Milestones: One Sheet

A  “one sheet” (which typically is more than one page) helps you determine whats unique about your game and provides a good overview.  You might create a dozen of these when pitching projects to a publisher and they typically don’t take too long to create.

When you are working on an internal/indie project this document comes out in the form of the game overview or something you might put on kickstarter. The purpose is to succinctly say why your game is different from others. What is your hook? The point here is not to get into the nitty-gritty but to capture the gestalt of the project. Here’s an example.

Polished Deliveries – Best Practices

When you are designing your game and your game milestones, my favorite way to develop is by polishing each feature one by one. This part is tricky to do, especially if you don’t have a lot of history built up between you and your client. They could get very nervous. The number one type of question I’ve heard is along the lines of “Is it done yet?” or “Where is this feature?” Even though they’ve read the delivery sheet as many times as you have, they still start to ask for things that are miles away. The strategy you need to take is to develop one feature at a time and get it as close to Gold Quality as possible. Compare this with the other strategy, where you work on everything at once. If you’re getting ABCD features 10, 20, then 50% of the way to completion each milestone, it is going to be nerve wracking to your client because at the end of the day, they can’t show anything to their superiors and say “look how good this part of the game is! Can’t wait for the rest!” All your client will be able to say is “look how moderately functional this game is!”.

From an indie development standpoint, creating small complete systems as early as possible makes me very excited because I can see totally finished features that don’t crash and say “Yes this is what I want”. The Carbon Games people are rockstars at doing this.

Everything you put into the game should be the absolute best that you can do When you deliver high polish early on it shows what your team is capable of and it buys you a lot of good will. This means that even your most early deliveries should be polished to the absolute best, even if that means a little throwaway scripting or throwaway code. Take it into account when you do your scheduling and, although your programming team will gripe about how they were going to write it, it is going to turn out much better. Also, if you do one feature at a time, its going to be a much better representation of your schedule. If you’re doing the most important features first, and all of them are taking 1.25 times longer than you estimated, you can see which features are going to fall under the chopping block. If  you are working everything up at once, you are at risk of a really stressful crunch at the end of your project. Because you’ve put so much work into less important features, you’ll be more likely to want to keep them even if it means missing your mothers birthday (which she brings up EVERY time).

Franchises: Know thine own

One of the first steps is to get into your franchise. If you are new to a company or have been assigned a franchise that you may not be familiar with, start visiting by reading/watching/listening to your material. If you can’t tell me the 378th Rule of Acquisition, then you clearly don’t have what it takes to make a Ferengie stock market trading game. The reason for this is that your franchise probably has some *serious* fans, and if you can’t love your game topic you certainly won’t be able to come up with a game that serves the core audience. Not only do you need to have intimate knowledge of every character and setting, but find something to love about your franchises, some can be more difficult than others to love, I know! But if you look you’d be surprised what you can find within your content. For instance, for those of you who don’t watch Sponge Bob Square Pants, it is really hard to see why you’d want to. It’s a kids title right? Just some stupid over popular cartoon? If you took some time to get to know the show like some of us have, you’d see that there is a lot of innuendo and commentary that makes Sponge Bob really enjoyable, regardless of its targeted age range.

Franchises: Why working on them is awesome

Franchises work like this. An owner of an intellectual property (lets take the Wheel of Time series for example) has the ability to sell the rights to certain mediums at certain prices. Typically the IP comes from a media that they are totally qualified to do, in the WoT case, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson has the writing aspect of the series totally covered. But the books are really popular, and people really would love to watch a movie or play a game of Wheel of Time. So instead of opening up their own game studio, movie studio, bobble head production line, they sell the rights to WoT to another party so THEY can go make the game. Lets say they sell the WoT game rights to me (Which I would happily do). Now it is my job to create games since I just forked over a boat load, but I don’t have the development capacity to make a PC/DS/PSP/PS3/360/Wii titles efficiently, so I use my money to pay other people to make the game for me. These are production houses like Activision, SEGA, and Capcom. Often they also have some internal developers too.

The amount I paid for the franchise and the amount I invest in the game developers is going to be LESS than I expect I can make off the franchise. There’s a lot of fuzzy math behind the calculation of (DieHardMarket + CasualMarket) x (GameQuality-Cost) x msrp = MaximumProfit but it basically boils down to the fact that no matter how terrible you make a game, a certain number of people are going to buy it. Now, I am not advocating to put terrible games on the shelves, but because of this buying power you have, magnitudes of people will be playing your game while thousands of other highly funded developers toil in obscurity.

So this is the gift you’ve been given developers. No matter how terrible you make the game, people will buy it, probably a great many people. So now here’s the great responsibility to come with your great gift; you actually have to make a good game because your marketing has been done for you. Its freeing that you don’t have to worry about getting the word out there about your game like many indie devs. It is also immensely stressful, with a limited budget and a hundred voices yelling at you to create a game thats the opposite of the other voices, but its got its own reward. You are going to reach a huge audience with a design of your own making so do your best and enjoy.

What would a good micropayment system look like?

My previous post on micropayments got me to thinking about how I would go about designing a system like this.

Games are huge systems and charging piecemeal isn’t inherently wrong. But games that implement micropayments should follow guidelines when ever they charge money.

  • Each payment should purchase a system that was designed with the best intentions to provide the experience promised.
  • Each system should be a new or different experience that isn’t an upgrade of other systems. For instance, if we were to charge 5 dollars for each character class in a typical MMO, Knight, Wizard, Cleric, each experience would be very different, and each class could function correctly. It is a terrible idea to charge 5 dollars for “Knights who can do more damage” or “Clerics that can heal more”.
  • Players should not pay to shortcut an experience. Games are generally about the Beginning, Middle, and End. Buying a “max your level” upgrade is like paying an extra 10 dollars just to watch the end of a movie and is ultimately cheating a player out of the game itself.
    • This might bring up the argument, what about players that don’t want to level and want to skip ahead? If your game is so miserable that people want to pay in order to get to the good stuff that only happens after a 1000 of hours of grind, then you haven’t provided the players with a very good experience at all.

Micropayments destroy game credibility

Micropayments in videogames have gone on for a long time. But the way these systems are implemented today destructive to the credibility of games. Now, everyone needs to make a buck in order to keep producing games and I get that businesses are out to make money but the degree in which game design choices are viewed within the lense of “How can I convince the player to give me money?” instead of “How does this bring more fun/happiness/fear to the player?” is infuriating. To me, these games feel more like casino slot machines, using psychological tricks (like machines at the end of the rows payout more) to get quarters.

There are two goals of most current micropayment games. Increase the amount of users in your base. And get as many users as possible to buy as many things as possible. The way these games accomplish this is

  • Put artificial roadblocks or incentives that require users to recruit more users. Much like many pyramid schemes those within the user base have an imperative to recruit otherwise they cannot be successful within the organization.
  • Put shortcuts within the game that bypass intentionally clunky or difficult features. This would be similar to a Windows product charging an extra 15 dollars in order to use the mouse. Although technically you can use the keyboard to get to nearly everything in the OS, the OS is specifically designed for a mouse interface. The same with these games, you are specifically intended to harvest crops, build things, but in order to do it effectively you have to put money into it.

Ultimately these tactics cheapen games as a whole. As users begin to realize they are being bilked by these games which millions of users play, it will turn off users to playing all games as they generalize their own experience towards the rest of the games industry. This is not good design and the companies behind it are creating games to provide only enough incentive to continue paying out, not to forward our medium.