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If you went to a film studio and asked them to fully fund a movie production crew to explore concepts for a new movie, you would get laughed out of the room. Yet that is exactly what happens in many game studios.
Often there is no other choice. In studios with only one or two small game teams, concepts for games are created as a group effort by the development team. Although outside writers are sometimes brought in to help form the story, the seed of the concept usually comes from a passionate team with a great idea.
In contrast, the concept for a film generally has a lengthy development process before the production ever has anyone on payroll. The concept, characters, setting, and story are all laid out in advance in a 110 to 120 page screenplay. Screenplays are put through a rigorous vetting process known in Hollywood as script development.
Here's how script development works. A screenwriter toils away at their keyboard and creates a screenplay, which can take anywhere from two months to seven years. When finished, the screenwriter wipes the sweat from their brow and sends the script to their agent, who in turn sends the script out for professional script coverage.
Hollywood has a legion of professional readers that evaluate scripts for a living. These readers create a four-page report that summarizes the genre, time period, characters, plot, and location. They also rate the script on a pass/fail scale on various different creative elements. They often provide an overall feedback section with their professional opinion of whether a script will fly or bomb at the box office.
This aids executives in evaluating the viability of a concept in the marketplace. Once the agent feels the script is ready to shop around town, they send it to various executives and script development departments that would be a good match.
Let's stop here for a moment. I'd like to note that already, films have a huge leg up on games at this point. You start with thousands of amazing creative ideas that screenwriters have probably put a few years of thought into. Only the best survive and get sent to production houses, not to mention that agents are specifically sending creative ideas to houses they think would be a good fit.
So what happens next? The production house buys the movie and it gets made, right? Not quite yet…
If a production house likes a script, they buy it, but this is no guarantee that it will get made. Often scripts go into "development" to improve the script even further. When a director or actor is attached, they may also have revisions. Again, only the best survive. Some production houses have drawers and drawers of purchased screenplays on deck to be made "someday". Some are never made.
Finally, if the timing, screenplay, and attachments are right, the screenplay will be greenlit for production. Only then is a full crew hired so creative talent can bring the concept to life. Execution is everything. Even good scripts can turn into bad movies with the wrong cast or crew.
But the rate of failure has been greatly reduced by the forethought that went into creating the backbone of the movie during the script development process. Executives have had their say about income margins, marketing has discussed the viability of the concept, and now the movie can finally be cast, shot, edited, and released.
What Lessons Can Game Developers Learn from This?
Imagine a world where games had concept coverage services similar to films. Designers and concept artists could pair together and create proposals to send to production houses, which would in turn get professional game readers to evaluate the market viability of the concept, characters, artwork style, environment mockups, and story. The market would be flooded with creative professionals focusing only on concepts, and only the best game ideas would survive. Not only would this create more diverse and fascinating games, but they would have complete and cohesive concepts from the start, before any production budget is spent.
Perhaps I'm dreaming. A game concepting process similar to that of movies doesn't seem likely given the way the industry currently operates. Game teams pride themselves on their creative abilities, and part of the reason they get so passionate about their work is often because the concepts are their own. When game teams are passionate, that is when great games are made, an equation any good producer knows not to meddle with.
Despite this, there are lessons to be learned from film's extensive script development process. It reminds us that pre-production is by far and away the most important phase of a project. Evaluate and test your concepts at every single phase. Take initiative and create your own concept package before committing and spending time and resources. Your concept package could include key gameplay elements, a back-of-the-box one paragraph write up, a killer name, and artwork concepts for the characters and environment.
Hand it to someone you trust, and get their honest feedback. If you have a budget, put your package through playtesting and usability, with a sample build of gameplay if you have one. There are also market research firms you can hire to test your game concept in the marketplace. All these steps can be done by game companies large and small.
I hear a lot of talk at game conferences about the ongoing battle of story versus gameplay. In one camp, story is irrelevant because games are about good gameplay. In the opposing view, story is what the modern gamer craves and requires in a new landscape of high-quality console entertainment.
In my humble opinion, this entire argument is flawed. People are missing is that 90 percent of story is concept. Let me say that again. NINETY percent of story IS concept. By "concept" I mean the main character, core conflict, main gameplay elements, main enemies, setting and time period, and environments that make up the premise for your game. Every game has concept, regardless of how much "story" is there. Have you played a hit game lately without an environment? How about one without a one-line description or "hook" that made you want to buy it?
As every good Hollywood screenwriter knows, always, always, always think of the big picture when creating your concept. This is the number one key to making it successfully through the brutal trials and tribulations of script development. If you can't pitch your screenplay in one line to the head executive of insert-your-favorite studio in the elevator, you're dead in the water.
Once you have your concept, you need to carefully consider if it will do well in the marketplace. Will my end consumer think this game is fun? Will they be intrigued by the artwork or premise and want to learn more? Will they tell all their friends about it? If you pitch your one-line idea to 10 random people, do you feel confident as you explain it, or do you find yourself "shying away" from the concept or "explaining it away"? Once you feel confident you can sell the idea, only then is it time to commit to the concept, invest more resources and time, and move on to the next step in the process. Don't rush concept creation; it is the foundation of your house.