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Art For Art's Sake: Why Your Studio Needs An R&D Team
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Art For Art's Sake: Why Your Studio Needs An R&D Team

October 20, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Blitz Game Studios' R&D Experiences

Here then are some insights into what worked for us, and what proved to be dead ends.

1. Look to build quickly, component by component, towards a demo.

Concentrating on the components that will fit together to make a demo breaks the work down into very manageable chunks and keeps the momentum up. It also allows rapid response and change to successes or failures in the demo components and these may then influence the design of the demo.

The demo needs a high level plan. The components will always be a best guess on what building blocks the demo needs, and both will influence each other.

Keep your mind on the high level goals but be prepared to be very flexible about how you get there. One of the advantages of the R&D team is that they can cultivate a much more flexible and experimental approach than a game team can afford to.

Keeping individual components small and swiftly proving that any given component works on its own not only gives you the benefit of a quick turnaround but crucially allows you to maintain much greater control of what you're doing. It also assists with bug fixing when the components are plugged together into the demo; if you know it works on its own, the problem is more likely to lie in the connection with other elements.

Work fast and don't get hung up on polish at this stage; it can be a fatal tendency in our industry to want to polish everything! Force yourselves to ignore it for now and focus on getting it working -- making it shiny can come later.

A small library of debug stock objects and textures helps; these could be skinned cylinders, checker patterns, animated cubes etc.

Look to reuse whatever already exists in the company for tests; it helps to think of things as their most basic component, so for example a specific character can be used as a test case for any hierarchy with a skinned mesh.

Be prepared to be both swift and brutal in your rejection of failed approaches (usually because an assumption is flawed); it's interesting that a large amount of the failures we encounter tend to be less due to actual tech or design problems in themselves, but rather to an assumption having been made about how things should work, which on testing proves to be false. This is really important; you want to uncover false assumptions fast and rethink options. Arriving at this point should not be slowed down by large amounts of fancy assets or agonizing about highly-polished code.

2. Use all your team strengths to test ideas.

Games development is inherently multidisciplinary; the team should be set up to reflect this truth and the work planned to take advantage of it. On a short sprint of work, the whole team is likely to work together at the initial ideas generation stage (whiteboard, research reading, competitor analysis, etc.) They will then come together again as the component parts fit together into the demo.

At the component stage many individual elements can be proved out within one discipline (art, code or design) before testing out in combination. Use this to plan their effective prototyping -- for example the art team proved out many general principals of our compositing system functionality in Photoshop before going near the code. Another strength of this approach is that it avoids the curse of dependencies, which on a game team are necessary but which in R&D can be side-stepped; this helps further to keep everything moving quickly.

Lastly, don't be snobbish about interdisciplinary criticism; if a comment on an art component is helpful and furthers development, it doesn't matter that it came from a programmer! Always remember that players just want a satisfying experience from their games: they don't care how you got there.

Stress testing systems again after the first game showed rigging issues that were then rapidly addressed with custom Maya tools.

3. Force yourself to do a live demo as soon as possible.

R&D needs discipline and focus and to prove its way, and a live demo of the system being developed is the acid test for progress. Don't duck this, confront it head on! Remember that internally you will be presenting to developers who understand "work in progress" systems very well and can usually evaluate fairly what they see. Remember also to take their comments seriously!

Presenting to external clients does need to be carefully handled, but in our experience it has proved overwhelmingly positive. Clients are pleased to see a studio working on developing technology and a competitive edge that benefits their projects without costing them anything. It provides a contrast with studios which have a purely project-by-project focus, and helps to builds trust and confidence in the whole company which will benefit you in the future.

For us, the Company Day deadline for our first live demo really focused our minds. BGS' Company Day is an annual celebration of the work of all the teams within the studio, both development and support; hence we found ourselves demonstrating the character customizer live to 200+ people in a cinema!

This was a very important goal for us and really helped to get buy-in for the R&D team within the company. Much of what we showed in the demo was incomplete or placeholder, but people understood the potential and immediately began enthusiastically to discuss game possibilities.

4. Keep the whole studio, especially senior management, in the loop.

Bearing in mind the importance of the original high level goals and the fact that there may be an unclear route to achieving them, it is essential to keep the support of the CXOs and senior management (for this reason, as for many others, goals must always support the studio's future strategic plans and not be merely the random enthusiasms of team members).

Communication is the vital tool here: let everyone know what you are working on and why. This brings other unexpected benefits such as access to others' ideas and reading; we found the breadth and depth of peoples' contributions constantly surprising.

This sort of studio-wide communication is equally vital to getting the maximum out of your pitch process, as it gives additional ammunition to managers and the pitch team when they are talking to clients. Be prepared to support this, often at short notice, with presentations, videos, screen grabs, stepping in on conference calls etc.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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