Provide Structure with Macro Documents

Provide Structure: How Macro Documents Keep a Project on Course

Posted on Posted in Creative Leadership

Note: This post expands upon my original post,  The 5 Essential Qualities of a Creative Director, and includes modified excerpts from my book, Directing Video Games: 101 Tips for Creative Leaders. The examples of macro documents below are from my experience of developing action adventure games, where the story and level design are key structural components. Many of these principles should be relevant to other genres.

Creativity is powerful yet unpredictable. Properly channeled, it can be the fuel of a project; motivating a team to create amazing work that aligns with the vision and builds momentum. Unfocused creativity leads to a team coming up with ideas that might be brilliant on their own, yet do not mesh with the overall game. If this issue is ignored, people will later scramble to fill plot holes, correct major inconsistencies, or find ways to inject fun into a lifeless design.  Morale drops as big features are compromised or cut, and the game feels like a patchwork of ideas; a creative director’s worst nightmare.

In my previous post, Hold the Vision, I mention how core statements provide the “magic beans” to grow the vision. These statements clarify the overarching goals ranging from a basic fantasy statement to familiar cultural references. They essentially give the team a place to start. As features get fleshed out, the creative director and team leaders must create high-level macro documents to further chart a course; showing how all of the aspects of the game fit into the bigger picture.

Below are some examples of these macro documents, starting with the king of them all, the Macro Design.

The Macro Design Outlines the Flow of Major Events

Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time Macro Design Document
Macro Design for Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time (Illustrated version)

The Macro Design conveys how all the levels, story events, and major game components fit together as a whole. This foundational document was originally devised and championed by Mark Cerny, who developed the Macro Design for the original Ratchet & Clank.

Depending on the style of the game, the Macro Design may need to be a flowchart that describes a branching narrative, or it could be a simple spreadsheet that lists the events of a linear story. It is a document that needs to be maintained and updated over the course of the project.

The Macro Design should stay high level and leave more detailed information to supporting documents like the story scripts and design documents. Team members need to be able to easily reference it and quickly understand how the elements of the game are structured together.

But before the Macro Design is created, the Creative Director and team need to develop various threads of the vision that help shape the game’s design and flow of events. These threads inform the Macro Design and later evolve into supporting macro-level documents.

Finding Your Macro Threads

As the team develops content based on core statements, threads of potential features begin to emerge. This might be a handful of fun gameplay mechanics, a series of striking concept images, or a short story synopsis.

For example, early production might produce the following:

  1. Prototypes and Designs. Prototypes that demonstrate fun gameplay, a sketch of a core fun loop, and a rough plan for how the mechanics are layered over the course of the game.
  2. Story Outline. A simple outline of roughly 15-30 bullet points that describe the major plot points.
  3. Concept Art and Art Tests. Paintings of locations and characters are created followed by detailed environment tests and character sculpts.

While the above is not created in a vacuum, it’s typical that different team members are focused on their own areas of expertise, and exploring possibilities. The project is in a very malleable state and ideas are being bounced around. Once the prototypes start to become fun, some striking visuals are produced, and the spine of a story begins to emerge, it’s time to further refine the pieces and make sure they are in alignment.

Developing the Macro Documents

The key to developing threads into macro documents is for the creative director and team to continually collaborate and look for opportunities on how they intertwine and influence one another.  A game mechanic might break the plausibility of the story’s premise, or a stretch of the game may feel too long and tedious requiring a much-needed change of pace. Compromises are often made, where one feature is pushed at the expense of another. But at least the creative director is making these changes at an earlier stage, where macro documents can quickly be updated. That’s far less damaging than making structural changes late in production after most of the game has already been developed.

Out of this back and forth process, the early threads mature into the following macro documents:

  • Game Design Overview The prototype and design sketches inform the Game Design Overview, summarizing and listing the game’s overarching features. This document typically serves as the pitch document giving a breakdown of the game’s features, but does not indicate how they fit into the flow of events.
  • Story Macro.  The story outline grows into a multi-page treatment with paragraphs describing each scene. The treatment is then converted to the Story Macro, a spreadsheet listing scene names, descriptions, characters, sets, and props.
Ratchet & Clank PS4 Scene List
A few rows from the Scene List of Ratchet & Clank PS4.
  • Visual Macro. Once story and game design become more concrete, concept art and screenshots are used in the Visual Macro, a flowchart or geographic map showing how the visual elements align with the story and gameplay.
Ratchet & Clank PS4 Macro
This is a cropped image from the Ratchet & Clank PS4 game Visual Macro.
  • Story Macro influences the Color Scripts. A close cousin of the Visual Macro is the Color Script, an image used for mapping out the color palettes, mood, and emotions across the experience. This is developed along with the story as the director, writer, and art director identifies the emotional beats of the game.
The Incredibles Color Script
This classic example of a color script is from the Pixar film, The Incredibles.

Macro documents and images like the ones above support the overall Macro Design; focusing on more specific aspects of the big picture. They should not include details that easily change over the course of production. All macro documents need to be consistent, reliable, easy-to-update, and readable at a glance.

Tools of Preproduction

Not only do these macro documents focus people’s creative efforts, they help everyone understand the scope of the project. Project managers and team leads can start seeing where resources are being requested and can begin negotiating and scheduling accordingly.

While it’s impossible to predict exactly how the game will shape up (and big structural changes may still occur), at least the project can start with a solid foundation; providing a structure for the team where they can channel their creative efforts to produce a cohesive and compelling experience.

For my next post, Creative Toolbox, I’ll discuss how directors draw from their experiences, research, and other forms of media to make creative decisions.

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