The list of things that can go wrong when developing a videogame is so long that you’d probably need several days to read it. Bad decisions, management errors, mechanics that don’t work, non-engaging stories, lack of creative vision… Getting a game to see the light of day is very difficult and if you hope to make a worldwide bestseller and critical success on your first few tries, you could say it’s almost impossible.
That’s what makes the career of Stéphane Assadourian so impressive. In his 20 years as a game developer he has worked and helped on titles such as Outcast, Harry Potter, Child of Light, Far Cry, For Honor, Watch Dogs and most notably the successful franchise Assassin’s Creed, of which he was part of the original core team and worked on the first 3 opuses during 7 years total. This experience has enabled him to become one of the most recognized production consultants in the industry.
If creating a successful game is hard, imagine what’s involved in laying the foundations of a new AAA franchise at the dawn of a new console era. The successful franchise has now reached 11 main games, eight spin-offs and more than 100 million copies sold.
That’s why, at F2P Campus, we are so grateful that Stéphane came to share some of his production knowledge on how to turn an idea into a successful video game.
A different mentality for every stage of development
Making video games is very difficult because within the development of a creative idea resides a lot of uncertainty. It does not only require a strong creative vision, a deep business understanding, a lot of time, money and work; it’s also necessary to understand at what stage of development you are, to be able to switch your mindset when you transition to the next stage of development.
And, of course, you have to measure and validate the project at the end of every stage to decide if it’s worth carrying on with it or not. More often than not and as early as you can, it’s better to not go forward if the business does not look promising, if you feel you don’t have the right team to build the game, or if you can’t find a way to connect with your audience.
The conception is the moment when you are working at establishing a solid vision for your game idea. For this, it’s necessary to stimulate the imagination that allows us to brainstorm, create, draw…
Having a vision is essential. It’s not enough having a theme, an image or a story. A vision is a higher level concept that contains the player’s experience, a connection to a known audience, a fantasy, a theme, etc… It’s also essential to know how to communicate it, because you will need to talk about it with your potential investors (to make your entire journey possible), to your present and future colleagues (to attract talent) and, above all, to your customers (to test your market assumptions).
Once we have the vision validated we don’t go straight into production; we carry out a pre-production phase during which we will deliver a playable prototype that proves the idea works as a game. This stage is necessary to craft the experience that users will play. Building a pipeline, testing, prototyping, simulating…these are key.
The objective is to create a minimal polished playable experience that demonstrates the vision.
To do this we have to determine what is in the game and what isn’t. This will help identifying our key systems, the ones that make our experience possible. The biggest and also most frequent trap developers fall into at this stage, is spending too much talent, time and money creating too many assets. There is a strong element of doubt still and you still don’t know what your game will end up needing.
Once we demonstrate that our vision generates interest, it’s time to make the leap to production and change to a ‘factory’ mentality. You have to build your content, assemble more systems and merge them to the existing ones, debug the whole thing and eventually hopefully have some time to polish your game.
At this stage we need a bigger team and the whole group works in an organized way towards completion of the game.
The best tool for measuring the progress of the project at this stage is a production plan, especially the milestones ahead. It is not so helpful to just call them M1, M2, M3…they should represent a player’s experience, something the player can do that he could not do in the previous versions. We are building the game incrementally, and always aiming for the highest quality. Therefore, it is always a good idea to set aside a couple of months before the launch to iron out all the potential faults.
If the project is going to fail, the sooner the better
But if there’s one idea that Stéphane made clear in his talk at F2P Campus it’s that if a project must fail, it’s better that it be sooner rather than later. The costs keeps rising with time and thus, as you progress through the stages of development, the cost of failing increases greatly. Scrapping a project in production is much more expensive than doing it during conception. When only a few people are involved and no line of code was yet written, failing is a victory over the money you did not spend making a product that would have failed. In fact, you can use this money to try a new idea and re-enter the cycle and fail fast and early again if you must. Angry Birds was made on the 52nd prototype, when the company was nearly bankrupt.
Chances of success increase when you start understanding who your customers are and why they would play your game, how to engage them and connect with them, and how to find the right team to build it. Aligning business, creative and production greatly increases the likelihood that you will make a hit.
Many thanks to Stéphane Assadourian for coming to Vitoria-Gasteiz to share his knowledge at the F2P Campus!