Design Expectations

Much of this will be a summary of my replies to some of the excellent comments I’ve received here over the last few days but I figured those may have been missed by some readers.

Game development is a group business. Often in a game one or two individuals from the development team will appear more often than others in interviews and will become figureheads for a project. This might give the illusion that they are the only drivers on the project but that would only ever be an illusion.

Each decision, each feature is discussed in numerous meetings. Ultimately a lead in one department can make certain decisions for his or her department but every department has its own lead (design, art, programming, marketing, quality assurance, et cetera). And every decision made impacts every other department. If a particular art style is called for and has a particular cost, that cost is passed onto the programming department to make sure the right tools are in place to build and display the art and then the design department has to determine how much art can be built with that style and how gameplay has to evolve to fit the style and quality assurance has to test it and so on and son. Generally a project director is the arbiter for the more difficult decisions.

Now of course this is not a linear progression where X says this and then Y does this. It is very much a negotiation with give and take on all sides, hopefully making for a better product. Now what I’ve found interesting on the various projects I’ve worked on is that often there is a driver of sorts, a department lead (sometimes the project director) who is maybe able to influence the other leads just a little bit more. So in that one respect I guess occasionally an individual’s will can start to dictate the shape of the game being made.

Also influencing the game of course is the built in expectations of the company. If there’s one truth about game development it is that there are meetings, meetings, and more meetings. From team meetings to project meetings to company meetings. And in all of these meetings the core philosophy of the company is ‘broadcast’ to the teams working on the games.

There may not be a specific command to build this or that but in the demo reels that are played and in the speeches of the leaders there is a push towards a particular kind of product. That is inevitable and I imagine any large company functions this way. And every team member walks away from those meetings with an idea of what those expectations are. Strong leadership results in the team members having very similar expectations (I suppose in a company with weak leadership the team members would probably walk away confused and shaking their heads and argue with one another about what had been said).

So these expectations do trickle into every decision.

What kind of gameplay was shown in the company meeting? What kinds of competitor titles were spoken of with respect? What does the developer say about themselves (and others) to the media. Were any past projects disparaged or pointed to as examples of what should not be done? What did the leaders say, in regards to their fan base — do they talk about them with respect or with ridicule? Do they try and anticipate what is wanted or do they decide what is needed?

All this influences every employee, every team member and will make its way into the products being built.

Related Posts

The Design Manager, Videogame Design Documentation, You are Not Smarter Than Them, Hard Decisions

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PE6NGMLT5GO732RZYY3UFB3ZQQ Rene Holzegger

    A very good wrap up.

    It shows that game development is not an easy process. Which i was aware of, however i´m more familiar with the design of security (and other) software. Because of this i´m usually the guy screaming first “bad coding” ^.^

    By opinions written by you in the past and other Bioware employees i would assume that BW is probably one of the best companies in the gaming industry to work for.

    When i was younger i often thought “i want to work there” (in the gaming industry) but when you read sometimes from ex-employees how bad this and that is handled and after working in the software industry myself, i´m glad i didn´t. Which shouldn´t mean it´s that bad, i´m not an expert, and every large company has the standard black sheeps. They are part of the equipment.

    But even if the team members don´t agree, who will speak up? I don´t know in how many “meetings” i sat, talking about a specific detail only to have the same persons agree with it, who would later disagree with it when asked about it. But speaking against the “boss” is often a no go.

    Anyway, this also got me thinking about Bioware, so a question for you:

    I´m sure Bioware has grown since the days of development of Baldurs Gate ( i don´t have numbers), what did you enjoy more, working in a smaller team in the early days while working on let´s say BG2 (which is a big game too), or working with more teams/departments in Origions? What did you like/didn´t like and why?

    I always had the impression, also from personal experience that work usually takes longer and/or is more stressful the more Lead X or Producer Y are added to the picture. In my case at last, they also never improved the final product. (but got the most money out of it..oh well the budget has to go somewhere :))

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Rene,

    As far as I know I think BioWare is one of the better studios to work for. But I definitely enjoyed working there more when it was a smaller company (I think about 60 people when I started). I believe it was 300-400 when I left (not counting the Austin studio).

    I know I was managing almost 30 designers just on Dragon Age alone!

    I preferred the smaller teams because there was less pressure (plus I wasn’t a manager on BG2 so that was more relaxing too) and more opportunity for individual team members to contribute creatively. The problem with building games to fit some kind of ‘mold’ is that there becomes less wiggle room for designers to sneak fun things into the game.

    A large company becomes a bit too bureaucratic. Not my cup of tea.

    And yeah I’d agree the more leads (and team members in general) the longer everything takes to get done… it just becomes a management headache… the workers who excelled at doing certain tasks end up becoming ‘mid-level’ managers because the team size is too much for a single lead. And those mid-level managers are no longer doing what they are good at. And so and so on, much as I imagine it is like at most companies.

    Take care,

    Brent

  • Robert

    Brent,

    Thanks for the great insights into the development process! On the BioWare social forums people seem to be demanding David’s head on a pike (maybe because he posted a lot there using the first person plural and he now personifies the ‘evil devs’). From lead writer to forum whipping boy!

    In my line of work, the command structure is completely linear. I sign the work, I take responsibility for it. I could not imagine producing a deliverable if I had 30 managers who all went off to work as semi-autonomous groups for 4 years, taking decisions on a horse-trading basis amongst themselves. Since the end product lands on my desk, and that is where the buck stops, I give as much direction as is necessary to ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. Right down to the notes themselves if individuals need that. What you describe sounds a bit like like trying to herd cats! Or maybe what I describe sounds like boot camp? :) Anyhow, yours is a creative industry, mine is a dispassionate/dry/factual one, so I’d expect differences in organization.

    So given the whiplash inducing change in direction from Origins to DA2, do you think (just pure speculation, of course) that this was mainly something that was “broadcast” from the Doctors? Or would you see it more as something driven by the various departments from all their consesus-style meetings over the last 18 months? Or both in equal parts? The vision (to go mass market/console) seemed risky but potentially sound (eg transition to ME2 worked well), whereas the implementation appeared a bit flawed on many levels (even disregarding my self-confessed bias against diluting complex games, be they flight sims, turn based stragegy, or RPGs).

    Thanks,
    Robert

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Robert,

    I think the Project Director is suppose to make the ultimate calls on the project and take responsibility for it as a whole but depending on the project and the people involved this is not always the case. It is always very much like herding cats (both at the Project Director -> Leads level and at the Leads->their team level… lots of creative types = lots of ideas running around)

    I think the change of direction is a combination of the general push from above (the broadcast) with how individual leads & teams interpret that broadcast. I think given how the changes move Dragon Age towards being closer to Mass Effect a lot of this change is driven from the message being broadcast down.

    The *specific* implementation would be the team (i.e., I don’t think Ray and Greg said specifically ‘remove this’ or ‘remove that’). The implementation would be a reflection of what the team thought was needed to meet the goals/vision of the company as stated mixed with their own preferences. The leads team on Dragon Age 2 has little overlap with the leads team on DA:O.

    As for David it saddens me if he is being targeted… if I were to name two people who were the *soul* of Dragon Age it would be David and the original lead designer, James Ohlen, who set in motion all the world design and core story.

    Take care,

    Brent

  • Robert

    Thanks Brent, I think I have a feel for the structure now (and can’t help wondering if it isn’t just a hangover from the days BioWare was a small studio, and no-one’s gotten around to changing the way things are done). Your earlier comment that the Doctors wouldn’t make a scapegoat of Mike also makes perfect sense now (there’s obviously little reason to pick him over anyone else). David … is not helping himself much by losing his cool on the forums. I’ll try to dig up some snippets, but he’s really like a bear with a sore head at the moment.

    Can I ask you a couple more things about projects and design? If you were the majority shareholder of (pre-EA) BioWare, and liked to micromanage everything yourself, what would have done differently in Origins? Also, if in that situation you decided to create a totally new IP (ie in to go alongside ME, DA, and TOR) – RPG or otherwise, what would it broadly look like (genre, setting, story, platfrorm, gameplay)?

    Finally, are you disappointed that EA is taking an interest in Ultima IV (take down notices etc)? For me, many of my childhood hours were sunk into that game (and Ultima V), so I dread to think it will be resurrected as some Dungeon Siege 3 clone.

    Cheers,
    Robert

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Robert,

    What would I have done differently in Origins? It’s been a couple years now so I don’t really remember specifics. There was nothing major other than I would have wanted to have the game out a couple years earlier. I think DA:O took too long from concept to store shelf and the marketplace changed a lot during that time.

    A totally new IP? I’d have to think more about that but in general terms I’d look for a setting where the art would have a chance to be distinctive, something that could stand out from other games on the market and a setting which also allowed for deep stories to be told. Basically I’d avoid boxing myself into a setting without room to grow or without the ability to be distinctive. I’d also nail my gameplay… the core focus of it anyhow, before going too far on the setting design… the gameplay itself should probably influence the creation of the world.

    It would be an RPG or at least would have a strong RPG progression system. And it would have squad combat. At this point I’d strongly consider developing for browser and make sure it was playable on PC and all mobile devices that have a browser.

    re: EA and Ultima

    I think EA should avoid Ultima. Even if they built a good game… Ultima nostalgia is a very strong force. And I don’t think Ultima is a recognized brand name outside of the hardcore RPG gamer so the brand itself would not appeal to the mainstream gamer. All it could do is alienate Ultima fans… resulting in low metacritic rating scores and a huge outcry. Plus sending shut down notices or whatever they are doing is tacky. Not exactly good PR for them. I would have tried to bring those players into the discussion of where the franchise should go somehow instead.

    EA should have a small studio independent of them make an Ultima reboot and act as publisher for it. Allow them to make a more traditional game that would appeal to the fans not a bastardization for mainstream gamers who could care less about the ‘Ultima’ name. But have them do it with less cost than a big studio would so that the sales expectations could be correspondingly lower.

    Take care,
    Brent

  • Robert

    Brent,

    If your main concern with DA:O was the long development phase, why do you personally not seem to like it all that much? Is it because of fundamental concept, or just that you spent so long in the kitchen, that you can’t enjoy the meal any more (as an old saying here goes).

    Anyhow, I said I’d find some of David’s quotes (taken at random) from the forum, so here goes:

    (forum member): then why have the option of killing Leliana [in DA:O, as she appears in DA2 even though the poster sided with the cultists]?

    (David): Because the option was there as a reaction to your choice to defile the Urn of Sacred Ashes… not as a “you will never have to deal with this character again”. We’re not saying what happened in that chamber never occurred… You’re free to make all the assumptions you like, of course, but if what you’re insisting on is “I think X is dead so I should never see them again no matter what”… well, prepare to be disappointed.

    (forum member): [basically implies that what David said is lazy writing / retconning / handwaiving]

    (David): And, if we do offer an explanation, it’s not going to be here on these forums just because someone demands to know RIGHTNOW. When we do, I assume you will feel free to fall on your “injured customer” cross, then.

    (forum member): You are a professional. Act like one. He [another poster] is a nobody and he will continue to act like one

    (David): Tell you what. I’ll leave estimations on my professionalism to my bosses. But thank you for the advice. And seeing as we’ve now descended into personal attacks, this “bitter forum troll” is going to shut down this thread. If you wish to restart a similar topic, do so without the flagrant attacks– and I’ll avoid it like the plague, since it seems anything that isn’t me being apologetic and far more respectful of the opinions and feelings of others than they are of mine isdefensive bitterness. Probably best if Ijust leave the angry ones to flail about without providing them a target.”

    One of the things I appreciate about BioWare that the developers (rather than just cardboard PR people) take time to talk to their fans, and also understand that this must be a hard time for David with the huge negative fallout (they’re giving out free ME2 to appease ex-fans now)… but I think he should have been able to control his frustration a bit better on a company forum…

    Cheers,
    Robert

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Robert,

    If I gave the impression I didn’t like DA:O then I mis-wrote. I very much enjoyed DA:O. I’m just not as fond of it as other titles I worked on, mostly because of ‘spending too much time in the kitchen’ as you said. I think DA:O is a great game and I enjoyed playing through it many times before leaving BioWare.

    As for the forum comments I can’t really comment on them but I agree it does seem frustration is starting to leak out onto the boards. Which is unfortunate because Dave has been a very active dev on the forums, which as you mentioned is a little unusual in the gaming industry nowadays. I hope this doesn’t drive him away from interacting completely.

    Take care,

    Brent