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Author: Paolo

What you gain in pre-production

I work for businesses, someone says B2B. My clients are usually medium-sized companies that are willing to find new formulas. New ideas to disrupt the market out there. And I think it’s a great choice for them to hire contractors like me for this stage. Someone calls it 0-to-1, but I still prefer the classic pre-production.

With internal teams, it is very hard to innovate, because of many factors. External contractors, instead, can help you find new ideas or variations to your ideas. You don’t have to pay the salary to an employee for this research, plus you engage with someone who is doing this every single day. I am looking at different challenges from different realities every single week of my life. My vision is broader than a common employee working on a single project every time.

Because the games industry has changed a lot in recent years, many companies are looking for people that make the whole games from start to end, but I think this should evolve. We need specializations in specific development areas. Pre-production, production, operations.

Over the last few years, I think I acquired huge experience with the first stage, the pre-production. This is because of specific requests from my clients. My clients helped to build my little business. My technical skills let me focus on both vision/strategy and content (level design with Unity, dialogues, and so on).

  • Pre-production: this is where I operate. I help you find new ideas to work on.
  • Production: your team will develop the complete game, once you decide to go for it. Once you have the 1 of the 0-to-1 stage.
  • Operations: your team operates the game. Still, sometimes I do small consultations for new features that need pre-production. New ideas for service based games.

One thing that I put the focus on is on the fantasies and aesthetics (more on this in another post), but the most important thing to me is quality. Oftentimes people tend to avoid quality in pre-production to quickly pass to production. For good games, the duration of pre-production is 1/3 of the whole project. Imagine your development time is 3-5 years, we are talking of 1-2 years of pre-production. A good 0-to-1 is fundamental to go 1-to-1000.

One game per year

We live around 75 years. We have 75 summers, around 80 travels (in my personal economical condition of course). The people we will meet are relatively few, the projects we can tackle too.

Imagine you start to work at 25 years, because you are born in the lucky side of the World. You have 40 years working. If a game takes 3-5 years, you can make around 8-14 games in your life. Game for companies, that may be successful or not.

Or you can go indie, maybe solo dev, going alone and try to publish one game per year. Small game, of course. In that case you can leave 20-30 good games (the first will surely be a disaster). That can be your legacy as a game designer.

Data driven is not fortune telling

Over the last 10 years, I have assisted in the rise of many services and information providers that offer concrete predictions based on data. I had to quit a big company too, because of that. They were also testing game concepts based on the people’s responses to some text. So everything we proposed was texted out using a text redacted by someone with a high salary and very few things to do.

I went to a local indie fair where a friend pitched a game to publishers. One of them said, “Don’t you know that games with vegetables do not work?”. Then we ask why the publisher’s business model doesn’t work. It’s because of things like that!

Games are made by people who believe in a concrete vision and work hard to deliver. Many games will fail, because maybe people are not interested, because of the quality or many other factors. But you cannot use data to predict the success/failure of something without having tested it out.

Data-driven (or better, data-informed) development works when you work with concrete data from your things and compare them with your past. It doesn’t work when you read data from others and try to replicate it blindly. Sometimes it works out, but it’s because of other factors. It’s always because there is a passionate team behind that did something great. And lots of luck, the state of the market, and factors you can never control.

You can avoid risks by going iterative, of course. You can test prototypes and demos and see the actual reaction of people to that. That is good. But you cannot assume “this kind of game with these features is working in the market, so if we made something like this we would probably have success”.

The games I finished

Yesterday I went to the ending ceremony of a master on game development, here in Barcelona. One of the teacher told the students: you finished a game. And that is a lot. Lot of people that sell themselves as experts cannot say the same thing.

Well, that sentence struck my hearth. I immediately thought about the games I finished. All of them were games made by companies. Games that I liked to work on, but games that I don’t care about. Every single game was not successful.

First I finished Lucky Turkey, an arcade 2.5D shooter.

Then I moved to Barcelona and I worked for Zitro. I worked on a couple of games, the one I remember better was Taco Mania.

Then I was hired by Digital Chocolate where I worked on a GaaS called Blackjack Buzz up to the first playable (demo). I have to say that the final game was a polished version of that. And it didn’t worked on the market.

Another game I worked on and completed was Hovercabs, an endless runner. The company closed right after release, so I had no time to work on liveops for that.

After that I worked basically on a bunch of uncompleted projects. Also personal ones, I had no luck nor the strength to bring ideas until the end.

This has to change. Now or never.

The silent contract between the players and the designers

When we play games for work we often misunderstand the real motivations for the true fans to play that game.

Maybe we are working on a social casino game but we don’t really like this kind of games, as players. So that we study that game from a cold perspective. And we can also think that it would be easy to replicate mechanics and dynamics. Social casino games have really simple interactions, right?

Then the degeneration of that discourse leads to something worse. We start believe that a machine can build this in series. Today everyone is talking about AI, but also before of that there were kinds of fun experiments.

one of the best GDC talk ever!

But then we notice that these kind of experiences are hardly successful out there. Best social casino games have teams of more than 50 people working hard and passionately every day to deliver the best experience.

To me there is a silent contract between the Player and the Designer. For designer I mean the whole team, also. That silent contract states that there is a creator from one side that propose a challenge to another person on the other side. The motivation to play (or fun, if you prefer) comes mainly from this contract.

You decide to play a game. You know that the game has been made by someone. Part of the challenge is to beat that someone’s mind. If you read reviews of games you will notice that many comments go in the directions of creators.

What happens if the Player know that a machine created that game? Will they give these games the same value? People are smarter (and dumber) than we think.

The work I do

To me all the design disciplines (systems, gameplay, UX, level, narrative) have two facets. One is the vision and the other the content.

The vision is always what interests me the most. I believe that games are a synthesis of certain fantasies. They have their structure in terms of mechanics, gameplay, win/lose conditions, and so on. But this structure serves the purpose of delivering a vision.

The content is fun to produce. Creating levels or scripts puts me in a flow state, I can spend hours without even noticing it. Especially certain tools make everything so much fun. The content serves the vision above and should be always checked under that lens.

I think that the work I do is juggling with these concepts every day, every week, every month.

Generalists are the concierge of the industry

I hear this sentence from a content creator on TikTok. Somehow, it makes me sad. Part of that is true, though. The industry needs for specialized talents, normally.

But many of us are generalists, not specialists. I don’t know if I prefer systems, gameplay, level or narrative. I like game design in general and I believe I am pretty good at it. Am I useful for the core industry? Maybe that content creator is right, maybe I am not good to stay in a big company.

Or maybe is completely wrong. We can see that many experts consider the generalists like me a great asset in a team. Maybe we are not good to finish the definitive job, but we moves easily across departments.

In the end is a matter of ego. If you are a generalist and you want to make everything alone, I have bad news for you. You need to work on it or go solodev (which is something I always consider, not for this reason). If you are capable of working with others, you can make a great generalist!

The future of games

This weekend I was scrolling the infinite feed of LinkedIn and reading updates from many experts. I have to say that lately from one side there are lots of challenges. Many layoffs across the whole IT sector and people looking desperate. From the other, lots of experts are sharing their knowledge online. This is absolutely a good thing.

One of the main topic is about the future of games. Right now, it seems that everyone can make and publish a PC game very easily. But the cost of AAA games production is rising and the value perceived by the players is going down.

There is a demand/offer problem, too many games and it’s hard that the people notices you. To me, the solution should come by adopting a different perspective. Unless you have a strong IP, like Call of Duty, you cannot just make a game and sell it. You cannot afford to assume that people will come buy it. Nowadays, you should first get in touch with people, make them notice you. Then the people will eventually buy your things.

There is a trend among content creators, especially tech ones. They use Patreon to arrive to their audience. They build little by little. Play-to-earn crypto games were scam, but they were making something good: making contact with people super early. Of course, the focus there was money which is never something good to relate with entertainment. Still, I liked this very fact.

The key to me is in being able to create a strategy to go towards the people, the Players. Not the other way around. If you are making a game and then you will invest your money in marketing to spread the word, it’s very possible you join the rest of noise. It’s better to start build your player base right now, instead.

On finishing games

Every game creator I know, every company I worked for, always wants a thing: that the Players stay with them until the end of content.

On f2p games the more the game stays in the market the more this is hard to reach. For premium games, games with an ending, it can happen. Still, in most cases it doesn’t. The vast majority of people do not complete the games they purchase. And the trend is going worse as we have so many great games published every month.

The question I have is: is that important? One may think that if the Players complete a game then maybe they will buy its sequel. Another can say that if the Players stay until the end it’s because they loved the game.

Well, I think of me and it’s not always the case honestly. There are games I loved and that gave me tremendous emotions that I have never completed. The reason is not important here.

That’s why in game design we like to talk about the moment-to-moment. The important thing is that the Players enjoy stay in our game while they stay. It doesn’t really matter if they don’t complete the game. If we provided them enjoyment, engagement, challenge and motivation during that time that is where the real value of games is.

The Player is YOU

There is something I love in tabletop games rulebooks: they refers to YOU, not to the Players in general.

I think that documentation should adapt a similar method in order to the readers to empathize with the Players. You introduce who are the Players and their traits, behaviors and needs. And then you invite the reader to be one of them.

Using you instead than third persons can really improve with simplicity the effectiveness of your docs.