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Getting your game vision right at the concept stage | GI Sprint

Graham McAllister details the challenges of aligning on a vision, why it matters so much, and how developers can overcome the issue

Often, one of the biggest problems in game development is knowing what you are meant to be creating.

Organisational psychologist and Team Sync founder Graham McAllister has been grappling with how to identify and solve this issue in recent years, inspired by Jason Schreier's article on the troubled development of Anthem for Kotaku.

But the problem is not unique to that game. To pick one recent example, Creative Assembly's now-cancelled Hyenas is reported to have had a budget of around $100 million, but developers who worked on the project – speaking anonymously – have said that the game's vision was unclear for much of the seven years it was in the works.

Speaking to boss Christopher Dring for GI Sprint, McAllister explains why aligning on a vision can be immensely challenging and also details ways that developers can overcome this problem.

You can watch the full discussion below, download it here, or find it on the podcasting platform of your choice.

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Why communicating ideas is hard

The biggest problem when it comes to the early stages of game development, McAllister explains, is how you communicate what the vision for the project actually is. What is shared and interpreted by another person is often incomplete, lacking vital information and, as it is shared across a development team, deviates further and further from the initial vision.

Thanks to this incomplete idea, every single person can have a slightly different mental model of the game vision as they are different people with different experiences.

"The chance of that vision being created by everything interpreted the same way by every single person is very, very unlikely," McAllister says.

This problem is exacerbated by the language used to communicate an idea. There is conceptual language – high-level, ambiguous, and hard to interpret – and concrete language – specific, often referencing features a game has, while lacking how it is to play on a human level.

The third issue with communication is one specific to the games industry: how it feels to experience the final product. McAllister says developers often find it very difficult to describe the feeling of a game or how an experience is meant to make the player feel.

It's vital to be aligned at the start of production

McAllister says that teams must ensure that they have nailed the vision right at the start of production. His research – and reading work from the field of management science – shows that everyone has to know what they are meant to be making, or risk wasting time and money further down the line.

"70% of the costs for a project are tied back to decisions made at the concept stage," he explains.

"But [the research] doesn’t say that 70% of the costs are spent in concept. What it says is that the decisions that are made during the concept impact 70% of the total cost you will spend later on, such as the size of the team and the scope of the game. You're making all those decisions at the concept stage; what are we making? What size of the project? How much do we spend on marketing?

"If you get that wrong, you will rebuild that later on. Again, we look at how much it costs you to redo something later in development; it's about five-to-15 times the cost you originally thought, plus more time."

Often, developers fall into the trap of thinking that they can just work hard on an imperfect vision and it’ll figure itself out later down the line. The truth is you’re just going to end up redoing much of this work – there’s no point in running quickly if you are travelling in the wrong direction.

"I hear a lot that: 'We're too busy, we just have to go and make the game'," McAllister said.

"But, if you're just going faster but going in different directions, you're making things worse. That will have to be undone at some stage and done again. Some people like identity, and some people think that if they have had success in the past, they know what they're doing. They find they have to tell their team that they don't know what they're doing, which reflects badly on them. They don't want to deal with that so they want to appear confident and just say 'We're going this direction'."

Poor communication has a human cost

Not all the costs involved can be measured purely in dollars. If someone is being asked to redo work because there was a lack of direction, or having to work overtime to meet a deadline due to wasted time, there is a human cost involved.

"[You can] burn through the goodwill of staff," McAllister says. "They're now demotivated. They'll say: 'We have to do it again' or 'We told you this was going to be a problem and you didn't listen'. When I was interviewing game developers about how they manage their game's vision, they said that because we're misaligned, people are experiencing friction, burnout, and erosion of trust.

"It has led to project cancellations. This is not just a technical thing – wasting time and money – this is essentially ruining the culture of the studio and ruining people's lives. People are unnecessarily experiencing conflict because they don't know what we're making and they're butting heads against each other to try and correct the problem.

"It's directly tied to the time you take, the amount of money you spend, the creativity of a project and the psychology of the culture of that team and studio… All of these things are directly linked back to that one single root cause. That's why all the evidence says this is the most important thing to a successful team, because it impacts nearly everything that a team does."

Know if you are not aligned on the vision for a project

If you want to create a good game quickly, it's essential that everyone involved with its creation knows what the vision for the project is. To this end, McAllister has spent years creating something called the 'Vision Alignment Check', which does what it says on the tin – ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to what they are creating.

He has also created a list of "potential signs that your team might be misaligned."

"The first one on this list is: 'I feel we are taking longer than expected to find the vision'," McAllister explained. "Time by itself is not the solution. Other items include if there are repeating discussions with minimal progress around which features should be in or out of the game. So if you're spending time and concept, but you feel you're making progress, that's fine. But if you feel you're in an endless cycle, then that's unhealthy.”

The last sign that you are not aligned as a team during the concept phase is that everyone involved does not understand the field of vision for the game well. This includes stakeholders or other partners external to the development team.

"So if you're in co-development, for example, or you've got a publisher, is the vision understood equally by everyone on the team or parts of the team? This is a team sport that we're participating in."

"The chance of that vision being created by everything interpreted the same way by every single person is very, very unlikely"

The team spirit also applies to your studio itself: you should feel comfortable challenging leadership if you feel like you're not aligned on the vision or you don't quite know the game you're making.

"I know this is difficult, but you need to challenge if you think you're not aligned on the vision of the game," McAllister says.

"This is a leadership problem. You need to have a culture where it’s completely okay – or better yet, encouraged, to say that you do not know what the game you are making is.”

He continues: "People might not feel comfortable speaking up in the studio if they’re quite new, and the company has hired some famous designer who's world experienced and has been in the industry for 20 years and has a load of successful games… Are you going to tell them that you have no idea what they are talking about? You should, but that's very difficult. Then we’re getting into the culture of the studio. They may say things that they encourage you to speak up; that’s easy to say, but really hard to do."

Stop and play your game as a team

One way to make it clear what the vision for your game is simply to play it. McAllister cites the development of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where staff working on the title would frequently play the game together.

This meant that everyone knew what they were working on and resulted in staff being much more efficient in what they were doing.

"[Nintendo was] trying to make Zelda: Breath of the Wild and they had to borrow 100 extra team members from another department to help finish the game in time for the Switch's launch," McAllister says.

"The evidence says you shouldn’t be working in your own little silo. You need to build up a team mental model"

"They said that the natural thing would have been to say they were busy, just work faster and work harder. But when they brought these 100 extra people onto the team, they stopped and played the game every few days to share knowledge. I think they called it 'horizontal information sharing' – there are lots of psychology studies that say this works. Knowledge sharing is one of your greatest assets. It's also called 'team mental models'. The more I know you and the more you know me, the better that team gets."

Whereas being aligned on a vision for a game is called a task mental model, a team mental model is all about how you are performing as a group to reach your end goals.

"For example, [if] I know you work in art and I'm working on something that I think might affect you, I will give you a heads up that this may impact you, so you work more efficiently. If you don't know what your team members are working on, and how they work on their problems, the knowledge isn't flowing around the company. The evidence says you shouldn’t be working in your own little silo. You need to build up a team mental model."

This doesn’t just apply to development-specific roles; everyone involved in the project's creation – such as those on business side of things – should be involved in playing the game together.

"Art sits beside programming, production, QA, the CEO, marketing, and so on,” McAllister says. "They're all looking at the same thing and saying: ‘Oh, that's the game you're making'."

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Alex Calvin avatar
Alex Calvin: Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist and writer covering the business of games, and has written for the likes of, Eurogamer, Kotaku UK, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK. He can be found on Twitter @gamesbizuk.
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