[Game designer Fisch looks into the process of making games, suggesting the ten biggest reasons why a game's production doesn't end up working out quite as hoped, and possible fixes for those issues.]
If you look at which games succeed and fail critically, you will notice the outcome is generally not due to a great mechanic or a new idea, but from competent execution from the moment of boot-up to the end credits.
Countless games such as Spider-Man 2, Stranglehold, and Assassin's Creed present the player with innovative concepts but fall apart when it comes to filling up the 10-15 hours of gameplay.
On the other hand, you have games such as Call of Duty 4, which brings almost nothing new to the table, but excels greatly when it comes to pacing and level structure -- keeping the player hooked throughout the entire experience. Even games considered to be innovative -- Portal or World of Goo -- would not have had their success were it not for superb execution.
I've worked with a number of teams that start with a very nice concept but run into problems when it comes to translating it into a compelling video game experience. I've noticed that certain practices tend to crop up that hamper a developer's ability to get the most from its design team.
I've organized these into the 10 "design process pitfalls" below.
This first pitfall seems trivial, but can actually have a large impact on the quality and efficiency of the design process. Ideally pre-production would include a set amount of time for everyone on the design team to play games in the genre they are about to take a shot at.
I've never seen this happen in a structured way. "Play time" can be hard for some producers to wrap their heads around, and the idea of scheduling a week or more of "research" for a five-person team can seem like a rather expensive play session.
Instead, designers are expected to already have a strong knowledge of what's out there. Unfortunately not all game designers have enough free time to play every game out there. Generally, the older the game designer is, the less free time he'll have. Furthermore, the games a designer chooses to play in his free time may not line up with the games he should play for development purposes. Many mediocre games, for example, contain interesting ideas and are valuable as learning tools.
Devoting time to playing other games in your genre can lead to a better product and save a tremendous amount of time. I worked on a project where a designer happened to play a game in the genre we were working in and "discovered" a better player navigation system than the one we had already spent months on.
On another project, someone "discovered" a third-person cover mechanic implemented in an unpopular game that was exactly like the one we argued about including. Weeks of debate could have been saved had we played this game and had known that the mechanic wasn't as fun as it seemed on paper.
Nintendo/Retro Studios' Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
When the designers all have experience playing the relevant games, their ability to express ideas to one another is greatly enhanced. One designer can say to another "We could have the lock-on system from Metroid Prime, except toggleable by pushing in the right thumb stick".
If the other designer has played Metroid Prime, he immediately understands what the one designer is thinking. The lock-on system does not need to be explained to him. Not only that, but he knows how it feels in his hands - something that cannot be conveyed with words.
I once worked with a lead who deemed the Gears of War grenade throwing system too complex when explained to him on paper. Once he finally sat down and tried it himself, he saw that it clicked and approved its inclusion.
It's important that the lead designer himself takes part in the research along side the rest of the design team. If the lead designer deems it "lesser important" the rest of the team is likely to follow suit. Furthermore since the lead is usually the main decision-maker, it's important that he is able to speak from the same lexicon as the other designers.
Implementing a period of structured game playing may require some persuasion. A producer will be more likely to get on board if there are tangible results -- for example, each designer could be required to present notes to the lead at the end of every day.