Strategies for Remote Development
As mentioned earlier, Tiger Style doesn't have a traditional office location, and all of its developers work remotely. "I don't think being a distributed company has impacted our final products, but it does change the processes we use to create and communicate design," says Smith. That involves the creation of highly detailed design documents, and the use of online collaborative tools.
As the creative director, one of Smith's most important jobs is to get everybody seeing the same end goal so that their efforts align nicely into a cohesive, unified work. Smith worked for years at game studios where people saw each other every day in the office, and talked often about the game they were designing.
You'd think that kind of direct, high-bandwidth communication would increase clarity, and to some extent it certainly does, but Smith also found that there's a tendency to take for granted that people understand each other when sometimes they don't.
"Comparatively, at Tiger Style," continues Smith, "I don't see everyone face to face, so I rarely assume they're picturing the same game I am. This puts pressure on me to provide effective direction. I find myself creating more evocative documents to communicate the vision and design."
When some problems can't be solved at the document level, Tiger Style turns to other solutions: "Sometimes things get tricky when we're attempting to solve a design problem, say something that's not working in the gameplay. Ideally, you'd like to converge on a whiteboard to sketch out your thoughts.
Editing diagrams collaboratively in real-time is a great way to brainstorm possible solutions. When that hasn't been available to us, we've at times just individually taken ownership over the problem for a few days until we can present a potential solution that's interactive and running in code. It's essentially like prototyping your answers instead of trying to talk through them. Again, it takes extra effort but is more likely to produce clarity."
Design Document Excerpts from Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
As noted above, Randy Smith creates detailed design documents to clearly convey game concepts to his remote team. Here's some samples of those for Tiger Style's first game, Spider:
"This document is the 'treatment' of a brainstormed game concept," says Smith. "Its purpose was to develop a one-sentence idea into a potential game design that everyone could envision. This was written quickly, as we were considering several concepts simultaneously. It's important that you be able to boil the essence of your game down to a small number of very succinct bullet points." (See slide above.) "This helps you identify what is most important so you can focus on it to the exclusion of potential distractions and embellishments."
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"In this case, we already see right away that this document describes a different version of Spider than what we shipped." (See slide above.) "We started with this concept but let the software speak to us once digital prototyping began, evolving it into a more accessible casual game. There was never any need to redo this documentation, but if I had, the second bullet would probably read something about the core 'action drawing' mechanic and the third would reference the environmental storytelling that quietly invites players into the mystery of an abandoned mansion.
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"On this slide [see above] I'm attempting to establish a tone that informed Spider: hip and realistic, not cartoony and goofy. In the end, we abandoned photo-real for an Edward Gorey-inspired illustrated art direction, but the tone set forth in this slide still helped to distinguish Spider."
Excerpted with permission from the publisher (Wiley) from "Game Design Secrets" by Wagner James Au, copyright © 2012.