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'Arena Morte' - A Premortem

In this 'premortem', Frontline Studio's Brian Dreyer discusses the in-progress demo and pitch on his company's original console IP Arena Morte.

[In this 'premortem', Frontline Studio's Brian Dreyer discusses the in-progress demo and pitch on his company's original console IP Arena Morte.]

I really like postmortems, especially the big-budget, console title ones where there’s commentary from different team members like the Executive Producer, Producer, Lead Designer and so on. There are always things that went well and things that did not. Honestly, I think most people, rightly or wrongly, enjoy the negative part more.

After all if it’s a great game that’s being dissected, it’s fascinating to know where they screwed up. So, let’s leave the positive and the ‘We got really lucky when…’ comments aside and in the spirit of constant improvement just focus on the negative.

From a what went wrong perspective, the common denominator seems to be surprises; There are always bad things that happen during the development process that were not planned and so all we can ever really do is mitigate the risks.

Risk mitigation involves everything; people, Tech, art, budget, internal processes, leadership, talent, and goals.  With that, we should outline the essential early steps in creating a concept and a new title (IP) that addresses what a good postmortem really should look like after the game is done. I call this a “Premortem”, that’s what we’re doing with “Arena Morte”.

STEP 1 – What’s the Team’s Interest, what games do they like to play and why.

For us, the studio’s experience and history has been an interesting one. While successfully in business for almost 10 years now, we’ve been stuck doing mainly budget projects to keep the internal workflow steady.

Obviously not happy what comes with this territory, i.e., there’s never enough time, never enough money, rarely a true focus on quality from the publisher. It doesn’t take an MBA from Harvard to determine that the ROI won’t be good.

The Team is an entirely different story; talented people, solid technology and art skills, some CVs with AAA credentials and a universal desire to make better, more meaningful, and most importantly more fun games. So now what? Well, we just need some time, a reasonable advance and something cool to work on. This was my challenge.

We had some solid concepts, some art and other assets to show but after endless pitching and good old fashion business development it became obvious that we need a demo. For a publishing contract today the concept demo has become even more important given the cost and competition in the market today.

The demo has to be polished; successfully showing the new game’s unique and compelling features with a high level of quality. The bottom-line here is that the chances of securing a publishing partner are about as likely as winning the State Lottery without a great demo. There’s simply going to have to be a demo that works and we’re going to have to fund it.

So now that we’re talking about real internal investment, it’s time apply some process. Before spending a dollar, the first high-level question the executives should ask is; “What sort of game should we make?” Traditionally the direction of this conversation usually goes towards what the market needs.

While this is logical, it can be dangerous to focus too much on a market niche and it’s better to save this sort of discussion for later. My idea was to focus on what the Team thought was most interesting, what kind of game do they want to make and why? After all, they are the ones doing the heavy-lifting.

Much to my disappointment, yet not completely unexpected, the responses were all over the place, from MMO’s to Facebook, they were sort of stuck on the marketing thing. One day it occurred to me that during lunch breaks and after hours most of the guys played fighting games. 

And not just played them, but were virtually obsessed with them, most notably “Street Fighter IV” with all the smack-talk and interaction you’d expect. So I did what any good Executive would do… I told them to get back to work! Just kidding obviously, I actually interviewed them a bit and it became obvious that we need to do a fighting game.

STEP 2 – Get a short list of synopses and include something to convey the feel, usually concept art.

For us, the prospect of doing “Street Fighter X” is a bit too, shall we say aggressive? There’s a lot behind the curtain that make this franchise so successful and the loyal followers simply will not tolerate a… western version for lack of better description. But the interviews revealed some interesting takes on the genre of the fighting experience. So next we just let their minds wander a bit.

Most will tell you to leave the creative people alone, let them create and that’s a unique and subjectively individual thing. I agree with this but the cats eventually need to be herded. Carefully (key-word!) we collected high-level ideas and kept it high-level and fun to encourage more ideas and participation. This also helps to get the group to buy-into the over-all direction of the game being formed. The herding process sort of ended when we eventually asked for a short list of synopses.

Our thinking here is that if the game is going to be great, it has to be articulated at a high-level in writing, not just random collection of thoughts. This is a bit of an over simplification of a very complex exercise, mainly that there is a human interaction component at work here and there has to be an adult in-charge of this cat herding activity. There are tons of books and theories about this topic and it really is critical, generally speaking, to interact or communicate with individuals in a manner in which they are most comfortable communicating and interacting.


 STEP 3 – Focus on game play features.

Video games are interactive (key-word!) entertainment. Making a great game means emphasizing this interaction; a painfully obvious yet frequently forgotten step in the early development process. The traditional approach to making the interaction better is to make it different.  That is, have the player do something he/she’s never done before; take the player to a new place to do new things, to visit new worlds in a tactical sense.

I agree with this to a degree but my experience tells me that it’s not very logical or practical to bet too much on the farm here. To me it has almost always made more sense to focus on the new games features which are at the heart of the interaction.

Given that the player’s interactions in the game are most important, focus on what the player is actually doing at all times is essential or again focus on features.  Story, characters, environment alone are just not enough. 

Features basically come down to two different categories; in-game mechanics and generically new content for the game. We looked at all of this early in the concept process but focused more on player-interactive features that have been done before (hacking and slashing) and making them feel brand new.

We took a methodical look at past, present, and likely future features in this genre. We looked in detail at other sources such as movies, comics and books to come up with a list of what we think are compellingly new or significantly improved game play features that we’d like to do… after all, we’re gamers.

STEP 4 – Visualize, get a qualified writer, check the tech and make the “Go/No-go” decision. If no-go, review what likely went wrong and start over.

By this time we have a generally good idea of what we want to do with this concept, IP and demo, including the work-in-progress name – “Arena Morte” (sometimes having a name early gives a concept a reality on which to build from). The next step was to do some of the nuts-and-bolts stuff.

That is, with a feature approach list it was time to find that property’s art vision, its soul if you will. We started to put together character and environmental concept art that everyone liked. This, too, helped give the feature list more life, meaning and purpose, and provided a visualization stage. Much like a game is nothing without features, great features are meaningless without characters, substance, and story.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, never (dangerous word!) do a video game story that involves characters without someone skilled at writing about characters. Fortunately we found John Zuur Platten through our friends at Union Entertainment. John loved the character look and concept work, as well as the general direction we were going in, and with John, the rest was pure magic.

In a fairly short period of time he was able to go beat-by-beat through a few stories that will truly captivate the player… I’m not going say any more; you’ll have to play the game when it comes out. I will say, however, that the story and character arcs will be such that the player will want to know more.

Another core issue is technology. Visualizing the game’s soul can be the most fun part of the development process, but you have to ensure the tech is there to make it come to life.

We obviously needed to do some work to make sure the features we love are do-able in such a way that it works well, gels together and are fun for the player; technology is a big part of this. That is, it can’t be just good enough, these features make or break the players experience and it has to be 100% verified f-ing (bad word!) cool. We work in a world where anything is possible and sometimes the anything sucks.

We evaluated every possible tool we could get our hands on and I’d put Krystoff Malinski and Dominic Libek up against anyone in the industry when it comes to evaluating tech. I love these guys and they have a history of making our own tools so I know they’re going to be tough and detailed critics when it comes to picking tools.

We selected Trinigy’s Vision Engine and were a tad-bit disappointed, so we came back to Unreal 3… this was a premortem moment (picking tools), it’s now go-time.

STEP 5 – Focus on features and the player.

Now we’re doing a demo project plan so that the demo can achieve a few things; show 90 to 100% of the features we selected, show some art skills (while art is not really important for the demo, we’ve got something to prove here) and maybe most importantly do this in such a way that it does not send us into Chapter 11.

Regarding art, we believe expressing some art vision in a demo is essential for the pitch process when you consider that publisher executives generally will ‘get it’ quicker with some high-quality eye candy; we have two characters in the demo that will be near complete. The character art decision centers around the fact that the game’s story is one of the key features and it will be much easier to pitch if there’s more than just concept art and visual targets.

However, the key here (and everywhere I suppose one could argue) is the player’s experience influenced by the demo’s feel. The player is our god. So again, features are key as we will have plenty of suspense and several “WTF” moments.

Before we hand this off completely to the Lead Designer and Programmer, and while we’re starting the demo’s production, we’re still thinking about the player. That is, we’ve compiled this great list of what could go wrong with tech, tasks and so on, but ‘features and player’ is what the ‘Premortem’ is all about. If this is done well the postmortem will be fun.

STEP 6 – Design with the features to make the game wow the player.

Ok, the Leads are ready to do their thing but this concept needs some high-level executive direction. These are my basic commandments for designers:

1.       Features – tattoo these features on the inside of your eyelids, make them beyond cool, this is your most critical objective.

2.       Don’t ever let technology prevent you from creating what you know needs to be in the game.

3.       You own getting the art you need to ensure coolness. I don’t care if you use crayons, get feelings from the team and draw them something; anything that resembles a story board is good.

4.       Prototype crazy-stupid ideas, and celebrate them publicly always in a positive (key word!) way, stupid is gold.

5.       Think player rewards and achievements without being too formulaic, not that formulas are bad, just think before you act.

6.       Money-shots – every ‘level’ or significant game play segment needs at least one “whoa” moment.

7.       As always, interact with the team in a manner in which they are most comfortable communicating and interacting. 

8.       Have fun – unlike most people on planet earth, we get paid for making  freakin’ video games!

Design is probably my favorite part of this process. Maybe because it’s a team sport, or maybe it’s the escape of reality one experiences by putting themselves in the game. Whether the player’s character is the hero or the villain or just fantasying what it would be like and feel like to actually be in the world that’s being created is all just very cool.

This is where “the rubber meets the sky” and when all cylinders are firing, a good postmortem is sure to follow. With that, I’m going to repeat what I said earlier because it’s so fundamental to success in our business given that making games is a team sport; in design, as in all areas, it is critical we deal with individual team members in a manner in which they are most comfortable communicating and interacting.  This requires a “Coach” that can always be aware of this rule and micro-manage this rule.


STEP 7 – This is a business, never forget that and start from day 1 thinking about marketing and value.

The business side of making games is not to be taken lightly by anyone in the building. While I’m presenting this near the end of this article, it’s really something the executives must do constantly throughout the production process. That is, when the game is being pitched early, having a thorough competitive analysis can and does help guide the creative as well as business development. A

lso, while some today don’t like to even use the word ‘genre’ if you’re looking for publisher support, the publisher will use the word, so you should too. This is still a good way to eventually guide a publisher discussion and deal with questions such as, “How is this different than Street Fighter?” With the genre discussion comes value proposition. From a business perspective every game needs a value proposition, but prepare to discuss the polar opposite of value which is the ‘R’ word – risk.

When the publisher conversation has gotten to risk mitigation, you are dealing with an interested publisher. Not only is a development advance risky but the follow-on marketing spend is also painful. Consider always that the publisher is spending today’s dollars for the opportunity to get a return 2-4 years later once the game is released and profitable.

The marketing aspects here are normal part of the expense of developing a console title. So, while the publisher owns marketing, today marketing is as much (arguably more) about viral as it is spending money on traditional marketing spends and both are needed. Marketing is an expensive cost, so it’s a risk. If the game’s look and feel lends itself well for traditional and viral marketing, make that case during the pitch process.

As the developer for “Duke Nukem: Critical Mass” we were blown away by our publisher’s marketing tactics while at GDC in San Francisco when Deep Silver had put urinal pads in all the men’s rooms with ”Duke-isms” on them.

Then at the popular watering-hole (Jillian’s) across the street, every cocktail napkin and coaster in this fairly large establishment had a Duke-ism on them such as, “When all else fails, I don’t. – Duke.” Now that’s some good stuff and by the end of the event there were even several Urinal Pads… uh… missing.


Great video games come from great and usually new or improved features that are iterative enhancements to known good game play mechanics. The fact of the matter is we know what these features are. We know the ones gamers love. We know our teams, technology and processes.

We know the business models. So we should focus more on taking these features and people up a notch or two and not focus too much on reinventing the wheel so often. While today a great demo is everything, balance the business with the Team’s interest, visualization and buy-in so that the postmortem is likely to be a good one.

I think it’s safe to say we all tend to over think and over analyze in this business.  After all, we know our business, capabilities, and markets so we naturally should be able to see fairly far down the road. 

As in all businesses there’s competition and with that the never ending pressure to continually be successful, to think of and deliver the next big thing for the player. This is the Holy Grail of making great games and the trouble is that the quest for the Holy Grail can lead to some real nonsense without some premortem process.

Oh… by the way, we’re still building the demo and preparing for pitch round 2 so stay tuned.

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