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Why We Should Stop Saying 'Vertical Slices'
by Clinton Keith on 12/01/11 10:59:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The other day I came across the this blog post by Ron Gilbert called The Vertical Slice in which he rails  against the creation of vertical slices.  The following quote struck me:

"Vertical slices might work in a medium where you start at the beginning and grind though in a fairly linear fashion and what comes out is 90% complete.  Maybe writing a novel works this way, but making movies and games do not.  They are an iterative processes.  You build foundations and the build up from there."

I love his image of the Mona Lisa's vertical slice.   But Ron is using a different definition of vertical slice than I've always used.  To me a vertical slice means is that we develop a feature to the point of knowing its value and use that knowledge to adjust the plan.  The point being that the plan won't tell you how fun something is: the game will.

Ron's definition is that vertical slices emerge from a plan that defines all the slices up front.  This might be a better approach from an engineering point of view over waterfall (fixing bugs along the way, etc), but  it abandons the benefit of iterating on a plan with a working game.  It doesn't surprise me that he's against that.

So maybe we should stop using this confusing phrase.  Maybe we should call it a "game increment", or something.  I'm open to suggestions.

By-the-way, here is how portraits were iterated on:

Do a Google image search on "unfinished portraits" and you'll see a lot of these, all with the heads nearly completed and little else in the portrait done.  Can you guess why?   It has something to do with prioritizing risk, and stakeholder value....things often spoken about in agile circles centuries after this was painted.

Also, da Vinci iterated on the Mona Lisa as well.


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Comments


Glenn Storm
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If it doesn't make sense upon hearing it, it is probably not what was meant in the first place. At that point, seeking clarity should be a priority, followed closely by solid communication (including listening to the idea repeated back, and listening in general), to ensure something as critical as this is not misunderstood. The fact is that clear communication is both critical and challenging, particularly with distributed or larger teams. Production and design personnel must take on that challenge very seriously. [Lee Winder recently had some positive thoughts and actionable steps to take on communication; include forms of listening in this: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/38769/Opinion_Communication_Is
_Key.php]



In animation, there are special scenes (typically, single shots, but sometimes a short sequence of shots) that are called out as representative of specific challenges the team would face during production; whether these have particular qualities, quantities or unique values that suggest a large pile of unknowns. These are called 'Hero Shots', but they have other names. They are the scenes that are developed through the entire pipeline very early, to work through the pile of unknowns and arrive at something the represents a tonal target, a quality bar. During this process, the team also learns a dramatic amount and reduces the pile of unknowns.



(There's foundation-building going on at this point, and it should be understood that this practice is _for the benefit of the development team_. Presentations to those outside the team, dealing with something critical to the existence of the team, like green-lighting for example, call for a very different kind of presentation tailored to that audience with that purpose in mind.)



One of the names alternately used for this in animation is 'Vertical Slice'. And although these shots would still be treated like any other in the film and iterated on to some extent, they are called 'Hero Shots' as if all the shots in the film were people, and these were the leaders, leading by example. Strangely, if the Mona Lisa were an animated film, the picture shown in Ron's blog post is probably pretty close to what it would look like. Sounds silly, and it is. It should be understood we're taking a phrase relevant to one medium and erroneously trying to directly apply it to another. This is what 'Vertical Slice' can mean in that medium. The phrase 'Vertical Slice' is used in other mediums or disciplines as well, further confusing the issue.



Absolutely, Clinton. If we're using this phrase for anything besides clarity (convenience maybe? habit?) we should stop using it, unless the understanding happens to be shared by everyone on the team. It might be better to call the things we need to collaborate on by its function or its developmental relevance directly. 'Early Playable Level', 'Working Boss Fight', 'Puzzle Gameplay Prototype', 'Pre-production Visualization' ('Pre-Vis'), etc. Clarity is key.

Jeff Beaudoin
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I think your scope is just different from Mr Gilbert's, though I think his definition is closer to the industry standard.



A vertical slice as you describe sounds like it is limited to the first implementation of a single feature, which makes some sense, as long as the feature is small enough that you can prove it out and then iterate on it in exactly the manner you describe. I am not sure why the initial implementation of a feature would be called a vertical slice though, since it isn't finished. You are just describing iteration.



Ron's issue is with a vertical slice for a whole game, where you are expected to make one level or section that is "shippable quality" so that everything else will be able to be finished very quickly after that and you never have to touch the vertical slice again. It doesn't make any sense, doesn't actually work, and only results in an inferior product, which is his point.



If you haven't worked on a project that required a vertical slice of the type he is describing then you are luckier than I am.

Andrew Grapsas
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Vertical slices are supposed to be when everything comes together. You don't stop iterating at that point. Pre-production isn't over at that point. However, frequently, that's what happens in a studio pushing to get a project out.



The VS should represent a cross-section of what the game will feel like and give the team an idea of what it takes to build out a scene, a moment, etc. with the tools, technology, and constraints of the product. This is when you're shaking out your process, proving initial assumptions correct or incorrect, and are generally trying to reach the end of pre-production.



Ideally, the end of the vertical slice creation should signal an end to the fabrication of the main components of the game, proof that they're fun, engaging, and work with one another, etc.



Now, whether that's what happens or not, that's up to the studio. I've worked at a studio where the VS was awesome and another where the VS was a lie held up for the publisher.



Additionally, re-evaluation of the product is always required. "Now that we've added 5 more levels, does it still jive? Is it repetitive?" etc.

Clinton Keith
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Andrew, I completely agree with you (again).

Clinton Keith
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Glen,



Good points with respect to animated films. It reminds me the stories of Pixar animation, where movies do have vertical slices and horizontal slices to flesh out story and quality, yet there is a strong culture on iteration...even to the point where a Toy Story movie is scrapped 50% through.



Jeff,



This is the problem. There is no "industry standard" for "vertical slice". There also seems to be some confusion to its origin:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_slice



Yes, I've been on projects that pass that mythical "production" or "content creation" date that are tasked to created shippable quality levels. In reality, we're never ready to do that because we're still refining the gameplay and the technical budgets.



A proper industry standard definition of a vertical slice would need to acknowledge the debt of uncertainty that remains on a project. It wouldn't be limited to the first iteration, but would be continually iterated on as the other layers of the vertical slice are refined.



This is a problem that faces the big bang projects that ship with a disc full of content after 2-3 years of development. Other projects that ship more frequently are less impacted by this.

Jamie Mann
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I'm intrigued by that wikipedia article you linked to: as far as I'm aware, the term has been brought over from the Agile development process, which came out of the business world back in 2001; a very quick check on Google indicates that Agile documentation was using the term back in 2004.



(I'm also mildly surprised that the wikipedia page hasn't been linked into the Agile pages on Wikipedia!)

Benjamin Quintero
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I find the term or even the idea of a "vertical slice" or "increment" to be a dangerous one. "Hack" might be an appropriate term, or just as similar.



To create these slices in a video game, it requires that you take all of the steps needed to put together a pipeline, game system, input mechanics, animations systems, and so on. The technology needs to be at least 80% complete and the tools need to be about the same to allow the artists to do their jobs. This implies that 80% of the work has to happen so that 5-10% of the game can be shown as a "slice".



The funny thing about a "vertical slice" of bread is that you have to bake the entire bun first... Many non-technical people lose sight of that, and doing a slice as those people would expect implies that you hack together a bunch of systems that you fully intend to throw away.



It's a slippery slope because deadlines get made under the assumption that the "slice" means the game is practically done and it only took 3 months! amazing! The term is often used by business-types who want to see a pitch for a game, or ones who want to deliver a pitch. We hear about games like Dead Space that would have never happened without the tireless effort of the team creating their slice. It just doesn't seem right to put that kind of stress on the dev team. In the end it simply feels like the exact wrong time to look for vertical slices when you should be focused on building the foundation, and using target videos to explain your vision instead.

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Clinton Keith
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Benjamin,



Right...that assumption that the slice is of "shippable quality" every time is a killer. This gets back to the disagreement about definitions. We developers are often happy to say that things are "80% complete" to get our milestone payment, but that remaining 20% usually turns out to mean another 80%.

Tynan Sylvester
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Seems to me that it really comes down to how much of the design effort is in content production and how much is in systems.



Chess: a vertical slice is the game, 100%.



StarCraft II multiplayer: A vertical slice might be one map. But you've still got about 99% of the design effort right there.



StarCraft II single player: One level, but you still need all the systems intact. Probably about 60-70%



Grim Fandango: The simplicity of the core game systems and the volume of content means that a vertical slice might make sense. You could make 20 minutes of gameplay with something like 30% of the effort of the whole game.

Matthew Doyle
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I think the idea behind the vertical slice works well for art/content creation, a little for game design, but not so much for code. Obviously, if you're building a vertical slice of the game, pretty much 100% of the code needs to be done that makes the entire game work. No one wants to do throw away work, so just hacking it in is not really an option. But, a vertical slice art-wise only requires the shipping quality art necessary for that slice of the game, and design wise, it may only require the core gameplay aspects that are seen in that level (which may and most likely will be seen in the rest of the game).

Andrew Grapsas
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Ideally, by the end of the vertical slice, all major code systems are in place. I've been on a team that has accomplished this and it's awesome to be a part of. Afterwards, it's spot-checking, bug fixing, iterating, and optimizing.


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