I’ve been working in the industry for a while now, in small (Primus Vita, Outlast 2), medium (Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Just Dance 3), and huge teams (Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4), in all different production phases: conception, pre-production, production and post-launch.
Production and post-launch can be very, very demanding and stressful, but the most creative and painful period for me is the conception phase.This is both my dream period and nightmare at the same time.
Let’s start with the nice and bright side. Conception really starts with thinking about something that doesn’t yet exist. At this blissful moment, everything is possible. Isn’t this the sweet definition of a fantasy?
You have a big, nice sandbox and you get to imagine which castle you want to build.
It could start with a feeling, an idea, an intuition, a dream. An idea of an idea. A mind space where everything is possible, because you start with intentions.
And then… trouble begins.
Oh, not right away. You’re still in this dreamy illusion that you share everything with your beloved team, but in truth you’re all alone in your own fantasy of what this castle will be. Every single person involved in this phase is building a real thing, a real game in their own mind. You might even think, at first, that you really share with your teammates the same objective. You imagined a castle, still fuzzy, but still it’s a castle, and eventually the time will come when everyone will to try build it together. But, a few stages will be needed before seeing even the slightest structure of this castle.
You see, at some point in conception, you have to start acting on your fantasies. You’re getting paid for this (in the best case), no? So you have to eventually bring your genius ideas to fruition. You bring people into the conversation, back and forth, a few times. Around the intentions, you all narrow it down to the true meaning of your fantasies. Slowly, with this exchange of ideas, some will start to realize (or not) that the main objective has not so much in common with their understanding of the intentions, or their own fantasies, after all. The stage between ‘’here are the Intentions’’ and the ‘’let’s all meet and share our progress, after working for some time, each in her/his own little sandbox’’ - a lot has happened. The inner vision, the initial Intention, has taken different shapes within everyone. And this, in my opinion, is the nicest thing that could happen. But also the hardest.
From Storm Norm Perform
There is a teamwork theory that I learned to be true. It’s called the Form Storm Norm Perform stages. (Tuckman, 1965). If you don’t yet know this theory, I definitely recommend it. The wording chosen to name the theory says it all. First, the team is formed. The goal is not so clear (aside from ‘’we will make a video game’’), no one really masters any content or objective (it’s conception, right, you have to get inspired, day-dream a little, see lots and lots of different stuff, be aware of your emotions - about what triggers what in you - and you have to do most of those things alone). You’re not too sure what you’re going to bring to the project, or if you can bring anything…
Next, the Storm. This stage could last forever, until the project ends. I’ve been on projects like this and believe me, you get old, fast. It drains everyone. The Storm is the power struggle. Where everyone is figuring out what his/her contribution really is. Where everyone is not only playing in their own sandbox, but also in everyone else’s.
There are good tools to clarify the sandbox (RACI chart is one example) but, in my experience, what works best is nailing down, the fastest you can, the concept of the video game you want to make. It sounds like a no-brainer, that this is the exact goal of conception, and you’re right. This is the goal of conception. Go through that Storm, battle, exchange, brainstorm, build a castle, have it destroyed by your artistic director, or game director, or both at the same time, then start it over, etc. At the end, you will have a castle. Not the one you first imagined, but one clearly influenced by all of the others’ work. The main goal is not to build YOUR castle, but to build the best castle possible. The Storm phase is mostly going through a competitive struggle - people wanting to build THEIR castle instead of the BEST castle.
If you get the chance to work with reasonable humans, you can get over the Storm and enter the Norm stage. The competitive behaviour shifts slowly to a collaborative one. Slowly, and with the help of a good manager (managers are important!), everyone will get to understand what they should work on within specific areas of the castle-to-be. And, that they need each other, to build together rather than against one another. This is the nicest thing you can see happening in a team. The goal is clear. The objective is reachable, every single person knows that s/he needs the others to make a better product.
You’re ready to enter the Perform stage. You adapt to weaknesses and strengths of all members, and the castle is being built fast and well. At one point, it’s like you don’t even have to talk to each other as much, you all see the same product and what has to be finalized, re-done, polished, etc. in order to complete everything.
When I look at this with some perspective, the Form Storm Norm Perform theory aligns conceptually with some production stages - although they are not linked to them at all, there is a similarity there, a link.
Form / Storm / Norm / Perform could be linked to:
Pre-conception / Conception / Pre-Production / Production
And if I push it into clearer words for me, descriptive words that mean more than the names of the phases, I get:
Intention - Foundation - Crystallization - Completion
Intentions are just this. And they can - MUST - be interpreted differently by each team member. They have to make everything their own and be selfish for a little while - but not for too long, or everyone will get attached to their ideas and the Storm could hit hard. Intentions are the conception phase.
The Foundation is where you decide on a clear objective, you consolidate the Intention, put your hands in the sand and do something. You build the invisible part of the castle, the most important part (which pillars are the key ones, clarify the intentions and themes of the game and agree on those). This is the end of Conception, just before entering pre-production.
Crystallization is the pre-production phase. You made it clear as to what is needed for this game to be the best one. What is its core, its main theme, the pillars. It is quite clear who does what, and you pass to second gear. You all focus on the final product. Is the game good, fun, immersive, etc.? All your tasks are focused on the group objective, to enhance the product, not to push your own personal ideas.
Completion is, of course, the production. Every lead, every person on the team must now know what piece of a brick or a wall they have to make. There is still room for changes, although most managers won’t like it at this point, but the eye should always remain focussed on the final product, the entire game - and the decisions are quick to make (this doesn’t mean easy- some decisions are really hard to make, but with the perspective of ‘’will this new addition bring more people to play our game? enjoy it way more?’’ it makes it clearer).
In conclusion, the thought of entering Conception/Intention (with our second episode, featuring Hayao) is still scaring me - the goal is still unsure at this point and I have no idea of what will come out of this phase, but I know, just a little bit, what to expect. It won’t be easy, I know that. But I know we have to start with sharing Intentions, and this will lead us to build a solid Foundation. Then we’ll have to Crystallize, and finally, Complete it. We might age a few years in just a few months time, but I’m confident that, with the quality of my team partners, it will be worth every second.
I can’t wait to start all over again.