It’s critical for a designer to be exceedingly clear about their intentions as they’re formulating their design. But it’s not enough to just be clear – you have to communicate those intentions.
Here are a few handy techniques for anyone engaged in the process of clarifying and expressing their design intentions. Any (or all) of these exercises can really help a team zero in on their creative goals.
Name Your Comparison Benchmark Products
Triple-A development teams are often asked to identify the top competitive products in the market niche that they intend for their project to occupy. Those competitive products are rigorously studied and deconstructed, and then become the comparison benchmarks for the project.
Comparison benchmarks can be a lot of different things – for example framerate, graphical fidelity, rendering effects, even the quality of marketing materials, or overall sales – really anything can be held up as a benchmark that you’re trying to beat.
When the Killzone franchise was first under development, that team identified both the Halo series and also the Gears of Wars series as their primary competition in the target niche that they were releasing to - shooters on console.
Competing products don’t have to be precisely the same as the game you’re making. In the example above, Halo is played from the first-person perspective, and Gears of War is third-person, so of course they’re very different from each other. But during their release, both games definitely set the standard for shooter gameplay on the Xbox. By picking Halo and Gears, the Killzone team were essentially saying that they wanted their game to have the same market impact - to set the standard for action/shooters on the Playstation console. But they didn’t have to restrict themselves to gameplay. The Killzone team could also have chosen either Halso or Gears to be their visual competitive benchmark. Both titles had bleeding edge graphics at the time of their release, and set the visual high mark for games on their target hardware.
If you want to set comparison benchmarks for your project, choose one to three games, and pick characteristics of those games that you’d like to hit or exceed with your own project. And be explicit - explain how the games you’re choosing represent a benchmark that you want.
Craft Your Elevator Pitch
Pitching – the process where a designer or team formally presents their creative goals - is a great way to force creators to refine and hone their ideas and their communication skills. Pitching concepts is a critical part of the games business and an “elevator pitch” is a great tool for that purpose.
An elevator pitch is a short, pre-rehearsed speech that describes your project as succinctly as possible. The term comes from Hollywood, and it’s called an elevator pitch because you’ve got to be ready to use it if you find yourself in a two to three-minute elevator ride with somebody important enough to get your movie (or your game) made.
When working on your elevator pitch, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Don’t leave out anything that’s critical to the concept.
For example, if you were planning to make a first-person shooter where the protagonist only used explosives (hand grenades, IED bombs and stuff), then you need to make that clear in your pitch. If you continually describe the project as a first-person shooter, your audience might jump to the wrong conclusions about the gameplay that you’re planning to build.
Be precise in your language
For the sake of clarity in our bomber game, perhaps we shouldn’t even call it a “first person shooter”. Perhaps we should call it a “first person bomber” instead.
Stick to critical information
To continue fleshing out our "bomber" example, imagine that the backstory for our game is that the main character has some kind of special gloves that allows them to handle, arm and disarm explosives. The gloves are tied to their central nervous system, and allow them to trigger explosives with a thought, but the electrical field that they generate causes any guns that they hold to misfire! Cool right? Backstory!
Now here’s the awful truth: nobody cares. All that info might be interesting to you, but unless it’s truly relevant to the understanding of the game itself, leave it out.
Add to the listener’s understanding and inspire their imagination
For example if we decided to list the kinds of bombs that the protagonist can use by saying:
“They can use grenades, mines and plastic explosives!”
We’re making a mistake.
It’s subtle, but a listener might reasonably ask the question “What’s the difference between a mine and plastic explosives? Don’t they do the same thing?”
Technically, no – they don’t. But if that question comes up in your pitch, and you have to explain your choice of examples then you’ve missed the mark in terms of precise language. If you have to explain (or worse, argue about) your pitch content then you’re losing precious time in the elevator!
A better set of examples might be,
“The protagonist can use grenades, plastic explosives and even letter bombs!”
That list is designed to make a listener think – “Ok, I know what grenades are, and I can imagine what plastic explosive might be used for. But letter bombs!? Whoa – this game is really going to explore explosions in some far-out ways!" They might be tempted to ask, “How would you use letter bombs in the game?” If they do, that’s great – it means the pitch has piqued their curiosity and we’re talking about the concepts rather than spending time defending the examples we chose.
Use a Concept Modifier
A common technique in elevator pitches is the Concept Modifier – where the new idea is described as a re-imagining of a previously well understood (and successful) idea with a new twist.
Here are a few examples;
The director pitching the movie Cujo might say;
“It’s like Jaws... but on land! Instead of a shark, there’s a huge rabid dog!”
The producer of Speed might pitch that movie by explaining;
“It’s like Die Hard... on a bus!”
You get the idea.
Or Use a Concept Mashup
Another common technique used in elevator pitches is the Concept Mashup – where the new idea is described as a combination of two previously well understood (and successful) ideas.
The writer of the movie Cabin in the Woods might pitch is as;
“Evil Dead meets The Truman Show.”
The director of Cloverfield might say;
“It’s Godzilla meets Blair Witch!”
Tom Cruise might explain his movie Edge of Tomorrow as;
“Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day.”
We could pitch our Mad Bomber game as a mashup as well;
“It’s like Forest Gump meets V for Vendetta.”
So as you craft the elevator pitch, try using a Concept Modifier or a Concept Mash-up to describe your project. If you can nail the right references, it can be a powerful tool to communicate your idea quickly and easily.
While crafting your Concept Modifier or Concept Mashup, keep the following tips in mind;
Don't Use Obscure References
You might love some obscure, live-action Japanese science fiction movie that you happened to see one weekend when your cable was malfunctioning and picking up signals from the wrong satellite overhead. But if your audience hasn’t seen it, you’ll lose a lot of impact in your pitch. If you’re tempted to reference something that is niche and obscure, spend some time and do some research – often esoteric movies have been adapted or remade into other forms that your audience might recognize more easily.
Let the Audience Play Along
Modifiers and Mashups can cause people to immediately jump to conclusions about your project that you might not have thought of, or that might be very different than what you had intended. That’s natural because each person puts a different emphasis on the characteristics of a story that they already know.
For example if you use Forest Gump as a touchstone, some people might love the comedic running in the movie. Others might love the social satire. If you pitch “It’s like Forest Gump meets V for Vendetta.” Then people who relate to the running might immediately associate it with fast paced movement. People who find the social commentary of Forest Gump interesting might imagine that you’re going to place your bomber character at key points in history, and have the player’s actions shape history in interesting ways.
If your audience starts to get excited about your idea and they start to contribute, or brainstorm along with you – that’s great! That means that you’ve piqued their interest.
It’s a common rookie mistake to want to correct people who are a little off the mark from what they had originally envisioned. Suppress that urge! Let your audience play along in the pitch process, and as they do, listen carefully to what they are saying. It’s an incredible opportunity to get insights into the things that they feel are important.
Returning to our “Forest Gump meets V for Vendetta” example – if the audience responds to the idea of the running in Forest Gump, but you HATE that aspect of the movie, there’s no need to shut it down in the elevator pitch. Try asking a few questions about the running in the movie, or about how they see the running as being important to the pitch you’re making. And remember that any creative project is stronger when the participants spend their energies trying to express what they do want to achieve, rather than fighting about what they don’t want to include.
When it comes to expressing your intentions, be precise. It will help people understand your vision more quickly, or help to show you where your goals differ from those of the people you're working with so that you can help shore up those gaps.
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