Here continues the Knights Tale: The Knight of Leads
It is March 8th, 2012. I am sitting in a Starbucks with our game's lead designer, Skotty Bechara, and he isn't very happy with me. He has every right to be annoyed. He spent all of spring break perfecting a design that we have zero likelihood of implementing.
"I understand what you're saying," Skotty says, "but just look at this way."
I let him explain his design for the tenth time. For the record, I have no problem with the design. It's a great design. Every piece of it is well thought out. Every aspect of it works on a mechanical, a systematical, and a thematic level. The problem is me. In my mind, I've made a pretty big mistake.
Over the past two weeks our development director has been nudging me toward the realization that our grand vision, full of sprawling levels and sweeping narrative, is completely unrealistic to achieve in the amount of time we have left.
Everything up to the end of February had been in preparation for Vertical Slice - the time at FIEA where projects present their progress and their plan and are either greenlit or cut. Projects that are greenlit have five more months to complete their games. Projects that are cut have their team members reassigned to other games. Plushy Knight was greenlit.
While I am in the enviable position of still having a team, with it comes the knowledge that our first two months seemed short and the next five will seem even shorter.
I listen to him explain his position and then I respond as I have the previous nine times.
"We're not going to have time."
How do you respond to failure?
"The only way I think we could have gotten our scope down earlier was to have done more concepting, prototyping and research during our first 2 months of development. This would have made it clear how much work was possible and how far we could have gotten given the quality we wanted."
- Jonathan Small Assistant Lead Artist
Scope is one of the most important words you will learn as a student. The moment you can place that word into context, you've hit a milestone. It's almost like riding a bicycle: you can get better at it, but you can never forget. My failure to adequately assess the scope of our design led to the waste of developer time and an overall setback to the progress our project. It was one of the hardest and most important lessons I learned in graduate school.
Our problem with scope was a direct result of our lack of focus on costing. Every feature you put in a game needs to be costed - you need to know how long it is going to take an artist to model a character or a designer to script an encounter or a programmer to create a plugin. Students are always going to be horrible at costing. Still, we should have been more proactive about learning this process. We should have leaned more heavily on the faculty to help us with this in the beginning rather than give up on it altogether. All of our scope problems stemmed from the fact that we were not taking time to quantify the costs of implementing a feature.
Thus, two months into our project, our team faced a decision. Our original design plan had called for three levels, each with its own epic boss fight, multiple mini-bosses, complex skill advancement systems for the main character, and even more intricate companion character systems that would allow for the execution of combo abilities. Given our timeframe, this design was no longer feasible. It had always been out of scope; we simply did not have the experience to realize it.
The simplest solution to the problem was to create one-third of our original plan, one level and one boss and one chapter of a story. A far more complex option was to redesign not only our level and our story but also our mechanics and our systems to meet our initial design goal.
Plushy Knight was pitched as a game not focused on violence or humor or horror or competition, but rather one centered on the idea of emotion. We wanted to make an emotional game. Ultimately, the team decided that goal could not be achieved without telling a complete story. Thus, we chose the latter option.
Rick Hall, the Production Director at FIEA, at one point lectured us on the merits of a great team. He said that at some point, every team is confronted with a moment of crisis. He said the difference between a good team and a great team is what they are willing to do when confronted with possibility or even the likelihood of failure. Robert Frost talked about the road less travelled and the will to travel it and that making all the difference. I think for our project this was absolutely the case. The experience was character-building, and I was proud of the way our team stepped up to the challenge. Nonetheless, it was a challenge that might not have needed to be faced.