Friday, October 19, 2007

Why The "Vertical Slice" Is Bad

I have heard that typical comment by publishers, "Hey make a demo if you want us to consider a new game idea."

Unfortunately, it serves the opposite effect. It hinders innovation. Not only that, it is needlessly harmful to young developers who need to be told that their game idea is not going to fly.

What would facilitate innovation is to begin talking at a much earlier stage - say with a written document - rather than waiting until an idea or design gets crystallized into something that just won't work or was never wanted to begin with.

You don't turn an architect away if they only have a blueprint, saying "How come you haven't actually built 20 per cent of your building for me to make a decision". No. You look at the actual blueprint, and any physical mock-ups, and then you say "yes" (to a next round of design) or (more likely) "no" - allowing the architect to go back to the blueprint, abandon the project, or (if yes) get onto the business of doing the remaining blueprints and hiring a construction company, interior designer, landscaper (etc) to get it made in a rational manner.

If you require people to make the infamous "vertical slice" of a game, what kind of an effect is that going to have on their design?

First, it is wasteful. It's one thing to get a "no" after a written document; but to, say, spend five years making (for example) a pirate game demo on your own then having a publisher say "Sorry, we already have a pirate game in the works" - thereby dismissing your product without even considering it - is just stupid. I mean, if you are going to apply for university, do you move to the university before sending in an application?

Second, it forces a demo team to use existing game technology. However, their concept may require new technology.

Third, if they are getting a team together to do a vertical slice the original concept now goes through a hazing process: it has to be sold to a crew of programmers, artists and so on, who want to work on it, who will want to change it, and certainly certainly are NOT going to spend a year or more making a demo for free on something really risky (translation: unless your concept already looks like an existing game out there [maybe with one extra doodad added to it], they probably won't get involved).

Fourth, making a demo is not a test of game design - it's a test of productions skills. Very often investors in games ask, "Can this company produce this game?" That should not be a question anywhere on the radar. Does a producer ask, "Can this screenwriter use a camera?" No. Does a corporate president or a mayor ask "Can this architect operate a crane?" No. The focus needs to be on design.

Fifth, by giving investors/publishers demos, they begin to think that game design somehow starts with the demo - that it magically appears out of nowhere. Translation: we make them stupid and lazy, because they don't have to hurt their brains trying to actually *imagine* something that is in a polymorphic state (such as a written design doc). We also make it seem that the innovation process is more akin to shopping than to what it really is. Innovation is not done with a shopping mentality - being presented with wares and then saying yes or no, picking and choosing among them. It necessarily requires imagination and visualization of its participants, and giving a demo skewers that. It makes the process and the publishers stupid. In the film industry, the producers (and stars and others who can greenlight a project) know that innovation doesn't start only after the cameras begin to roll - it starts at the very beginning: in the brain of the screenwriter. So they work directly with the screenwriter to get the script done right.

Sixth, no project should get ultimate funding to be made without a prototype first being made. That's what the demo is supposed to be - a prototype. However a far more effective way to do this is with what in other fields is a simple iterative R&D process. It simply makes more sense to expose concepts at an earlier stage, with a simpler prototype, like a tabletop or a design document. Eventually, you *will* make a vertical slice - but that should be done in tandem with a producer/publisher, not in some guessing-game process where the indie team has shot off on some direction and blindly hopes that what is made as an actual physical piece of code coincides with what a publisher wants.

In the end, the requirement for a working demo as a "price of entry" is just a cynical hazing ritual. It only occurs, sadly, because most game developers are quixotic and masochistic young men who almost fall over themselves to allow game publishers to utterly exploit them in a bug-eyed quest to become "paid to make games". (I have been paid to make games. Believe me, after you cross that line you usually start to notice that games are not really that much fun anymore - it is now a job.) Sadly, young men have a penchant for destroying themselves just to please their elders - they did it by the millions in World War One and they do it in their headlong quest to make publishers into passive wait-and-see types. The vertical slice does not make for a better game project - all it does is reinforce a culture of mindless action and sado-masochism over open communication (written or otherwise), a spirit of true innovation, and a sense of respect for others. Using a simpler means - like an early design doc or a very very early prototype (even tabletop) - to screen out projects that won't work, and accelerate ones that will, is a way to strengthen the innovation process, and reduce harm to the many whose game ideas will not fly.


Sam said...

When you first began blogging, I found myself curious and aligned with your cause. As I read more and more of your feelings, I find myself drifting further away from your mission.

It's a ridiculous thing to say that games shouldn't require a demo. A design is just a design, no matter how brilliant. That design needs to be executed. This is done by prototyping with a team. If I were a publisher, and I'm not, I want to see how well a team can execute a design.

If the raw design of a game is so precious, maybe it's more precious than the actual game that would be created as a result of that design.

Am I off-kilter here? Am I not understanding what you're saying? Help me understand.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...


Thanks for this response. I am used to getting crapped on personally, but you are actually taking issue with a point I'm saying.

You are absolutely right. A game needs a demo to be made. The question, however, is not *if* a game needs a demo, but *when* it needs a demo.

Every pioneering type project is done in an iterative way. (Even if the team is pitching it in a standard waterfall/scheduled manner. Here the iteration is simply disguised with a bunch of milestones that the team is guessing they can meet.)

What the publishers say, effectively, is we will only see the second or third iteration - which is the working demo. What I am saying is that there are disadvantages to waiting that long. Much better to begin the communication sequence earlier in the iteration process - like at the very start.

And also, the notion that a publisher wants to see "how well a team can execute a design" must fade in the future. Why? Because it isn't an issue anymore. There are two things we are talking about here: 1.) developing a game design; and, 2.) finding a production team. They are separate issues, but the industry conflates them to being the same thing. In the film industry they realize that they are separate. Thus, if a producer finds a script by an inexperienced absolute unknown that they like, they will still greenlight it knowing full well they crew-up with an outsourced, experienced production team.

The future of game design is that production-specialists are going to build teams that can do any project handed off to them (subject to their engine, tool and aesthetic focus); so the game design as a core skeleton must be considered separately.

And, by the way, this does not mean that the design would be some sacred cow that cannot be changed or added to. Even in the film industry, where the director of photography, the art director and other production specialists come on board after the script has been finalized, they still will totally shape the creative direction of the final product. So even in a scenario where a lone designer pitches a game design document to a publisher or a new-type game producer (not a traditional game company), the outsource teams that are hired to build it will absolutely have a hand in shaping the final product.

Sam said...

This does make more sense. I think one problem is that film scripts are a visual blueprint for a finished product, but game design documents (at least the ones that I've seen) are less finite when compared to the finished product.

Hence, it's riskier for a publisher to greenlight a game based on design document alone and no concrete form of the game in a playable state.

I'd love to continue this discussion offline. Please get in contact with me if you wish to do so.

Sam Kalman said...

Apparently blogger is having some issues. This profile should be publicly viewable.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Well, I just want to mention that a film script is only a blueprint. They still require a LOT of work to be developed into a film.

Find a film script for a visually-intense movie you saw on the Internet and contrast it with the final film. You will see how heavily they can be shaped and steered beyond the written script after they go through the production process. "Apocalypse Now" is a good example. The original script had a climactic battle with Kurtz and Willard (Brando and Sheen) fighting back-to-back against Victor Charlie swarming out of the jungle; but the final movie is more of an existential meditation on the meaning of violence in war, with Willard killing Kurtz to end his personal agony. (Watch the documentary "Hearts of Darkness" for more on that.)

Anonymous said...

I see you setting up straw men in this post and I think it is counterproductive.

You have not stated why the vertical slice is bad. You've said it can be bad, but not why. What is the production reason it would be bad. It certainly has been serving its purpose of getting a team to settle down and figure out what the game actually is.

You are also putting alot of arguments in the mouths of the publishers, but I haven't ever seen those said. I've never seen a publisher say that having a development team is not an issue.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to add to my comment above, I think asking "Can this company produce this game" is a very real and reasonable question. Making a game is not like operating a video camera. Teams aren't given designs that they just go off and execute, the process just isn't that cut and dry since it is inherently creative. Plenty of projects bite off more game than they can ship.
Most of the time the real question is "can this company make this game, with these features, in this timeframe, with these people, to this budget, and this quality". Very important to know where you stand.

Nobody, yet said...

"When you first began blogging, I found myself curious and aligned with your cause. As I read more and more of your feelings, I find myself drifting further away from your mission."

I'm experiencing the exact same thing. Your brilliance regarding certain aspects of the industry is clear, but it's much too easy to take issue with your points.

For example, you say innovation would be facilitated if publisher-developer interaction were started at the first iteration of a game (the polymorphic design document), as opposed to waiting until the designer could produce a proof-of-concept demo. But what can a publisher realistically do at this point in a game's life? You have an answer: they can "screen out projects that won't work, and accelerate ones that will".

Both of these options have serious drawbacks. Funding a game that "will work" prematurely accelerates the game's growth, but puts limits on the developer's freedom to revise the design document that brought them the money. Nixing a game that "won't work" in the early design stage stifles innovation by eugenically euthanizing games that don't look good on paper.

You know how risk-averse most publishers are. What kind of a game is going to look good on paper to them? A game that follows a predecessor to profitability. THAT'S a good idea. Anything else, they have to see it to believe it.

A demo's not a hindrance to innovation. It's the best way to display it.
That should be the focus: the demo as a visual aid, a picture worth a thousand words.
Even the act of creating the demo encourages innovation: if the demo is not fun and engaging, this is an opportunity to change the design.

"Fourth, making a demo is not a test of game design - it's a test of productions skills."
It is a test of game design. The production skills are just a hurdle. Nobody cares who programs a demo. All they care about is the strength of the experience they receive while playing it; that comes from the design.

In conclusion, you are awesome, but I think you are wrong here. The "vertical slice" would still be a good concept even in a world where designers could sell designs. Enterprising designers could even work with contracted production companies to create vertical slices of design, ready to be sold to a publisher's in-house production team...

If, in the years to come, I see the video game industry experience a golden age of capitalist segmentation, I will know that I have had the pleasure of speaking with its herald.

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

Here is the problem with what you're saying: the vertical slice is not used as a way to see if the game is playable. It's used as a means of exclusion.

You can tell if a game is playable

All game design is translation. A strategy game is a translation of the act of commanding unit (platoons, centuries, what have you) from point to a map and communicating, to using a mouse-and-keyboard. Playing a shooter is a translation of running around firing a gun, to using a mouse-and-keyboard. It works, somehow.

In the same vein, a movie company translates a written document (a screenplay) into a motion picture - by utilizing its faculty of imagination. In the same way a government body listens to a speaker propose a way forward for, say, agricultural production, and then enacts laws to implement that way forward. It is an ancient tenet of progress that we use words to describe things, and language to imagine it, BEFORE we do.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with vertical slices. I'm not saying you should go from a vertical slice to full production. What I'm saying is the vertical slice shouldn't be a means of exclusion. I'm saying there may be one guy who has a brilliant game design, but doesn't have the means to make it into the full vertical slice. In the industry now, he is instantly shown the door without even being heard out.

That is just plain laziness. The fact is, ALL game projects begin as a moment when people use words. I'm just trying to let that moment out of the closet.

nobody, yet said...

You're absolutely right that the brilliant designer with no means suffers because of this. My first thought was the "land of opportunity" defense, that if this guy's really so great he'll find a way, but that load of crap doesn't go an inch towards justifying the status quo. It is a shame that publishers haven't established a framework in which pure design talent can be put to use.

That said, there are sizable disadvantages that await a publisher interested in evaluating games at the design stage vs. the industry practice of evaluating them at the demo stage. One of these is the unpolished, first-iteration designs that come in. Another is the difficulty of establishing a framework for evaluating the worth of a final design based solely on these abstractions. These and other disadvantages could be theoretically overcome, but it's risk-reward.

I shouldn't have to be saying this, because you know it already. Unfortunately, like Michael Moore, you have a habit of undermining your points by neglecting to acknowledge the boring realities that interfere with impassioned rhetoric. What results are misleading presentations: in this case, you call publishers lazy for choosing to avoid a risk they're unwilling as of yet, for whatever reason, to take. On some level, your readers can sense the irresponsibility of calling a man lazy just because he won't go skydiving - even if the reason he won't go skydiving is because he is, in fact, lazy.

Anonymous said...

The reason publishers want a vertical slice is because it doesn't cost them anything and places the risk on the developer.

However.... most vertical slices aren't used in this way. Most are milestones during production not the pitching stage. They are supposed to represent a finished level (i.e. not a demo/prototype) and therefore they can be used to predict sales etc.

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

You're stating the obvious. Nobody is disputing that. What I'm calling into question is the effect this has on the process of game design.