Throughout my career, I’ve heard that lead designers should be the visionaries for their projects. That statement contains truth, but it doesn’t contain the whole picture. The lead designer for any project must know what they wish to make, yes. Heck, the lead designer should know what they’d want to make if they had an ideal set of development circumstances.
Knowing what you’d like to make in an ideal world, however, isn’t the same as knowing what you can make in the real world.
I’m working on a post to cover capacity and costing for game production. Prior to that, though, I’d like to touch on the topic of creative vision. I’ve worked with a lot of so-called visionaries. These “idea” people had a knack for putting together a slick PowerPoint presentation, sure, but they had very little idea of what could actually be built with a given team, tech, budget, and deadline. In fact, they would often laugh at the idea of real constraints, claiming that real creativity needed to be unfettered.
I knew one such visionary who would brush off such concerns with comments like, “We’re a technology company. Surely we can just figure something out.” This same person would go on to suggest that the entire team could simply work as much overtime as was required, lest they lose their jobs.
But I digress.
The point is that a creative vision must live within the real world in order to be made manifest. This isn’t to say that a team shouldn’t attempt to push their own limits; rather, the creative lead should know the team’s limits before trying to push them beyond their current extents. If you have a new team, then the creative vision should live entirely within the team’s constraints.
I think that point is fairly self-evident, and it underscores how essential it is for the creative lead and the producer to work together from the start. The producer can help provide an overview of the existing real-world limits, providing a lattice where the visionary’s creativity might grow and flourish.
But that assumes we know what we mean by “vision.”
What Is a Creative Vision?
I had an issue with this, early in my career. I was managed by a design director who once told me that, “I’ll know you have a true vision for the game when it aligns with what I’ve left unsaid.” I worked with another creative lead who said, “I don’t need to create documentation. My vision should be apparent based on what I approve.”
Neither approach was a recipe for success.
Over time, I learned to ask, “How do you define ‘vision,’ exactly?” What surprised me was the fact that nearly every design lead or director that I encountered had a different definition for that term. Some didn’t have a clear definition at all.
If we can’t define the words we use, then how can we expect anyone to truly understand what we say or the intention behind our message?
Over time, I’ve looked at how I’ve seen the term “vision” used in actual development environments. Practical use is a fairly good way to understand what’s actually meant by a term, after all. When I refer to vision, is it this observed usage that I refer to.
How do I, then, define “vision”? To create a game design vision is to create a definitive goal for your interactive experience. The primary and secondary mechanics, being the game made manifest, must act in support of that goal. The story, art, and audio must support the narrative theme of that goal.
Therefore, a vision in the world of game development is the clear conception of an interactive experience, with an easily communicated and easily understood player objective.
An easily understood objective doesn’t mean that the game itself must be easy, nor does it mean that the game must be finite. (NB: A finite game is a game with a defined end state.) Chess and Go both have fairly simple rules and easy-to-comprehend objectives, but their play is considered to be fairly complex. MMOs, like World of Warcraft, have a lot of content but simple overarching goals for play. Additionally, many — perhaps most — video games remain open-ended in nature.
Creating a Vision
So, given this definition, how might a designer create a vision for a game?
I’ll go over one method. Bear in mind it’s not the only method; it is simply one useful tool.
One approach is to create a three-pillar structure to help define the structure of the player’s goal. Why three pillars? Because, as a quirk of human cognition, we tend to easily group and grok things in threes. Constraining yourself to three pillars — the first constraint you’ll use to focus your vision, in this case! — makes it easy for others to conceptualize your ideal vision. It also makes it easier for you to communicate that vision. Overall, because of this constraint’s cognitive hook, it helps to ensure your core design is adopted and adhered to across your team.
As an example, this structure could be genre-specific. For this case, this will be your second design constraint. Using a genre to help define the structure isn’t the only way to conceptualize three pillars of play, but it can be useful. For example, let’s say you wanted to make a game in the decoration management genre. Games in this genre can be defined as focusing on:
- Pillar 1: decorating a space
- Pillar 2: expanding that space
- Pillar 3: visiting the decorated spaces of other players
The game’s primary mechanics, in this example, will serve the core goals of decoration, expansion, and visiting. How does a player get interesting decorations? Do they build them or buy them? If they buy them, how do they earn currency? How does the player expand their play space? How do players visit other players?
To reiterate, the primary mechanics directly relate to the visionary pillars we defined.
Secondary mechanics serve to elaborate upon those goals within a constrained context. What do you do when you visit someone else, for example? Do you help or hurt your neighbors? If you help them, what does that imply? Does it imply the creation of groups, the ability to trade between players, the ability to chat, or any combination of those interactions?
Strong secondary mechanics feel like logical extensions of the core player experience.
The best secondary mechanics create the illusion of interactive depth, while living within the contextual limits established by the primary mechanics. In other words, say you can “harm” a player’s decorated space by tipping over all tables. That player doesn’t really lose anything. They can re-enter their space, right their tables (possibly getting a small soft cash bonus for doing so), and travel back to your space to “seek revenge” on you. In the end, nothing is actually lost; it’s merely a non-destructive interaction between players.
Or perhaps something is lost, but that loss is minimal. The tables in this example are destroyed forever, but they are easily replaced. Maybe cleaning them up still provides the aforementioned soft cash bonus, but maybe the bonuses afforded to the assaulted player are higher in this environment. Maybe players can set up defenses. Players might be encouraged to enlist the help of other players for a certain number of hours… for a price, of course. Even then, the stakes are minimal and no real harm has been done. In fact, rules can be established, such as “limited edition and premium tables, unlike common tables, can be repaired after they’ve been vandalized,” in order to protect the items that have lasting value in the eyes of the player.
The interaction between your primary and secondary mechanics can set the tone of the interactive experience, which in turn can affect the flavor of your narrative, the look of your art, and the appeal of the experience.
Creative Vision and Creative Constraints
After specifying the main interactions and considering the implications, the creative lead can confidently define what the overall experience should be. That defined experience… that creative target… is the initial, ideal vision for the game.
That vision will likely require some adjustment when it’s viewed through the lens of project constraints. As mentioned, I’ll provide some information on defining and adjusting to real constraints in a future article.
Project constraints aside, what about the creative constraints that I’ve implied?
Because games have rules, rational states, and preferred strategies, they can be said to be primarily logical in their structure. By defining that logic, the designer can create a coherent gameplay experience.
The vision — even if it is apparently nonsensical — must have a logical framework in order to work as a game.
This means that any creative vision, if it is to be expressed and encapsulated in an experience that matters to the player, must follow a set of constraints in order to be understood and enjoyed.
These limits, even at the high-level, high-concept stage, can still lead to unintended consequences for your vision.
During this early phase of development, the team should ask a lot of questions regarding the vision and its implications. As these questions are asked and answered, it’s entirely possible that your vision may evolve prior to or during the early phases of spec creation and feature costing.
It’s hard to immediately see the ramifications of every choice, after all. Sometimes, in order to keep an experience coherent, the vision has to be redefined.
Accept these changes as proof that you are only human and can, therefore, make mistakes. It’s okay. I promise. Remember to retain your old notes, document your changes, communicate why the change is necessary, and move forward with confidence.
You may find that some parts of your vision are extensible in ways you hadn’t previously considered, implying the possibility of a much larger feature set. Write down these features, enter them into the backlog, and consider releasing them in future updates or in future games.
Keep your initial vision focused on the essential primary and secondary mechanics that you’ve established.
Yes, my approach is methodical. Professional game development is intended to create a product within a consumer space. It is a high risk environment. As such, the goal is to have a repeatable means for creating engaging interactive experiences for players within any market, clear of free-form riffing and the “patchwork” method of design, wherein blind spots in the vision are filled by copying mechanics wholesale from other competing games.
A methodical process is not the enemy of creativity.
A meandering vision is the enemy of creativity.
Visionaries must learn to embrace constraints, as constraints bring the creative vision into focus.