Producer’s Diary – The Seven Deadly Sins of Pre-Production

Today I would like to present to you seven deadly sins of pre-production. And the reason for this talk is that every day of my game developer’s life, I’ve been thinking about how to help my team to create something better or do something faster. But being a producer in a creative environment is pretty hard to define. In small teams, it’s even more difficult.

[Please treat this material as a presentation notes for the talk that I’ve presented in Poznań at CIG 2016  & Szkoła Twórców Gier 2016/2017]

But one day, on the postmortem of Puzzle Craft 2, I found out that it’s much easier to work without crunch and to predict the release date if we know more about the game. The development of the core version has been delayed three times because we still wanted to do more and improve the game. For the mobile game, a 12-month delay between the originally planned date and the global launch is a long one.

But we learned a lot from our mistakes; also, during the last two updates, we planned our work precisely and made many smart decisions about the scope and deadlines. Month by month, we’ve been removing nice-to-have features and focusing only on the most important things. It gave us time to finish everything on time and polish features. So, how did we achieve this? Part of it was that we simply knew what we wanted to do. However, that was just the beginning.

Because of that, I wanted to let everyone know, what we learned from this process. There is also the knowledge about pre-production that I had gained from my previous experience. Everything I learned, I called it the “seven sins of pre-production“; I will tell you what they are.

Before I start, I would like to mention the direct inspiration for this talk. It’s Mark Cerny from Sony. My game development approach as a producer changed entirely after watching his talk on DICE 2012 called „The Method”. Then I fully understood the differences between pre-production and production.

The first sin – there is no pre-production

During my first months in game development as the junior producer and head of the studio, I’ve been trying to start getting results as fast as possible, but because of that, I have been unable to predict the next step or the end of development. Each time I get a timeframe and the game to port from iOS to Android, my team starts compiling without thinking what exactly to do and without talking about the realism of the deadlines. We’ve just missed the pre-production part

And if you don’t understand what are the reasons to make pre-production, imagine a workout without a proper warm-up. If your body isn’t prepared for exercises, in most cases it’s easy to get injured.

The same thing goes with game development!

The consequences were pretty simple: in more than 90% of projects, we’ve been crunching for weeks because we haven’t been aware of significant technical and design issues. This is only in a case when you’re porting a small mobile game between the platforms and crunching for two or three weeks. But imagine what happens when you are creating something entirely new? A lack of pre-production leads to a lot of internal problems with technology, game vision, and production pipelines.

So how do you solve this? It’s simple but not easy to introduce: just do the pre-production. Even if your director of development or CEO tells you that you don’t need it because it’s a simple project, you have to do it on your own because you have, in a worst-case scenario, a chance to optimize production better.

This part of development, even if chaotic, gives you a time to answer two essential questions:

  • What do you need to do?
  • How do you want to achieve it from the macro perspective?

And if you’re not convinced just look at it from the business point of view – you’re investing less money now, not to spend a lot more later. It’s not only for developers – to understand a game that they’re doing but also for a publisher to know what results they should expect.

But how to pre-produce the game properly?

Let’s face the second sin: doing pre-production without any goals. 

It’s pretty hard, even for senior developers, to define what they want to achieve at the beginning of the development of the game. In the first phase of the development of Full of Stars, we decided that it’s crucial for us to check the whole game concept and decide on the most important things in the game design and art direction.

But what does that mean for developers? Barely anything. It means that they have time to explore and prototype, and when a producer or CEO lets everyone know that it’s time to start production, the team will start it.

And this happened with our game.

We fell into the trap of endless pre-production because we didn’t have clear goals and weren’t honest about the results that we achieved. So week by week we’ve been going around in circles, solving a lot of problems at once.

Because of this, today – after 12 months of development – we are still iterating some core systems and major features of the game. In our case, this leads to project delays and team frustration.

Why? It’s pretty simple: no one wants to throw away content that has been produced. What’s more, changing major elements of the game often removes time from the polishing phase and reduces its overall quality.

To solve this problem, I want to return to my major inspiration for this talk — Mark Cerny’s method. The key goals of the pre-production are as follows:

  • Publishable first playable on the target technology
  • Macro game design

Preparing first playable means nothing more than creating a slice (vertical slice) of the game that shows all of its local and global features and targets quality. For example, there can be one playable level with proper content for a premium level-based game, or at the beginning of the game, and loops for the F2P mobile games. The hardest thing here is that there are differences between the games. But generally speaking, a proper first playable version should answer these questions for us:

  • How does the gameplay work?
  • Is it fun and unique and how the game achieves that?
  • How does the game look and feel?
  • What is the vision for the game?
  • And the most important question – how does the technology work?

The macro design describes the overall scope of the game. It shows the team how big the game is, and it offers possibilities for planning the production phase.

The third sin: Planning and scheduling the creation. 

If we use word planning, I would like to take a look at the third sin — planning and scheduling the creation. By creation, I mean development phase when your game vision and macro design is created. The chaotic process when you simply don’t know when the inspiration comes.

But if you work in a medium or large company at the beginning of the development you probably need to know the release date. Often it happens that your bosses – executives or managers – want to know when you will finish the game. And I understand them, as far as I understand the business point of view. As an owner of the company, they have a budget and need to predict how much money is needed to produce something. But creating something unique is unpredictable. It’s always a matter of inspiration, luck, and a mixture of experiences.

Sometimes, you can help this processresearching games on the market, brainstorming, or just drinking a lot with your friends – but you can’t schedule good ideas. And what is more – producers often forget that working feature isn’t completed feature. It’s because you’re starting with mechanics and then, you need to create the game and fun experience.

But if you don’t understand it, you create plans that can be unpredictable and lead to a lot of frustrations on both sides. From the manager’s perspective, they will be unhappy because most of the internal milestones and reviews will be failed. Meanwhile, the development team will be focused on delivering something, not on creating new things, and checking all hypotheses. Moreover, you’ll always be trying to answer the question of “Why you missed a deadline,” and the answer is always the same – we changed our mind because we found out that the previous idea was not good enough. So how do you plan it?

It’s hard to answer from my perspective because there are a lot of aspects of this problem. The source of this problem in most cases is probably money, so you should be open and candid regarding business communication. If you, as an owner, have money for 20 months of development, you can set monthly reviews at the beginning to check the status of pre-production. Each month, you can ask a question: “What is your current prediction for the end of pre-production, and are you aware that the more time we spend now on exploring, the less content we will be able to produce?”

It’s always a matter of deciding if you want to have something bigger or more innovative. During pre-production, it’s vital to check as many ideas, so you can to fail fast. If you go with the first idea that you have, you’ll probably need to throw it away during production.

There’s a lot of companies out there that work in the mobile market, but some of them – like Supercell or Wood – prove that running a company with honesty and trust in your team is key to success. And if you want something that pushes the boundaries, you just need to understand that you can’t plan and schedule creativity.

To understand it, just check, in how many previous projects, you had to change pre-production dates. Still, it doesn’t mean that your team has unlimited time, but it gives them an opportunity to focus on game creation.

The fourth sin: Fear about throwing out content

When we let the team do what they believe, the first thing that happens in most cases is the manager’s fear of throwing out content.

It’s always hard to be productive during pre-production. A lot of managers are deeply concerned about throwing away content and features. They think that the team is wasting money and time just because they changed their mind. But the truth is that this is a reality, and the productive pre-production is a myth. I know that it’s hard to imagine for corporate managers, but no matter what the team is doing during pre-production, in most cases, it’s not wasting time. It’s because they’re looking for inspiration and getting all the answers.

But when the team is throwing away another idea, it lights the red light in a manager’s head.

In most cases, this way of thinking leads to strengthening control over the team. But you need to know that creating the first playable isn’t creating the game. The goal is to present the final quality and complexity of the game in smaller parts with less content.

And more control won’t solve your problem. It leads to fear of failure and fear of taking chances. And if you will kill creativity by increasing control, it will be hard to create something outstanding.

For this one, it’s easy to solve — just educate your managers on it. Whole content made during pre-production will probably not be used during proper production. Of course, you can try to rework it or optimize some parts to fasten the production of a new level. But as a general rule, you’ll just throw it away. And if you are a manager focusing only on velocity and productivity, just forget about it during the pre-production. Because of that in most of the best game development companies, there’re no producers or project managers during the first part of the pre-production.

It’s a necessary phase when you’re looking for an answer, and during each iteration, you can just change your mind and decide that it’s not fun at all.

One thing that can help you is to teach the team how to get the results as fast as they can – with as small features and content as they can.

The fifth sin: Getting to know all the details and tons of documentation

Changing your mind is connected with your design. And in most of the cases, it is not only about your design team. They’re exploring, day by day, new ways to create fun and addict your players. This leads to many problems with creating documentation during pre-production. The most common sin is to try to know all of the details with tonnes of documentation at the beginning. There’s a pretty stark difference between detailed design and rough concepts when making your first guesses on the complexity of a feature.

If you think of creating a 100-page document at the beginning, it won’t change the need for building some prototypes to prove your assumptions. So the key is to prepare enough data to start the first prototype, gather feedback, and build the next prototype on top of the previous one. If you’ll create this beautiful 100-page design, you’ll probably think that you know everything. But it’s misleading because it’s hard to understand the feelings and fun it brings before you try it. Of course, there are many things that you can design and predict, but in most cases, games are generally too complex in order to predict everything. I’m not trying to tell you that documentation is unuseful. It does help with communication among members of large teams, and it helps people to remember all of the most important assumptions. Even so, it should only be in the archive to remind you of your core assumptions, not a notebook to describe every detail.

To everyone who likes to work with documentation – which is excellent – I suggest documenting everything when it works, not before checking the hypothesis. So, make it wisely and think about reasons you have started preparing documentation because the first playable will be, by the end of a properly managed pre-production, your best game documentation ever.

What you need is a good macro design document that answers the question – how big the game will be? And it’s not about details of the whole content, but defining the general scope of the game. So you know how many levels, characters, or weapons it will be or how many animated scenes you need to produce.

And when you get it right – you’ll be able to plan, schedule, and start proper production.

The sixth sin – frequent milestones and review

The start of production is a critical milestone during game development. But what about milestones during pre-production? As I said before, a lot of managers want to increase productivity, plan, and schedule the whole process during the pre-production. As you probably know, that often leads to unnecessary frustration between the team and the manager, because the team just doesn’t know what they’ll do next week.

So, what causes the problems? First of all, you can’t predict the exact effect of the upcoming week or month, so it’s hard to plan concrete milestones. And more of that, it’s hard to schedule anything because you still don’t know what you want to do, and you just can’t plan the creativity. But this is not a thought thing. The worst case is that the team is so focused on delivering milestones that they’re not exploring widely enough to find the best solutions they can. They’re just thinking about marking something as done, not delivering the concrete game vision and playable experience.

What is more, in most cases during pre-production, management doesn’t understand the meaning of the “work in progress” element, and they’re trying to push their own ideas as the solutions for problems that in most cases don’t exist. In order to work around this issue, you can try to manage the chaotic development phase—pre-production—with this short checklist:

Negotiate terms between management and the team so as to give them a chance to make something incredible and time to explore all the solutions. For example, let the team decide about the next milestone or review, and try not to punish them if they won’t deliver something and change their’s mind

Have clear goals for preparing the first playable publishable and the macro design so as to ensure that the team knows how the game works and how you want to produce it.

Be aware of business conditions so as to make sure that the team understands that they’re burning money. This will help you to give the team everything they need in order to deliver something unique and fun.

The seventh sin: Lack of chemistry in the team’s relationships with each other 

The last sin is pretty hard to solve, but many managers forget about it. It’s about the relationships within the team. I don’t want to go into the details, but one thought should be clear to you: there’s no chance to finish the game on time with the highest quality if you have a major conflict inside the team. Sooner or later, one side will leave a project or a company, so as a skilled manager, you should be aware that one of the goals:

Pre-Production is not only to set up the concept, design, and production pipelines but also to set up a team that understands its internal structure and can decide what the next steps to finishing the game are. Only a strong team can create something unique. If your team works well, the development will also work well.

To sum up everything. 

If you decided to start the pre-production, you need to understand that it’s creative chaos and it’s hard to make it productive in a way managers think. If you want to be sure that you and the team are talking in the same language, set them clear goals for the pre-production. First one – publishable first playable that convinces the development team and publishing team, that the game is worth investing and producing. The second one – the macro design that describes how big the game is. When your team is achieving those goals, you just need to be aware that they’ll be throwing ideas and changing their minds, just because it’s not fun enough.

And the last thing to know that the key to success is a great team. No matter what happens, you have to remember that games are created by people, and you need the best people to create the best games.

Besides our knowledge about pre-production, we are still learning a lot in ATGames and Full of Stars won’t be built without any problems. And because of that, I wanted to leave you with my favorite Steve Jobs’ quotes: Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Thank you! Please leave your feedback in comments 🙂