Why in 2018 I use a development method that is already 30 years old
Making games is hard
And the hardest part of making games is preproduction. This statement may seem discouraging. We all heard about very difficult periods of production of games and often saw light, simple and interesting periods of production. Why am I arguing that preproduction is harder? Because one of the aspects that can poison production is the preproduction that is performed during it. No matter how complicated the production is, it is much more difficult (and much more expensive) to execute it at the production stage. Let me explain: in an ideal world, no one would undertake the production of a commercial game that will fail. If you intend to create a game with the goal of making a profit, and you know that the game will not bring profit, then you will not go to production.
Despite the obviousness of this statement, many projects, including those in which I participated, could not have foreseen how their appearance, mechanics, sound and level design would be combined until the game was almost ready. The final production phase is a terribly inappropriate moment to discover what works and doesn't work in the game. Annoying or tiring mechanics have to be thrown away or recycled, which has an avalanche-like and costly effect on technology, graphics and sound.
At the moment of connecting all the parts (that is, creating the first playable version), you understand whether your team really went to the original goal. This is a completely inappropriate moment if you have worked on the game for several years.
“But game development is itself a chaotic process,” the straw scarecrow invented by me objects. Yes, it is right, that’s all. Innovation requires time, talent, wasted labor, and an infinite number of iterations. How to pacify this chaos and get the opportunity to create innovation without risking everything?
Remember how I said preproduction is harder than production? The reason that so many projects have a development process that resembles a nightmare is because in fact their pre-production never really came to an end. They put together concept art, several documents, perhaps even a white box . But all this is very far from the completed pre-production, at least according to Mark Zerny.
According to the Zerni method, by the end of the pre-production you should have one level of play, indistinguishable from a completed professional product. You cannot cut corners here. Demo is not the first playable version. Alpha is not the first playable version. The White Box is definitely not the first playable version. Graphics, animations, mechanics, and sound must work together, they must be amazing, and together they must look like they can defeat competitors two years later.
So why bother creating the first playable version if it takes so much work? Because, according to Zerni,
“This is the only way to get a good chance to create a good game.”
The point of Zerni’s method is not to exclude chaos from production, it is to exclude conservatism and chaotic graphics from preproduction. Games need innovation and experimentation, so you should not deal with them when the production locomotive is already rushing along the rails.
By deliberately devoting time to chaotic fast iterations, you allow yourself and your team to come up with new interesting ideas. You can change everything on the fly and try ideas that no one has yet implemented. Nothing is too dangerous, too strange or inappropriate for the genre, because you do not expect that all this will be transferred to production in its current form.
In fact, you need to work as if you are going to throw it all away.
Later, when the concept of the game begins to take shape, you take your best ideas and create the highest quality implementation for them.
Having survived in the flame of pre-production, you will learn about your project as much as most developers do not know, even after a few years of production. You already know what works, what does not work, what is interesting, and why the players will hate you. You know how graphics, animations, and sound combine with and support mechanics. You know everything that your avatar can do, as well as what levels, obstacles and / or enemies will be.
Probably the best thing is that you have already iterated at so many levels, and you know what costs they require, that is, you can accurately plan the schedule and budget. And now you can start creating your game, armed with accurate knowledge of how to make it, how long it will take and how much it will cost.
But there is one huge danger:
Caesar puts his finger down
The Achilles heel of the Zerni method is this: not every game will survive preproduction. If you have 5 level prototypes and still do not have the first playable version that can be presented to the public, this bomb, which two years later can break all competitors, then you killed the project.
“There is no point in following this process if you are not going to maintain a very high standard of pre-production.”
It sounds cruel, but do not forget that the whole point of the Zerni method is not to be in the situation described above: you are working at full capacity on the production of the project, a doomed game that will never work.
Skipping the pre-production stage is how to launch a rocket, and then start deciding where it should land, calculate its trajectory and calculate the amount of fuel it needs when it is already in the air.
When I look back at my failed projects, I have absolutely no doubt that it would be better to cancel them after 6 months of preproduction than after 3 years of production.
But if you have reached the end of pre-production, got the first playable version of release quality and your game is incredibly beautiful, then congratulations! From this moment, the work becomes simple; all you need is to make a game. Zerni puts it this way:
The first playable version of the release level proves that you have achieved exactly what your game is and what it is not, and you have enough knowledge to produce it. She draws the line between pre-production when you did not know anything, and production when you know everything.
Of course, I'm exaggerating - there is nothing simple in creating a game. But imagine that you have the ability to create levels, being 100% sure that the character’s jump distance will not change later. Imagine being able to see overlapping storylines in a one-page spreadsheet. Imagine that you don’t need to constantly rewrite documentation, throw away resources ready for production, and debate design in the face of an impending deadline.
I do not think that everyone should use the Zerni method. There are reasons for this. Since it’s out of date, many teams are able to use Agile or another iterative method. But this is the first time I am making a game on my own and I know that I am not the only one.
The studio is much more likely to recover from the failure than the indie developer who mortgaged his home. If you are thinking of investing your own money in the game, then for God's sake, first go in for pre-production. Do not wait until 90% of the production budget goes to testing the concept.
Exactly following the Zerni method has its limitations. One of them is that after moving from the pre-production stage to the production stage, you should switch from unlimited creative openness to unshakable conservatism. And this can be seen in the games of Zerni. Almost nothing new appears in the later levels of Crash 2, which would not have been in various forms at the early levels. Complexity increases, obstacles are combined in a new way, but the fundamentals more or less remain the same.
Crash makes up for the problem with what Cerny calls "special mechanics." In Crash 1, riding a wild boar was a special mechanic. But according to the Zerni method, special mechanics cannot be invented retroactively; it should be iterated and tested at the preproduction stage, just like basic mechanics.
Crash 3 has the greatest variation in the series: after each boss, Crash gets a new ability. Most of the uncertainty is offset by the fact that new abilities are variations of existing ones. The only truly new ability is bazooka. She also became the most awkward game mechanics; it is noticeable that it is not as polished as all other mechanics. Bazooka is an example of what can happen if you are not conservative at the production stage.
I dearly love games like Portal 2, Rayman Legends, Psychonauts, and Antichamber, in which it seems that each new area offers more innovation than the previous one. Most likely, such games cannot be created using the Zerni method, because it is impossible to separate their production and preproduction in this way.
Such games require constant (CONSTANT) iterations and testing at levels close to production. Otherwise, each new level will appear to be an un-tested prototype. Ubisoft and Valve have the resources to do this, but I don’t. The development of Antichamber cannot be compared, since it took a lot of time, and the graphics of the game are minimal (brilliant, but minimal).
I make a game with a tiny team and very limited resources. I don’t want to spend ten years and don’t want to finish development only to realize that the game was doomed a month after the start of work. That is why I use the Zerni method.