After the extremely warm reception of the text on project management, I’ve received questions about the possibility of deepening the topic of the game production process. I often encounter questions about the so-called pre-production, which often from the point of view of stakeholders (investors or publishers) does not contribute anything to the growth of the game under development (after all, we do not write code and develop mechanics in the project that can be counted). In today’s column I will try to talk about the role of pre-production in game dev projects and how to approach “measuring” this process from the Producer’s point of view. I encourage you to read it!
First of all – what is pre-production of a game and what does it consist of?
Many people associate pre-production with the search for a game idea. In my opinion, pre-production is the process of searching for an idea to realize a game concept. This means that we pre-produce a title for which we already have some idea. At Brave Lamb Studio, we quite unusually use two “depths” of documentation for a new project:
- Game Design Overview – that is, a document with a strongly superficial but relatively horizontal treatment of the entire scope of the target game
- Game Design Doc – that is, design documentation with a detailed immersion into the mechanics, with the scope of development already clearly defined – this is the basis for the roadmap of the target game.
In our practice, it is the Game Design Overview that is the basis for launching the pre-production process. This ensures that we have a defined game design, but at the same time we are able to determine what questions the pre-production process should answer.
Pre-production in my opinion is a process of exploration. The development team has to find the way to complete the game, and producer’s guide should be clear answer to three questions:
- What? That is, what kind of game will we put into production? What is it? What does the gameplay and main mechanics look like? What does the core gameplay (Core Loop) look like and what other gameplay loops support it? How will the graphical style be presented?
- Why? That is, why do we want to put such game into production? Do we have the knowledge and competence? Do we understand the purpose of production? (Exploration of a niche we are interested in? Producing a new one? Tapping into the current trend?)
- For Who? That is, who is our potential player? What might attract him to our title? What are his requirements? Are we able to meet them?
In my opinion, if the producer is able to answer those questions together with the dev team it means that the pre-production period is over and we can proceed to main production process, which in the first stage, should end with vertical slice, that will test the answers to aforementioned questions, by now formed in hypothetical term.
Secondly, how to produce a pre-preduction of the game and is it possible to control it?
We can venture to say that pre-preduction process is one of the most challenging period for many novice producer’s. What are the reasons for this state of affairs?
- Firstly, during pre-production process, producer navigates through the area of many uncertainties, that cannot be quantifiably planned – as a producer I want to know how many models of opponents I will have in the final game, and the design team does not even know yet how to define the opponent – this is one of the typical examples of unknowns, that paralyze traditional production process.
- Secondly, pre-production often lacks the hallmarks of specific tasks to be performed, that translate into specific acceptance criteria. For start-up producers, this phenomenon can translate into a sense of “team unraveling” and a lack of incremental building momentum.
- Thirdly, the level of complexity of the pre-production process (e.g., finding relationships between the developed mechanics designs) is often higher than in the actual production of the game. This is because most concepts have to be collided with each other “on paper” or with the help of rapid prototyping. Certainly, the lack of clearly defined criteria for when a feature can be considered ready does not make the producer more comfortable.
In front of the above risks for the producer, is there a way to manage the pre-production process? In my experience, there are several, which certainly include:
- Clear definition of so-called pre-production deliverables? Should it be a prototype? GDO (Game Design Overview) GDD (Game Design Document) or maybe an art book? Together with the team, we should define a list of deliverables that will help determine whether pre production has been completed.
- Once we have defined components that represent the whole pre-production, let’s try to price them with the team. The GDD or Art Book can be broken down into smaller tasks (e.g., we don’t need to create a GDD right away, but identify for ourselves the important points for the game – i.e., creating a graph illustrating the Core Loop, or making 3C (Character, Camera Controller) documentation – this will allow us to get more realistic pricing, while “capturing” pre-production into an incremental process.
- On the other hand, in the planning process, let’s plan the iteration of components – let’s take a realistic time on our roadmap to feedback the work done and then plan for corrections or additions.
- Once the team has priced the time required for each task (regardless of the pricing method), we can begin to conduct pre-production in an incremental manner, similar to the normal core production of the game.
As you can see above, with a few simple tools and techniques we are able to schedule pre-production process and plan it thoroughly. Introducing valuation of such tasks, especially in young teams will additionally allow us to capture the error rate and get to know the team better in terms of valuation. We can therefore conclude that, as a rule, the team is estimating its work ambitiously or conservatively, which will allow us to plan the core production process more carefully.
Is pre-production of a game profitable from an investor’s point of view? What does it yield at the end of the day?
This is a common question I encounter in the investment community. For most people who are not operationally involved in the game development process, pre-production means “game idea.” This is not a statement that corresponds to reality. Pre-production is a space that is designed to turn a so-called game idea into an implementation plan based on specifically designed elements that make up the overall final product. How can we measure the profitability of pre-production, and what metrics will we improve by choosing to pursue it?
- Firstly, we will fully know the scope of the project and will be able to budget it realistically. Personally, I would never undertake an investment or commitment to a project without knowing its scope and valuation, based on what is realistically doable, not what lies only in the imagination of the project initiator. By funding pre-production, we reduce the risk of a significant game budgeting error.
- Secondly, pre-production allows real reduction in production time, as it realistically reduces the number of iterations (iterations of execution or tweaks) of game elements. This period allows the team to think through the core of most mechanics. In addition, it can lay the groundwork for them in the form of early prototypes so that it can determine the validity of its assumptions. So in this case, the final design will not only be better in quality because of this, but also cheaper to make.
Conclusion – Pre-production – how to iterate design at an early stage in game dev?
In summary, pre-production as a preparatory period for the core project is extremely important, both from the point of view of the investor, producer and development team. It allows to frame the game idea in a production framework, to plan its implementation, as well as to identify at an early enough stage risks or competence gaps for the execution of certain elements.
At the same time, the most important thing from the team’s point of view is that the pre-production period should have a clearly defined goal and a product that crowns it. This can include the complete documentation, needed to start and to evaluate production, as well as simplified prototypes of the main mechanics. This is worth keeping in mind, particularly in the context of small, fledgling teams, which often tend to want to move quickly into core production to the exclusion of deeper pre-production.