game designer and the team outweigh those of the reviewer(s)? The ideas that are made must have a good foundation. All reviewers try to accurately explain and criticize the product to the public. There’s a real difference between discarding a reviewer’s opinion and listing the problems and how your design addresses each one.
  • Does the design consideration include comments from previous or potential customers? Customers enjoy great products. My experience (in producing sports, gambling and trivia/puzzle titles) indicates that customers (fans) will buy any product in the genre they enjoy. Their expectations are that your product will teach the something new about the activity, they will gain experience and be able to brag to their friends and associates, and/or that they’ll be able to someday beat the game. I’ve received a great deal of fan mail in which consumers have cited the aspects of my games that they enjoyed. These letters also tell me what additions to the game that they would like to see in future releases. Magazines publish reader’s letters that praise and criticize the products. Market research and beta test groups consisting of potential and previous customers can be worthwhile in the final design stages to tweak the product before its release.
  • Are the team’s ideas and opinions seriously evaluated in the design of the product? See Principle #3 for more information about this.
  • Can the addition of a feature expand the customer base and get more publicity?

In Villa Crespo Software’s Flicks, a product that reviewed 30,000 films, a field for "close-caption" was added during the development, instantly adding four million hearing-impaired and non-English speaking audiences to the product’s customer base. Newsletters reaching that consumer sector gave the product free, positive reviews because the product included information vital to their readership.

The producer should collect information from team members about improvements that can be made to the product, and relay this information to the designer. The producer must be able to recognize a good idea when he hears it, and implement that idea in the game to make it a better product.

Designers should be adaptable and open minded to ideas that can make their games better. Producers need to be managers, leaders, and diplomats who can take information and in getting good suggestions understood by all involved with the final decisions.

Principle 3: Let Professionals do their jobs.

Most projects have a team of talented professionals working on them, made up of designers, programmers, graphic artists, audio technicians, testers, marketing coordinators, and so on. Each of these team members brings their own unique, important talents to bear on the project. A producer and designer must rely on these professionals and their particular points of view to improve and facilitate the development process. Regardless of the product’s genre, each member can make a product better.

For instance, the quality assurance (QA) and testing people can suggest gameplay improvements before the product is shipped. No member of the team plays the game for hours at a time like a QA person does, therefore his/her suggestions are similar to that of the potential customer. In fact, members of the QA team have probably played more games in a particular genre than the rest of the team combined.

The producer must not only trust his team members, but also rely on them for input to create the best product.

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