In the pre-production phase, developers have to figure out what ideas work best at the lowest risk to the overall project. A lot of this pre-production work often ends up being guesswork."There are things that you just don't know until you get it done," Bruce Straley, co-director at Naughty Dog, told me over the phone. Straley, an artist and designer known for his work on Uncharted 2, The Last of Us, and Uncharted 4, was telling me about the importance of developing with a mind toward the vision, or core experience of the game. "There are these lessons that we learn in production. Even in demos that we've done. It's all playable but there are certain mechanics that wehaven't fully fleshed out. I don't know how this is going to work in the grand scheme of things. The equations might not add up as far as what's fun or what's not or what's engaging. I do my best."Samantha Kalman, indie developer and founder ofTimbre Interactive, told me something similar. "There are always known unknowns and unknown unknowns. You can really only estimate with 100% confidence yourability to do a thing you've already done," Kalman said. "If you're trying to do something new that means you're inherently unable to estimate it accurately."Development starts with a pitch—an internal presentation drafted on PowerPoint, let's say. But ideas and execution are vastly different things, and the process of prototyping those ideas out can reveal better directions or ideas for developers to pursue. "You can't tell how your game is playing until you've built a lot of it out," Alex Chrisman, director of production at Certain Affinity—known for their multiplayer work on several popular first-person shooters like Halo—told me."Pre-visualization is very hard. You have lots of important parts, and very often you'll find that that doesn't come together until the very end of the project." His co-worker, producer Ryan Treadwell, describes this process as "trying to understand the vision of your own game." Developers need to do this blue-sky thinkingwhile dealing with very material problems. Some features might break; others might take too much time to get right and have to be de-prioritized for the sake of the project.
If you're trying to do something new that means you're inherently unable to estimate it accurately. - Samantha Kalman
Magical Boxes Running On Smoke
The same level of thought went into another seemingly-simple, well-known and well-used mechanic: cover. Straley considered and reconsidered how to best incorporate a cover system in 2013's The Last of Us. "I would play the game for a couple of months and everybody got used to cover and I'd start rethinking. I'd think, 'No, because of Ellie [a character who accompanies the protagonist throughout the game], because of this analogue space, because of crouch, because of all this stuff, I don't want this other button to make the controls cumbersome," he said. "I had to apologize profusely and tell [the programmer] I don't know what I'm doing, and he has to trust me that one of these times I'm going to make the right decision, and I'm going to stick with it, and he's not going to have to reinvent the wheel as far as how we're going to do the cover button." In theend, The Last of Us basically did reinvent the wheel. They went for a crouch button that incorporated a sort of "soft" cover system when Joel (the game's protagonist) nears a low wall or object.These are just two examples of months of work that appears like magic on the screen. In most video games, press 'A' and you jump instantly. Press 'B' and you're crouching. But behind the curtain it's a lot messier than that. "There's this layer of invisible things that are making your experience really good that also took a ton of work," Nina Freeman, level designer at indie studio Fullbright, told me over the phone. "That less visible work hasjust as much value as any of the presentation polish of a game or any of the really tight-feeling mechanics that are really visceral and that you know are there. Games are these really little magical boxes that run on smoke. The less visible stuff is holding the game up just as much as all that other stuff."
Games are these really little magical boxes that run on smoke. The less visible stuff is holding the game up just as much as all that other stuff. - Nina Freeman
Creativity On A Schedule
Art Is Never Finished, Only Abandoned
The best a trailer or demo can do is show you current progress and projections as to what a final product might look like. Even if a vertical slice is a fully built-out level, that doesn't mean developers won't go back and incorporate changes they may have discovered after a trailer/demo went public. In many ways, change and iteration are the cornerstone of video game development. Anything from the style of a character's hair to the way a core feature performs can change throughout a game's development.Rather than viewing these demos or trailers as suggestions of what development and the vision for a game is currently looking like, viewers frequently take them as promises. Because of the hype machine nature that is modern marketing, promising trailers and demos form an audience's expectations. And should anything change because of necessity or creative decision-making, a final product that does not effectively represent an early vertical slice seems like a failure, or a broken promise."Everyone is building their own fantasy of what the product needs to be, has to be, wants to be," Thisdale told me. "But you forget about what the product is." It's difficult to create an accurate depiction of what a game will look like further down the line, because developers don't exactly know what that is until they've created it. "Things change," Thisdale said. "Animations change. Our character, Adam Jensen, changed his animation like four times. If I showed you something three years ago to today, it would be completely different. It's not the same model, it's not the same face, not the same suit, not the same textures, not the same anything."On the flip side, structure is what forces developers into making decisions. Though bemoaning the sometimes-unreasonable nature of the expectations of deadlines, some of the developers I spoke to felt like it also helps the process. "There are always 50 more questions that come up while trying to solve a problem or pin down a mechanic," Straley said. "There are hundreds of possible art styles or pipeline decisions. It's easy to think the priority is to go down every dead end road trying to come up with the most optimal, 'perfect' solution." Having an E3 deadline means having to nail down those decisions instead of pondering on the 50 alternatives a team of creatives can undoubtedly come up with.
Everyone is building their own fantasy of what the product needs to be, has to be, wants to be. But you forget about what the product is. - Antoine Thisdale