Note: This post, Know Production, expands upon my original post, The 5 Essential Qualities of a Creative Director, and is part of a series that include modified excerpts from my book, Directing Video Games: 101 Tips for Creative Leaders.
The path of directing games can be fraught with disappointment. The realities of game production can chip away at the director’s original dream until it’s barely recognizable. Characters and scenes get cut, shortcuts need to be taken, and parts of the game don’t come together as anticipated.
Seasoned directors learn from past projects and weigh the options when making decisions. They consider the risks, the technical hurdles, and the strengths of the team. Directors keep in mind the schedule and the overall scope of the project. They look at the trade-offs and how putting in a request for one ambitious feature might deny the request for another. As the saying goes, they must pick their battles.
Directors take all the production factors into account and figure out the best way to work within the constraints while leveraging the strengths of the team and technology. They also know how to pace themselves, avoid burnout, and ensure they have a healthy outlook throughout the long and arduous development process!
Tip #1: Create Within Constraints
Limitations are good. Projects are typically constrained by the team, schedule, or technology. Directors can push for more resources (which often comes down to more time and money) or learn to work within the constraints they are given.
Surprisingly, people tend to be more creative when they have limitations. No limitations can mean too much freedom, encouraging a team to investigate different avenues yet never edit or clarify their ideas. When there’s a smaller set of variables, it’s easier to explore the creative combinations and hone in on what’s fun. Embracing the constraints of a project is often better than trying to expand it.
Tip #2: Know Your Tech
Brilliant ideas can only go as far as the technology used to create them. While the level of technology does not determine the level of brilliance, it provides the necessary medium for how game ideas are expressed. Directors need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both the engine technology and the game platform to maximize a game’s features.
For the game Edge of Nowhere, we needed a frame rate of 90 frames per second (fps) to prevent people from getting motion sickness while in virtual reality. This was three times the industry standard of 30 fps! This meant that our graphic detail needed to be reduced to a third. How could we make a visually appealing game that met players’ expectations with such a tight constraint? That challenge was one of the factors in determining the use of Antarctica for the game’s setting. Snow-blanketed environments were naturally more minimalistic, and that, combined with the use of fog and darkness, reduced visual information that tends to hurt frame rate; allowing us to put more detail in key areas, like our hero and monsters.
By knowing our technical limitations upfront, we proposed a game and setting that worked best for the targeted platform.
Tip #3: Move the Ball Down the Field
Developing games can feel like a multiyear marathon with periodic sprints to hit deadlines. The path may not always be clear, but it’s often best to keep the momentum going and course-correct along the way, rather than halt progress to reassess. Directors who spend too much time trying to develop the perfect plan can get bogged down with second-guessing and become fearful of taking steps forward.
By following a “ progress over perfection ” mentality, the team will stay motivated and lessons can be learned while moving toward deadlines. Though it’s always wise to have a plan, there’s a point where it’s time to just start making stuff and see what comes out of the process.
Know Production and Know Thyself
Being a director is a highly stressful job. The position lies at the intersection where story, design, technology, and the schedule meet. Difficult decisions are needed to hit deadlines and keep the project moving forward. Failing to meet those deadlines can cause friction with the publisher, lose the team’s confidence, and ultimately hurt the overall quality of the game.
The director has a lot of influence over the future of the company, the people and their families, and all the hard work that went into the project. You’d have to be inhuman to not feel the weight of what’s at stake!
Finishing a game is more about endurance rather than winning every battle. Directors need to make sure they are in a healthy state of mind throughout a project and take breaks as needed. They don’t take every setback to heart, and have faith there’s a solution around the next corner. They’re in it for the long haul.
101 illustrated tips to improve your creative leadership skills.