The following excerpt encompasses multiple chapters of "We Deserve Better Villains: A Video Game Design Survival Guide" by Jai Kristjan.
The book was published this summer, and is available now via publisher CRC Press and Amazon.
Pre-production: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
Don’t get lost in the details. It’s easier said than done when you need to keep them all in your head.
The saying “the devil is in the details” is never truer than in game design, and it’s your job to not be sucked down by them. This means you need to learn to have a healthy ability to focus on details and then move on.
This simple point can be the difference between making your delivery dates and causing the project to be moved out at great expense to everyone involved. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t focus on details. You just have to understand that they need rules around them to keep them in check.
Staying out of the hole happens when you set up a specific time period to achieve a goal. This nugget of wisdom comes from years of letting the details overwhelm me and spending way too much time going over minutiae that in the grand scheme of the game really didn’t matter. Eventually I realized that putting goals around details is the best way to achieve success. This comes in the form of setting a solid end-result goal for the detail you’re looking to achieve, steps to get there, and a timeline to get to that goal.
In this way you take control of the details. Now, this doesn’t mean it will always work out the way you intended, it just means you have to take steps to handle it instead of succumbing.
This breakdown and compartmentalizing of the details is not just a work skill—it’s also a life skill that should be practiced, as it will help you take control of aspects of your life that might currently have control of you.
Many people get sucked down with issues or details that in the bigger picture truly do not matter. It is this act of focusing and then moving on that will help you respect the details as well as allow you to carry on to better things afterward. It’s hard to do, as many of us are constantly brought back to these details by others, media, and the world around us. Learning to set a boundary for them will help you overcome them.
The first step is understanding that the details are controlling you, that they do not need to be, and that you can conquer any of them no matter how important they might seem when they first appear. You have to trust that you can do it and set up healthy boundaries to achieve your goals.
Steps to Success
- Take any object. Set yourself a goal to draw it, break it out into simple steps from the top of the object down to the bottom, and set a specific amount of time to complete the drawing.
- Take a feature for a game and set yourself the goal to write it up in one page. Break out the main points you want for that page and when you plan to complete it.
- Take an issue you are currently suffering with in your life, break it down to all of the variables that affect you, what you want to change about those variables, a final goal you want to get to, and a timeline to achieve that goal. Then do it. Action is rewarding.
Things get cut in games. It’s a fact and a reality most people don’t like to talk about, but it happens, which means you need to be ready to hit Ctrl-X at a moment’s notice. Most of all, you need to be emotionally okay when a cut is made but remember to choose your battles to fight.
The one thing a designer never wants to hear from anyone is “We are cutting that feature” (I’ve cried at these words). It’s a little like a doctor telling a parent, “We can save your child, but s/he’s going to lose a limb.” It’s really very hard at first to envision the whole when it’s missing that feature, but due to a menagerie of different conditions it needs to be cut to make sure the product gets out to the consumer.
It’s a fine art, really, to learn to accept this pleasantly and be able to ask the question, “What are we getting in return?”—and accept that whatever the answer is you will have to live with it.
On the other side, I have seen a great many times when cutting an unruly feature early can help the game in many different areas, such as leaving other features to change for the better. This leads to staff not working overtime and meeting your scheduled ship dates, which is the entire goal.
To help you emotionally divest yourself, you should have a top-five cut list in your back pocket in case you are ever asked if something can get cut or downgraded. (Use Good to Bad to Ugly if needed.) You as a designer need to know what cut will cause the least damage for the most value while still making a great player experience.
You’re there to turn a negative into a positive, and you need to understand that your job is to always be supplying answers instead of problems. In the same way, you need to have a list of what you as a designer would want added in if there’s any available time or staff.
On one occasion, my dates were pushed out and I got to insert a Blue Sky item that hadn’t occurred to anyone until the week before, which everyone had thought was crazy. We could insert it because I had it ready as a personal homework assignment.
Lastly, respond to the situation like an adult and know there are other battles to fight and better confrontations to win. You may have lost the battle, but you will win the war when the game ships.
Steps to Success
- Take one of your previous designs and decide to cut one item that, while it would be nice, does not contribute to the overall success of the game. Feel the pain.
- Take one of your previous designs you haven’t touched in a while and add a new feature that will entirely change the gameplay dynamic. Feel the joy.
- Hit on a human in a bar situation whom you perceive to be way above your league and learn to handle rejection politely and with grace. Then do that again and again. You will never see these people again and should learn to not care.
Alpha: The Sacred Art of the Pivot
It’s not enough to be focused. You also have to learn to pivot at a moment’s notice to focus on another area, feature, and even game. Think of it not like running a race but gearing up for a game of tag.
The ability to attack situations, problems, and goals independent of each other is a feat that many designers fail to ever learn, yet it’s something that would do everyone in the profession a great service. I call it the sacred art of the pivot, where one can simply pivot on one heel, swing around, and carry on running in another direction. An oversimplified view I grant you.
On many occasions throughout a project a designer will be asked to change focus to evaluate another part of the design. This requires the designer to drop their current priorities, headspace, and thought patterns to support another area for the company and the game.
I myself have succeeded and failed at this. It’s not enough to change your actions. You must also change your headspace to help the greater design effort, which is very difficult. If you have been focused on a specific feature for months and are one day asked to put together a new pitch for another game, it can be hard to shake off the remnants of the former task to support the next one. Plus, you also have to emotionally accept this chaos in your routine, which many people do not do well.
Over the years I have heard many fine designers say that they can change tack at a moment’s notice but when put to the test many fail to even pull themselves out of the headspace they are in with their current priorities. That’s not to say that they can’t do this, it’s just a skill like any other and requires practice. Many think that flexibility is just part of their personality and a natural skill—you either have it or you don’t—but that’s a load of misinformation. Skills take practice, practice is hard, and hardship breeds success later down the line.
That said, the best piece of advice I can offer is that you have to be ready every hour to do something different. You are not someone on an assembly line who performs the same actions endlessly every day until they hear the whistle blow. The more you can compartmentalize yourself on short notice, the more valuable you will be as a designer.
If you cannot figure out how to switch your headspace, I suggest getting away from your desk for five minutes. Go outside, sit, sketch, listen to music with your eyes closed, or anything else that in a small way breaks up your current focus to allow you to accept new stimulus in to get the job done.
Steps to Success
- Select four separate actions, two physical, two mental. Set yourself two minutes for each and jump back and forth between them.
- Now select two hobbies that involve logic and two that involve the arts. Set yourself one hour for each and jump back and forth between them for an evening.
- Spend an hour creating something. Then destroy it and be okay doing it.
Post-release: Nothing to Do Is a State of Mind
If there is nothing to do, you should be using that time to improve your skills. It’s not hard, you just have to have the drive to learn more, no matter how much you want to fall over.
Another great thing to do during your downtime between projects is to learn more. We are never bored as designers—if you’re bored, get out of the industry as the world is full of mystery. We as people only fall into laziness when we limit ourselves with crap stories that we cannot do this or that.
Pick up a book on any topic that you think will help you be a better designer. Sketch, paint, listen to music, and learn to use new tools you never thought you would have the time to play with. This is never discouraged in a company because you are working to make yourself better—and if anyone says different, tell them you’re working to better your experience as a designer, at which they will quickly leave you in peace. I speak from experience on this.
I had a junior designer once who was very much obsessed with fight sequences. In his downtime, he spent hours watching and cutting up fight sequences from movies to use for his personal research. The problem was our design director kept coming by and seeing him watching movies. One day, the design director called him into his office, and when he came out he had a book to read on time management.
He was dumbstruck because he believed he had very good time management skills, which anyone who had actually worked with him knew was true. I went to the design director and had a chat about why he had done this and found out that he thought the junior designer was slacking off all day by watching movies, even though there was little to no work to do until the next game was signed.
After an eye-opening explanation, I took him over to the junior designer’s desk and showed him the work he had done filtering something like 50 fight sequences into a video to show fighting evolution in media over the last 30 years to educate the other designers, which left the director speechless. The director promptly took the time management book off the designer’s desk and slinked back to his office.
The lesson here is to learn what you can when you can, but remember to let everyone else know what you’re up to as they might not understand. The perception of what you are doing and what you’re doing with it is very important.
Steps to Success
- Read a book on a design topic you never expected to read and learn everything about it. Then share what you have learned with others as everyone can benefit from learning.
- Learn a new tool you never thought you would have time to learn, and (like with the book) go through it with others, showing them what you have learned.
- Let everyone know what you’re doing or you’ll end up with a dry business book on time management, which no one EVER wants.
Live: Workflow Waves
Live period workflow is more like waves in an ocean instead of peaks and valleys in a development system. It’s a very different world to keep yourself motivated in, as there isn’t always a sense of urgency.
While I’ve spoken before in previous points about workflow in development periods that feels like you’re sprinting to the finish line, in life you need to learn to have a constant state of issues, work, and (on many occasions) time to finish what you need. I am always shocked that in the live period my work is much more like a smooth wave undulating from medium to high levels, which is a refreshing change from nothing to maximum amounts of work.
I’ve known many designers who don’t understand how to behave with their world set to medium when they only know maximum. Some actually screw up more during this period as they don’t attack issues with the same fervor or their fix success rate drops.
It sounds funny, but it’s really true that when a person is used to running on all cylinders they actually find themselves wandering aimlessly in circles due to not having any urgency to finish a task. The best I can say to you is that you need to learn to juggle this life just like you did in the development cycle.
Even though there might not be the urgency you’re used to, it’s good to keep yourself on a even keel in this period. Best way to do this is to set yourself daily goals and stick to them. I’ve seen myself and many designers flourish in this period because we have work to keep us busy along with the ability to have an outside life. It’s a glorious time—you just need to remember that work needs to get done to support a release.
Oh, and learn a very important skill: GO HOME, HAVE A LIFE, BE HAPPY. This is what the normal people have every five days a week with this mythical time period they call weekends.
Like them, you now have the chance to rekindle your life, connect with friends and family, apologize to your significant other if they are still around (I’ve seen too many relationships explode due to games development hours and stress). You will be able to enjoy hobbies again or the simple act of reading a book for no reason other than it looks like a bit of fun.
All of these things you need to get back into, and this is a great time for you to recharge. That doesn’t mean falling down (that’s a worst-case scenario), but actually going back to normal is a celebrated thing you need to enjoy.
Steps to Success
- Set yourself a daily plan of action and stick to it. GET ’ER DONE!
- Make a point of reconnecting with at least one outside-of-work friend.
- LEAVE THE OFFICE. Walk outside and take the weight off your shoulders that has to do with work. It feels great to leave work at the door.