A few months ago, my graduation ceremony happened, ending my student life, and officially giving me a Master degree in Game Design after working on my last student project: Illtide. This project was a nightmare. And thanks to this event, I had the opportunity to talk about it one last time in public in front of a few people working in the industry, but mostly student in first or second year working on their projects. And instead of telling how “amazing” our project was, I thought it was better to be honest and talk about what happened during production. This article is a bit edited (and translated) transcription of what I said.
So first, let me present to you the project I’ve worked on with nine classmates for 4 months.
Illtide is a three player online action/adventure cooperative boss rush game.
To be honest, nobody cares about the game, and neither me or the team have interest in trying to sell you what we made or what we could make because nobody on the team would like to continue what we started, because we lived hell working on this project.
Our classmates can testify of how “salty” we were during production, so salty that we may have left marks in what used to be our working space. But, I’m still here to write about it, and the whole team was there during the presentation to talk about it.
So instead, I took the opportunity to tell you about the major lessons we’ve learned thanks to this project, in hope that you don’t make the same mistakes as we did, and if you do or did, tell you that you are not alone, and that solutions exists.
Let’s go back to November 2017. Game pitches have been selected by professors, a “pitch dating” event is organized, and everyone has an idea for which project to work for.
Students in management set a (scrutiny) with a completely neutral selection, not taking in account any sorts of “blacklist” or personal preferences of everyone to impose impartiality” …
Votes are in, and every team is formed with more or less joy as not everyone is going to work on, they’re most wanted project. That’s normal, that’s how it works, and it’s the same in the industry.
This is when the “Purified” team was formed (The game was renamed during production to avoid misleading ideas)
Purified, at first, is an Asymmetrical, Cooperative Action/RPG video game set in an universe mixed between fantasy and medieval.
Do you see a problem with this pitch? No? Absolutely normal, it seems to be a cool game.
This is also a game with online coop, with a third person view where our vertical slice prototype objective is to make a full level with puzzle that have multiple solutions and ending with an epic box fight.
Do you see a problem now?
If you don’t see any problems, you might be working for Activision or Rockstar and are able to work 110 hours a week on the project with a fully experienced team, but when you’re a student, It is impossible to be able to achieve this fully in four months.
Which leads us to our first lesson.
It’s always too big. Your objective is to reduce the game as much as possible and cut any superfluous features to focus on the essential parts of your game, and maybe you will get to add new thing (but you probably won’t have the time).
Spoiler: Every company has this problem.
But here we are, and instead of reducing the scope of the game, we went ahead and brainstormed about what we could do with it, and most importantly, what could we do to appreciate it as not all team members were happy to work on this project.
When we started, Indie Cade Europe was happening in Paris, and part of the team went there. We agreed on thinking about what we could do, and talk about it when everyone was back at school, to make sure everyone could find themselves in the project.
Do you know what is a creative direction?
To try and quickly sum it up for you. In my mind, creative direction is about finding a way to travel through an universe of possibilities without any navigation instruments. And, the objective in a project is to organize and cooperate for this journey.
To organize it well, you must define a “part” of this universe you want to explore : the scope. It can be big or small, and is never fixed (because as said above, you will mostly be working to reduce it throughout)
In the « scope », you will blindly travel towards what could be tour game. This journey is never straight, sometimes you go out of scope, sometimes you make U-turns, …
The objective here is to iterate, explore and try to evolve the game to its full potential, and find what’s essential to your experience.
This is just my theory, and I’m sure you are wondering about what we did for Purified.
When you don’t have any creative direction, or even worse, if your team does not agree on a single concept or direction, it gives you this mess. Everyone just starts making stuff on their own and following their own direction.
Everyone gets stuck on their own ideas, work on stuff that doesn’t make any sense for the game, and that does not combine together, and will most likely end in a battle of egos.
You then realize how lost you are, and how quickly the project is drifting. Nobody agrees on anything. So a new idea come up to start anew and reboot the whole project, to simplify and maybe try to get everyone back on board.
For us, this reboot was named GAMMUT, a small cooperative puzzle game. Something thought of in panic during break to try to create a new drive for the team, because, as we are making this decision, we are two months in, and we realized having aimed too big.
And this did not help. Not at all. It may have had the complete opposite effect by splitting the team even more.
So, to get back to creative direction, the lesson here is:
Choose who is going to choose. When nobody is agreeing on something, set someone to make the final decision for the team, and be professional by respecting this decision.
There are infinite ways to do this. You can choose a single person, multiple persons to be “responsible” for the game. This doesn’t means being a dictator on the game! A great creative director is someone that will be the captain of this journey and follow team flow and change trajectory as needed.
And yes, making thoses decisions are tough, but if you are making a game in school, you are here to learn and make mistakes. This is not the game of your life, you’re going to mess up. Embrace it.
OK! Now that you’ve over scoped your game and nobody on the team listen to each other, this is when you realize the real problem behind EVERY SINGLE creative project made in team: Communication.
If you want to make things as a group, you got to learn to communicate, and that goes through a few key points:
You are working, and will work with talented people that might still be learning about their crafts, but that might also have way more knowledge and skills in their work than you do. You are here to challenge them with your skill and knowledge but never denigrate their work.
If you do, you will only trigger egos and create conflicts where only teamwork and professionalism should arise from this.
And speaking of egos…
…Throw it in the trash. You are here to work together, so work together! Worked in the same space (we had the chance to have dedicated workspaces at ENJMIN).
It is possible to work remotely with online communication tools, but nothing will go quicker than turning your head around and asking the person next to you about this problem you have. Because any way to communicate online will only add noise to the signal, and in the worse cases, make you say “Meh… This can wait…”, because it will get lost.
So, to sum up:
Communicate! You are humans, talk to one another if you have problems or if everything is going well!
It might be difficult at first because you don’t know anyone, or have worked with this person yet, but that shouldn’t discourage you! Go eat together, plays some cooperative/fun games, grab a drink (responsibly), try to get to know each other. You are not to love one another, but you have to work together (again, be professional)
The reason I did this presentation, and wrote this article, is not to be haughty or to act like a “know-it-all”. I have no rights to be after making so few games. But the thing I know, is that the game dev industry lacks these kinds of stories to be publicly told.
We have great documentaries about game creation, the joy and passion that goes into making successful games such as the Noclip YouTube channel, or the “Double Fine Adventure” series, but you don’t get that much stories or coverage about why and how some games fails completely.
Because these failures represent days, weeks, or even months where everything goes to shit professionally and personally, because it will mess with you sometime both on a mental and physical level.
And that’s what happened for us. We hated each other more and more throughout the project, we were completely losing faith in our potential careers, we were failing interview because of it because try to sell your skills in a game company while your biggest project is awful. This was hell.
But the thing is that, after a while, you will get it. You will understand what being professional means, and manage to go through this project. This is hard, but to reassure you,
Everyone on the team is still alive.
We managed to decide on a creative duo to take all decisions, even if some people are not okay with them, you stay professional.
We worked hard on the universe, the design, the art and tried to hide as many flaws that were piling up over the last months.
And in the end, we put together a playable prototype. Extremely flawed, but it exists. You can find it on itch.io or see how it looks like in the video above.
Almost everyone on the team got an internship that turned into a full-time job (and we might be the team with the most people still having one at the time of the presentation)
So if you think you are currently living hell in development, maybe follow some of these advices. But be sure that, at some point it time, it WILL get better, and you are not the only one, nor the first one to live this.