26 March 2012

The Producer/Designer Dilemma -- Week Ending 24 Mar

I enjoy the production side of video game development. In fact, I want to do it as a career. I like having a part, however small that part may be, in all the disciplines involved. I love seeing how the various pipelines work and trying to find ways to help them run more smoothly and efficiently. I love talking up my team to others, presenting great game projects, and being able to learn about every different aspect of development from the geniuses who focus in and nail their specific responsibilities.

However, my true passion is in design. From the high-level concepts of what a game could be based on to the low-level fine-tuning of the mathematics involved in intricate scoring, I love designing experiences that will be compelling to a broad range of players. One area at which I could definitely become better and learn more about is in coming up with completely original concepts that aren't based on existing properties or ideas. I'm great at fine-tuning, explaining why a particular mechanic does or does not work well, and editing content to it's most essential parts. I'm working on abstracting all those experiences I've had into building blocks that I can use to make games from scratch. Any help you'd like to offer would be most welcome. :)

Back to the point of this entry, though... What I discovered from most of the recruiters and contacts I met at GDC was that they don't want someone to be both a producer and a designer. They want someone who is interested in--and fantastic at--one thing. Thus my dilemma. It's incredibly difficult to break into the industry as a game designer. That's typically a senior position, one that individuals must work professionally for years to obtain. Of course, they do want everyone to understand design principles at some fundamental level, but that's not the same thing. The other difficulty here is that breaking in as a producer is also challenging. So many companies have different notions about what a producer is and what a producer is expected to do. With it being hard to go either direction, I've attempted to bill myself as both and hope that hiring managers recognize the value in my understanding of a broad range of concepts and skills. I'd certainly love to use both my production and design skills and abilities wherever I end up...

Which moves us into a brief discussion of my current role(s) in our thesis team: game designer and associate producer. Yes, I'm acting as both. People are coming to me for art validation (I've somehow slipped into some sort of art direction role, despite Craig Caldwell being our designated art director), for the specifics of how our scoring system will work, and for guidance on task distribution and sprint management. Besides my involvement in communicating various information with others, I'm also currently designing level concepts and finally learning how to use 3D modeling tools to actually build them.

I'm really trying to figure out if I'm doing everything I should be doing, if I have my thumbs in too many pies, or if I'm just trying to compensate for a lack of understanding my own actual duties by slipping into everyone else's business. There's a lot that goes into this stuff, and while I think I'm figuring it out pretty well at this point, I'll be trying particularly hard during the coming week to get advice on how to really fall into my assigned and intended position. Of course, if I'm capable of helping out team members in their respective duties, I still want to do what I can for them.

Here's what I did for Dodos this week:

- Organized the art team and their pipeline, and helped them distribute their tasks into the first few sprints
- Clarified some design points, including how the scoring and combo features will work
- Sketched storyboards and designs for potential levels--from trap chaining ideas to beginning creation of 3D models for importing into the game project
- Helped lead team meetings
- Distributed assets, information, and previous builds of the game's prototype to team members for reference

Further, here's what happened with our side project, Chroma Clash, this week:

- Had a team meeting with Derek (engineer), Spencer (producer, assistant artist), myself (designer), and Laura (our newly recruited lead artist and menu designer); thanks to Spencer for recruiting Laura!
- Constructed our official backlog and distributed it to the team; we'll be using one-week/one-feature sprints as our process from here on out
- Settled on Unity as our engine for the prototype of the game
- Started using Google Sketchup to create 3D models of level designs

Lots going on because there's lots that needs to get done! For the moment, I'm keeping my head above water, if only just barely. It's a good thing that these swimming lessons still have their healthy share of fun!

- Troy

10 March 2012

GDC! -- Week Ending 10 Mar

The week of truth has come and gone in its flash of hopes, dreams, and glory. Hard to believe all the buildup for this year's Game Developers Conference has run its course. It was a fantastic experience, as dizzying as it was helpful, and I can't wait to take what I've learned from GDC '12 and apply it to the forthcoming GDC '13!

Here are some of the lessons I gleaned, both from meeting with video game industry professionals and from my own experience participating in the whirlwind:

- You can't please everyone. There is no perfect resume; there is no perfect business card. One professional's advice and suggestions are rubbish to another. For example, some recruiters love the objective statement while others told me flat out that it's a waste of space. Whatever. Research the particular company you're interested in and tailor your materials to what they look for. Find a strong template and get solid general resume advice from faculty or pros, and then just make yourself shine in the best way that you know how.

- That said, there are definitely better and worse ways to illustrate what you can offer a company. Do more showing than telling on your resume. If a skill can be described in its precise context as it was exercised during a project or product development, that is infinitely better than simply listing what you can do. (At least, that's the story I got from most pros--a couple said they liked a brief list so they knew what to expect from the other details. Again, whatever.)

- If you have multiple professional interests and broad skill sets, focus your resume on one core discipline and make sure that every detail on that resume supports your specific professional goal. If you would like to try your hand at a couple different disciplines, make completely different resumes that focus on one discipline each. Companies want someone who can nail the specific jobs they need done, not someone who can kind of do a bunch of other people's jobs. It's still a good idea to include jobs and skills that are related to game development in other ways, but make sure your description contextualizes and focuses them onto your core professional discipline. For example, why does knowing some basic programming enhance your ability to be a producer? How do animation skills help you be a better senior programmer?

- Talk about team sizes and your personal contributions to the nitty-gritty of your projects' development cycles. The more you can convince someone that you actually make games and are valuable to a team in the process, the better.

- Make games. Seriously. Just make games like crazy so that you can show people your passion, your work ethic, and your creativity with something they can personally see, hear, feel, experience, and enjoy. Also, get a tablet to show your wares on. It's 2012. (I don't have one yet, dangit. I should get on that.)

- Ask questions. You want to learn from them--let them know that. Let them know how excited you are by treating them like the experts because, well, I suppose they are. They are the ones getting paid to do this, after all.

- If you are talking to a company's representative, that company should be the greatest thing since sliced bread. You want to be with them. You need to be with them. You have amazing things to offer them, but they have the world to offer you. Be excited! Brag on them and let them know how honored you are to be talking to them. And do it all genuinely, even if it's not exactly what you think. You have to play the salesman card in every way possible, without being a tool. Sound hard? It's incredibly difficult for me to be like this. I haven't mastered this skill, so I didn't reap its benefits, but I watched other people do it right in front of me, and it works wonders. Practice, practice, practice!

- Go to have fun! There's a ton of work to be done, but pace yourself. Play the IGDA's meta game, go to parties, and just talk to everyone who's willing to lend an ear. You never know how much work you can actually get done in the video games industry by playing with other people. Just remember to play nice. :)

It Has Begun! -- Week Ending 3 Mar

Pre-production is underway, and so far it's been interesting exploring my role as official game designer. To this point, it has meant gathering everyone's design, feature, and backlog ideas and making sure those ideas are clearly communicated to the team members. Then, along with Jesse (our team lead and Scrum master) and Bob (our product owner and executive producer), I've helped to cull down those ideas and create an official release backlog for our alpha goal. My job has really come down to ensuring that everyone has the same vision of what the game should be, can be, and will be.

I'm excited to see exactly what else my responsibilities will include, but I'm trying hard to make sure that I'm at least as busy and productive as every other member of the team. There hasn't been a lot of nitty-gritty in terms of design tweaks and optimization yet, so I've tried to fill in where Jesse needs help, acting as associate producer with items like research and team communication.

Besides that, I've also worked with the engineers quite a bit to find the best plug-ins for Unity Pro (our development engine) that will make the implementation of our game design run as smoothly as possible. We discussed heavily exactly which platforms of release our design lends itself to, and we've worked together to put into perspective what can realistically be achieved with the time and resources we have.

All in all, it was a good week, and though we have a couple weeks before we start our development sprints (GDC! And Spring Break!), we've got a great start on focusing our efforts and maintaining unity and vision of what we can accomplish as a team. Can't wait!

- Troy