The Specialists: An alternative Development Method on Forge
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Our game, Forge, was released on Steam Tuesday, December 4th where it has been fluctuating between Number two and eight all week. To me, this is validation for a great experiment we began nine months ago.
Forge’s development was faster and smoother than any game I have worked on in the last eighteen years. While Forge is a completely independent title, self-funded and all that, the model we used is by no means strictly for indies. It is flexible enough to work for big budget-style games as well. Only it is so efficient they wouldn’t really be so big budget when all is said and done.
It is the result of experimenting with a new development model that I am convinced is not just valid, but possibly one of the most efficient methods for development I have worked with. I know that sounds hyperbolic but considering our careers are centered on finding new and better ways to make games, a discovery like this is the kind of reward that makes years and years of experimentation worthwhile.
Forge is an MMO style FPS played in 3rd person and built strictly for PvP. It may qualify for the most acronym heavy title on the market at the moment. Not only was it built within a new development model but the game itself is practically a new genre. The game design is also completely original, so we did not lean on a proven formula that would have artificially sped up development. For me, this is the test that determines it is more than just an efficient way to make a passable game, but that it allows for all the creativity and innovation necessary to make a great game. Whether or not you agree that Forge is a great game, I believe we have proven that the model is relevant for both Triple A and experimental indie titles alike.
Forge is the product of three specialty studios that focus on one specific area of development. SuperGenius is strictly visuals. Digital Confectioners is programming, and Dark Vale is design. The holy trinity of game development. By specializing in one area of development we are able to focus on the areas we each excel in and not spread ourselves too thin. For SuperGenius, because 90% of our work is as an art support team for other developers, we have to be flexible, precise, and efficient all of the time. Not just some of the time. We don’t have the luxury of pushing back milestones. We don’t have the luxury of throwing more people at a problem. And we definitely don’t have the luxury of requesting tools and technology from the programming team. We don’t have one. We have to live with what our clients supply and work within very specific constraints and schedules. And we have to produce quality every time. If we don’t, our reputation is shot and we don’t get paid. It’s just how our side of the business works. When we bring this methodology to the table for a codeveloped project like Forge, the result is we work much quicker and more efficiently than a traditional development team. If Forge’s development taught us anything, it’s that specialization works for all three categories – art, design, and programming.
The Development Method
Dark Vale approached us with the title. They were a recently formed company specializing in design and original IP. Having an in-house art and programming team just wasn’t in their business plan. They needed two teams they could codevelop Forge with. Art and Programming. They approached us after we were recommended by Epic. They looked at other studios, but turns out, we were the only ones really equipped to handle what they needed. The industry is full of outsourcing studios, mostly overseas, but they all specialize in simply delivering assets, not acting as full spectrum support teams, which just so happen to be our jam.
After a few months of meetings, documentation, proposals, and scheduling we were ready to move forward. For this development method, this first planning stage is crucial for making sure everyone is on the same page both technically and creatively. Tim Alvis, the Lead Designer and CTO of Dark Vale had been designing Forge for quite a while and his vision was very clear. It was a new kind of game, without much precedent but after wrapping our heads around it, it was hard to believe it hadn’t been done before. There are plenty of first person shooters out there that thrive with a PvP experience but none that put you in a fantasy universe with MMO-style skills. Again, going into this method of development does require a pretty strong vision from the beginning and Dark Vale did an amazing job solidifying the game design ahead of time. They knew exactly what they wanted to achieve and we were fast won over as fans of this future title. While we were sold on the concept we were a little nervous about the aggressive schedule and the idea of three studios working together to ship a game. We were attempting two new, unproven concepts and a lot was at stake. Now that we have shipped Forge and have seen its impact first hand, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been done before. It just makes sense.
Digital Confectioners came on a little later. They were also recommended by Epic. Within weeks they had a demo up and running with placeholder art and we knew we had a programming team that could pull off the game we envisioned. I documented the concept phase in a developer diary entry. You can read it here. In that post I explain how we came up with the art direction and why we made certain decisions.
Digital Confectioners moved fast. I attribute this to the fact that like us, they are a specialized studio and know their stuff. They aren’t distracted by art or design and can focus 100% on programming. They take it even further by specializing in Unreal 3 development, which means they live and breathe in that engine. It was the first time I had ever worked with a team of programmers who moved faster than the art. This is pretty impressive considering we had over forty people on our end and they had three. By the time we had a level, a couple characters, and their animation suites ready to go they had them implemented pretty much the next day. I remember clearly the day we playtested Forge for the first time. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. We had a game! And a good one at that.
The next few months we tackled everything. We had four maps, VFX, a whole faction and plenty of time for playtesting and polish. Forge came together quicker than any game I have ever worked on. Any reservations I had about this development model were thrown right out the window.
Because we are three studios in three different parts of the world, Portland, New Zealand, and San Diego, good communication is super important. When is it not? Thankfully, because our jobs require us to have regular communication with our clients all over the country, it all went pretty smooth, even with one of the teams being in Middle Earth. This is another example of specialization being a strength. For Forge, communication between the studios was, and is, supported by a combination of email, Skype, and development forums for posting and reviewing work. This keeps us in touch daily and allows us to have face to face meetings between all teams regularly. Living in the future has it’s benefits.
Trust is Key
For this model to work trust is a key ingredient. I can’t emphasize this enough. The whole point of specialization is to remain focused on what we do best. We had to trust that Dark Vale and Digital Confectioners would do their part every time. Dark Vale, being the designers and IP owners, initially acted as the glue, conveying their vision and making sure everyone’s priorities were synced, but once production started we all just took off in parallel and did what needed to be done. Dark Vale trusted us implicitly to establish the art direction and produce work that fit the IP and maintain a high quality standard while we returned the gesture and trusted them to design the skills and balance the game best they saw fit. Without this trust and separation of responsibilities we would have stepped all over each other’s toes and compromised the integrity of each other’s pipelines.
Of course in order for us to run in parallel the way we did, preproduction was equally important. When is it not? We took the time for art direction, documentation, and concepts to establish the rules and vision before taking off. This time in preproduction really facilitated the trust that the other studios would stick to the vision throughout the rest of development. All development requires careful planning and this method is no different.
The drawback to specialization is that none of us have the resources to make an entire game ourselves. Codependence is in our DNA. The benefits, for us at least, far outweigh the drawbacks and as long as we have partners like Dark Vale, and Digital Confectioners who specialize themselves, we are happy to depend on them to do what they do best and allow us to do the same.
I could not write this piece with a clear conscience without bringing up Unreal Engine 3. Without Epic’s magical technology none of this would have been possible. Unreal allowed us to hit the ground running and start iterating right out of the box. We have worked with virtually every commercial engine available and a truckload of proprietary engines and so far nothing compares to Unreal. Digital Confectioners not only specialize in game programming but are masters of the Unreal engine so we had an incredible advantage coming into this.
In a way Epic could be considered a development partner on Forge. They were the ones who recommended both SuperGenius and Digital Confectioners to Dark Vale and they supplied the technology. Epic is an amazing company whose contributions to the game industry are unparalleled. Throughout my career I have been repeatedly affected by Epic in a positive way and I hope the tradition continues till I retire. With every engine release they push video games further and further into the future and elevate the medium. I cannot say enough good things about that company.
I am convinced Forge would have taken a year and a half to two years and would have required a five to ten million dollar budget with a traditional developer. We did it for a fraction of that. I have no doubt that this is largely the result of the specialization model. It is also the product of the chemistry between the three studios, which is and will always be vital in the world of collaborative development. Whether a game is made by a traditional developer or by a partnership between specialization studios, there has to be chemistry fueled by a shared vision and a passion for the game. Otherwise no amount of talent or process will save it from being a disjointed flop.
We were incredibly fortunate to have found two partners who are just as dedicated and passionate about making great games as we are, and the chemistry between us is some of the best I have ever experienced. The chemistry would not have been the same however, had we not been specialized support studios. This is in large part, because we shared the same experience of being specialized support studios. We knew instinctively how to work together. A studio that specializes in one specific discipline, and acts as a support team for other studios cannot afford to be unfocused or work without a process. Quality, efficiency, and process are staples of our jobs, equal to skill, creativity, and innovation. We have to be extra vigilant about these things. To not do so would mean risking our reputation, losing money, and ultimately going out of business.
By no means do I suggest that the traditional model is dated. What I do suggest is that there are practical applications to this model and that it be viewed as a valid alternative to the traditional one. As long as there is a solid design in place, enough to build a game from, handing the development to specialized studios can be an extremely efficient method for producing a title with a limited schedule and budget. We were able to do it with an original IP and an original design, so you can imagine its usefulness on a title with an already established design and brand. On Forge, there was plenty of room for iterative development and we implemented a ton of new features throughout the cycle, often just by stumbling on them. We experimented and brainstormed and did all the organic things that traditional developers do. We had time to do them because we each specialize in our own areas of expertise and have eliminated so many of the unknowns in each of our pipelines. We also had an engine capable of performing the things we needed and the knowledge to implement them.
A Better, Quicker Delivery System
If Forge is successful and manages to stay on the charts we will continue to develop it and launch additions regularly. Now that the design has been tested and proven in the field, and the art direction is established, we can produce additions quickly and regularly, refining the gameplay and balance as we go. We are actually doing this now. We are developing a living world that constantly evolves to meet the player’s demands and provides our fans with a never-ending cycle of entertainment. We are doing this efficiently, so we can time new additions strategically for maximum fun. To me, this is the ultimate Holy Grail and the reason why we spend so much of our careers searching for the best way to make games. We are artists and entertainers and our medium is fun. We just found a better delivery system for it.
Paul Culp is the CEO of the Oregon-based video game Art and Animation firm, SuperGenius. www.supergenius-studio.com