A Playful Production Process

For Game Designers (and Everyone)

by Lemarchand

ISBN: 9780262366236 | Copyright 2021

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How to achieve a happier and healthier game design process by connecting the creative aspects of game design with techniques for effective project management.

This book teaches game designers, aspiring game developers, and game design students how to take a digital game project from start to finish—from conceptualizing and designing to building, playtesting, and iterating—while avoiding the uncontrolled overwork known among developers as “crunch.” Written by a legendary game designer, A Playful Production Process outlines a process that connects the creative aspects of game design with proven techniques for effective project management. The book outlines four project phases—ideation, preproduction, full production, and post-production—that give designers and developers the milestones they need to advance from the first glimmerings of an idea to a finished game.

The book covers each of the project phases in turn, proceeding from ideation through post-production. Most chapters discuss a subject related to making a game in a structured way, describing the activities that take place in each phase, the milestones that mark the beginning and end of each phase, and the deliverables due at each milestone; others cover processes used to communicate, collaborate, and manage the project. This hands-on “playcentric” approach will help designers conceptualize and create future projects with greater efficiency, more creativity, and less pain.

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Contents (pg. vii)
Foreword by Amy Hennig (pg. xv)
Introduction (pg. 1)
Phase One: Ideation—Making Ideas (pg. 7)
1. How to Begin (pg. 9)
2. Blue Sky Thinking (pg. 11)
Brainstorming (pg. 11)
Automatism (pg. 14)
Other Blue Sky Thinking Techniques (pg. 15)
Designers, Spreadsheets, and the Power of the List (pg. 15)
3. Research (pg. 17)
Research on the Internet (pg. 17)
Image Research (pg. 17)
Don’t Neglect the Library (pg. 18)
Field Trips (pg. 18)
Interviews (pg. 18)
Shadowing (pg. 19)
Research Notes (pg. 19)
4. Game Prototyping: An Overview (pg. 21)
Game Mechanics, Verbs, and Player Activities (pg. 22)
Three Kinds of Prototyping (pg. 23)
Every Game Developer Is a Game Designer (pg. 29)
5. Making a Digital Game Prototype (pg. 31)
Choosing and Using a Game Engine (pg. 31)
Choosing an Operating System and a Hardware Platform (pg. 32)
Build Your Prototype as a Toy, Not a Game (pg. 32)
The Importance of Sound for Digital Game Prototypes (pg. 34)
Playtesting and Iterating on a Digital Prototype (pg. 36)
How Many Digital Prototypes Should We Make? (pg. 37)
When to Follow Where a Prototype Leads (pg. 37)
Ideation Deliverable: Prototype Builds (pg. 38)
Masterpiece Syndrome (pg. 39)
The Emotional Side of Prototype Playtests (pg. 40)
6. Communication as a Game Design Skill (pg. 43)
Communication, Collaboration, Leadership, and Conflict (pg. 43)
The Most Basic Communication Skills (pg. 45)
Sandwiching (pg. 48)
Respect, Trust, and Consent (pg. 51)
7. Project Goals (pg. 53)
Experience Goals (pg. 53)
Writing Down Your Experience Goals (pg. 59)
Design Goals (pg. 60)
Taken Together, Experience Goals and Design Goals Give Us Our Project Goals (pg. 61)
Repertoire and Growth (pg. 62)
Considering the Possible Audience for Our Game (pg. 63)
Becoming a Developer for a Specialized Game Platform (pg. 65)
Advice about Forming Your Project Goals (pg. 65)
8. The End of Ideation (pg. 67)
How Long Should the Ideation Phase Last? (pg. 67)
Some Final Advice about Prototyping (pg. 68)
A Summary of the Ideation Deliverables (pg. 68)
Phase Two: Preproduction—Designing by Doing (pg. 69)
9. Gaining Control of the Process (pg. 71)
The Assembly Line and Waterfall (pg. 71)
Making Something New (pg. 72)
Planning during Preproduction (pg. 73)
Mark Cerny and Method (pg. 73)
The Value of Preproduction (pg. 74)
10. What Is a Vertical Slice? (pg. 77)
The Core Loop (pg. 77)
The Three Cs (pg. 79)
Sample Levels and the Blockmesh Design Process (pg. 83)
The Size and Quality of Vertical Slice Sample Levels (pg. 85)
The Beautiful Corner (pg. 87)
The Challenge and Reward of the Vertical Slice (pg. 89)
11. Building a Vertical Slice (pg. 91)
Work from a Prototype (pg. 92)
Create an Early Sequence from the Game—but Don’t Make the Very Beginning Yet (pg. 92)
Iterate on the Core Elements of Your Game (pg. 92)
Commit to a Game Engine and Hardware Platform (pg. 93)
Practice Good Housekeeping (pg. 94)
Start to Add Debug Functions (pg. 95)
Fail Early, Fail Fast, Fail Often (pg. 95)
Work in the Same Physical Space or Together Online (pg. 95)
Save and Categorize Your Design Materials (pg. 96)
Be Guided by Your Project Goals (pg. 96)
When to Modify Your Project Goals (pg. 97)
What We Are Doing by Building the Vertical Slice (pg. 97)
Preproduction Cannot Be Scheduled Conventionally (pg. 99)
Timeboxing (pg. 100)
12. Playtesting (pg. 103)
The Designer’s Model, the System Image, and the User’s Model (pg. 104)
Affordances and Signifiers (pg. 105)
Playtesting for Legibility and Experience (pg. 105)
Best Practices for Playtesting (pg. 106)
Running Regular Playtests (pg. 112)
Evaluating Playtest Feedback (pg. 113)
“I Like, I Wish, What if . . . ?” (pg. 115)
Playtesting for Designers and Artists (pg. 116)
13. Concentric Development (pg. 119)
Why the Universe Is Organized into Hierarchies—a Fable (pg. 119)
What Is Concentric Development? (pg. 119)
Implement Primary Mechanics First Until They Are Complete (pg. 121)
Implementing Secondary Mechanics and Tertiary Mechanics (pg. 122)
Concentric Development and Design Parameters (pg. 123)
Test Levels (pg. 124)
Polish as You Go (pg. 124)
Don’t Use Defaults (pg. 125)
Polish Can Be Punk (pg. 125)
Concentric Development, Modularity, and Systems (pg. 126)
Iteration, Evaluation, and Stability (pg. 127)
Concentric Development Helps Us Manage Our Time (pg. 128)
The Switch to Concentric Development (pg. 128)
Concentric Development and the Vertical Slice (pg. 129)
Concentric Development and Agile (pg. 130)
Maximizing the Amount of Work Not Done (pg. 131)
The Pace of Concentric Development (pg. 131)
14. Preproduction Deliverable—The Vertical Slice (pg. 133)
Delivering a Build of the Vertical Slice (pg. 133)
Supporting the Vertical Slice with Other Materials (pg. 133)
Learning about Scope from the Creation of the Vertical Slice (pg. 134)
Playtesting the Vertical Slice (pg. 134)
Focus Testing Our Game’s Title and Early Key Art (pg. 134)
15. Against Crunch (pg. 135)
16. Story Structure for Game Designers (pg. 141)
Aristotle’s Poetics (pg. 141)
Freytag’s Pyramid (pg. 142)
Game Structures Mirror Story Structure (pg. 143)
Stories and Gameplay Are Fractal (pg. 144)
The Components of Story (pg. 146)
How to Improve the Stories in Your Games (pg. 149)
When in Doubt . . .  (pg. 150)
17. Preproduction Deliverable—The Game Design Macro (pg. 151)
Making a Map for Full Production (pg. 151)
Why Use a Game Design Macro? (pg. 152)
The Game Design Macro and Our Project Goals (pg. 153)
The Two Parts of a Game Design Macro (pg. 153)
The Game Design Overview (pg. 154)
The Game Design Macro Chart (pg. 154)
The Rows and Columns of the Game Design Macro Chart (pg. 155)
A Game Design Macro Chart Template (pg. 156)
Player Goal, Design Goal, and Emotional Beat (pg. 158)
An Example of the Relationship between Player Goal, Design Goal, and Emotional Beat (pg. 162)
The Advantages of a Game Design Macro (pg. 163)
The Game Design Macro Is Set in Stone (pg. 165)
Is the Game Design Macro a Game Design Bible? (pg. 166)
18. Writing a Game Design Macro Chart (pg. 167)
The Granularity of the Macro Chart (pg. 168)
Sequencing the Game Design Macro Chart (pg. 169)
Making the Macro Chart Complete (pg. 175)
Micro Design (pg. 175)
Nonlinear Games and the Game Design Macro Chart (pg. 176)
Example Game Design Macros (pg. 177)
19. Scheduling (pg. 181)
Simple Scheduling (pg. 181)
How Many Person-Hours Do We Have to Make Our Game? (pg. 182)
The Simplest Schedule (pg. 183)
Simple Schedule Information for Each Task (pg. 184)
Scoping with a Simple Schedule (pg. 187)
Tracking a Project Using a Simple Schedule (pg. 188)
The Burndown Chart (pg. 189)
Deciding What Can Be Cut (pg. 195)
Rescheduling in a Burndown Chart (pg. 195)
Burndown Charts Create an Atmosphere of Trust and Respect (pg. 196)
20. Milestone Reviews (pg. 199)
When to Run Milestone Reviews (pg. 199)
Internal and External Milestone Reviews (pg. 200)
Holding a Milestone Review (pg. 200)
The Pixar Braintrust (pg. 204)
What Makes a Good Note? (pg. 205)
What Should the Presenting Game Developers Do during a Milestone Review? (pg. 207)
Presenting to Project Stakeholders (pg. 208)
Emotional Aspects of the Milestone Review Process (pg. 209)
21. The Challenge of Preproduction (pg. 211)
Committing to a Design (pg. 211)
Canceling a Project if Preproduction Doesn’t Go Well (pg. 212)
Onward into Full Production (pg. 213)
A Summary of the Preproduction Deliverables (pg. 214)
Phase Three: Full Production—Building and Discovering (pg. 215)
22. The Character of Full Production (pg. 217)
Presenting the Vertical Slice and Game Design Macro (pg. 217)
Working through Your Task List (pg. 218)
Changing Gears in the Transition from Preproduction to Full Production (pg. 218)
Checking In on Your Project Goals (pg. 219)
Stand-Up Meetings (pg. 220)
The Milestones of Full Production (pg. 221)
What Order Should a Game Be Built In? (pg. 222)
Game Feel and Juiciness (pg. 223)
Focuses for Full Production (pg. 224)
When to Take a Risk during Full Production (pg. 225)
23. Types of Testing (pg. 229)
Informal Playtesting (pg. 229)
Design-Process Testing (pg. 231)
QA Testing (pg. 232)
Automated Testing (pg. 233)
Public-Facing Testing (pg. 234)
24. Preparing for a Formal Playtest (pg. 237)
Formal Playtesting at Naughty Dog (pg. 237)
A Formal Playtesting Practice for Everyone (pg. 239)
Preparing a Formal Playtest Script (pg. 242)
Preparing a Formal Playtest Survey (pg. 243)
Preparing for an Exit Interview (pg. 245)
Devising Exit Interview Questions (pg. 250)
Focus Testing Our Game’s Title, Key Art, and Logo Design (pg. 251)
Preparing for the Day of the Formal Playtest (pg. 251)
25. Running a Formal Playtest (pg. 253)
Formal Playtesting in an Informal Environment (pg. 253)
Finding Playtesters (pg. 253)
Finding a Location, Arranging a Time, and Deciding a Playtest Coordinator (pg. 254)
Preparing the Location (pg. 255)
The Arrival of the Playtesters (pg. 256)
Immediately before the Playtest Starts (pg. 256)
The Play Session (pg. 256)
The Debrief Session (pg. 257)
Clearing Up after the Playtest (pg. 258)
Analyzing the Playtest Results (pg. 259)
Acting on the Feedback Received from a Formal Playtest (pg. 264)
Dealing with Difficult Feedback (pg. 265)
Going into the Next Round of Formal Playtesting (pg. 266)
26. Game Metrics (pg. 267)
Game Metrics at Naughty Dog (pg. 268)
Implementing Metrics in Your Game (pg. 272)
Metrics Data and Consent (pg. 273)
Testing Metrics Data Systems (pg. 274)
Visualizing Metrics Data (pg. 274)
Game Metrics Implementation Checklist (pg. 275)
The Opportunities and Limits of Game Metrics (pg. 275)
27. The Alpha Phase and Bug Tracking (pg. 277)
A Simple Bug Tracking Method (pg. 278)
28. The Alpha Milestone (pg. 285)
Features and Content (pg. 285)
Being Feature Complete (pg. 286)
Being Game Sequence Complete (pg. 288)
A Good Onboarding Sequence by Alpha (pg. 289)
The Role of the Alpha Milestone (pg. 290)
Choosing a Game Title at Alpha (pg. 292)
Summarizing the Alpha Milestone (pg. 292)
The Milestone Review That Takes Place at Alpha (pg. 293)
29. Stubbing Things In (pg. 297)
What Is a Stub? (pg. 297)
Stubs in Videogames (pg. 297)
An Example Stub Object Process (pg. 298)
Stubs and Functionality (pg. 301)
Stubbing in Content versus Concentric Development (pg. 302)
30. Reaching the Audience for Our Game (pg. 303)
Make a Marketing Plan (pg. 304)
Make a Website and Press Kit for Your Game, and Contact the Press (pg. 304)
Running a Social Media Campaign for Your Game (pg. 305)
Working with Social Media Influencers (pg. 306)
Integrating Game Development with Professional Marketing (pg. 307)
31. The Beta Milestone (pg. 309)
What’s Needed for the Beta Milestone (pg. 309)
Completeness and the Beta Milestone (pg. 310)
The Beta Phase, Concentric Development, and Game Health (pg. 312)
Credits and Attribution (pg. 313)
The Challenge of Reaching the Beta Milestone (pg. 313)
Summarizing the Beta Milestone (pg. 314)
The Milestone Review That Takes Place at Beta (pg. 315)
Phase Four: Postproduction—Fixing and Polishing (pg. 317)
32. The Postproduction Phase (pg. 319)
How Long Should Postproduction Take? (pg. 320)
Bug Fixing (pg. 321)
Polishing (pg. 322)
Balancing (pg. 322)
The Character of Postproduction (pg. 324)
Mobility of Viewpoint (pg. 324)
Postproduction Waves (pg. 326)
33. The Release Candidate Milestone (pg. 329)
What Is Needed for a Release Candidate? (pg. 329)
From Release Candidate to Gold Master (pg. 330)
Releasing the Game (pg. 331)
34. The Certification Process (pg. 333)
The Certification Process Timeline (pg. 334)
Passing and Failing Cert (pg. 335)
Updating Games after Passing Cert (pg. 335)
Content Ratings (pg. 335)
35. Unexpected Game Design (pg. 339)
Types of Unexpected Game Design (pg. 339)
36. After We’ve Finished (pg. 343)
Releasing a Game (pg. 343)
The Post-Project Review (pg. 344)
Resting at the End of a Project (pg. 344)
Post-Project Blues (pg. 345)
The Next Project (pg. 346)
R&D (pg. 346)
Starting with Some Direction (pg. 347)
When to Leave a Team (pg. 347)
Back to the Beginning (pg. 348)
Epilogue (pg. 349)
Appendix A: The Four Phases, Milestones, and Deliverables of the Playful Production Process (pg. 353)
Appendix B: Transcription of Figure 7.1 (pg. 355)
What Is Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune? (pg. 355)
Appendix C: Game Design Macro for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (detail) from Figure 18.2 (pg. 357)
Acknowledgments (pg. 361)
References (pg. 365)
Games Cited (pg. 367)
Index (pg. 371)

Richard Lemarchand

Richard Lemarchand, a game designer who worked in the videogame industry for more than twenty years, is Associate Professor in the USC Games program at the University of Southern California. Among many other projects, he led or co-led the design of all three games in the PlayStation 3 Uncharted series, including the award-winning Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

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