Bruno Valenti got his start in the game industry via a freelance job as a level designer from one of his college instructors who was also a team lead at NGD Studios. Eventually he worked half- and then full-time at the mobile division of the company. Today, he is a game designer at NGD Studios and has been involved in the PC game Mis Ladrillos Interactivo 2, based on a popular toy brand in Argentina, 2 custom mobile games published regionally by Axe Argentina and 7 others published internationally by GlobalFun.
9:10 A.M. (I just need those extra 10 minutes)
I walk up the stairs and enter the NGD Studios' offices. I work on the first floor, where the underappreciated and lower-profile mobile games division works, even though our work keeps the higher-profile MMORPG division on the second floor afloat. After dropping off my lunch in the kitchen, I get ready to work.
I start off my day by checking email. I usually don't get much but most relevant are letters from our publisher forwarded to us by our team leader, Matux; usually these emails contain some feedback about the current projects or future ones. Due to the relatively short development time of mobile games and the fact that we aim to have at least two projects in development, these letters are more frequent than they might be in other studios.
Also, I often receive audio resources from our sound guy Rodrigo. I try to test them and make comments as soon as possible. Working freelance at home, he needs that immediacy and accuracy to make the necessary corrections. I find audio a little hard to describe when designing a game, but it's nothing that a whistle over the phone can't resolve. Beyond which, I always have him on instant messenger as well.
I check our bug and design/art/audio errors tracker. Being near three milestones, I just started using it and find it really functional. It helps keep my tasks very focused and somehow resembles accomplishing objectives in a game to me (am I that possessed by gaming?).
could say that the tracker checklist summarizes my production-time
activities. But I'll go back to them later. As a designer, I'm heavily
involved in pre-production too and I would like to comment on my
activities during that time first.
|NGD Studios' mobile advergame Axes: Marcales El Camino|
This week we were asked for a feasibility report for a reality show-based game. I have a very clear idea of what they want and think it's pretty funny. However, I still have to detail via a document how it would actually transform into a good videogame. Since the document will be read by the team leader, the publisher, and the client requesting the game, it requires a very flexible approach in what information is presented and how so that it is equally accessible to its readers. A difficulty I find in this period of development is finding that balance between satisfying the immediacy of the demand while making sure we don't promise something un-accomplishable in the future.
Also during this period, I need to provide our artist, Nacho, a vision for mock-ups. Mock-ups are very important for this kind of report but, if not done with the end result in mind, the art can end up limiting or not converging properly with the game's design. And since Nacho is such a spontaneous and creative artist, I have to act as soon as possible.
Nacho: "A certain-TV-show style would be good."
Me: "Yes, just not as grotesque. Besides that, feel free to use a cartoon style. Somehow, the characters' physical disabilities have to be highlighted so I think that style would be appropriate."
Team Lead: "Wouldn't it communicate a feeling of humiliation?"
Me: "The show itself is not about making fun of them, but having fun with them. It's about mutual laughs."
Nacho: "Ok, I'll start drawing a stadium."
Me: "According to the concept we were sent, the training seems to take place in a regular field rather than a professional stadium. Try to keep it modest, but beautiful!"
The artist sits right next to me, so we evaluate his work immediately.
Nacho: "I finished a graphic resource. What do you think?"
This presents a tricky situation for me. How do I, although having little eye for art, or even good taste for that matter, tell him, an artist, that his job needs a couple of corrections? It's easier for me when these errors involve functionality or something more up my beat.
Me, referring to the other TV show-based game: "I don't think those melted-looking gold ingots are correct because the animated cartoon [that the game is based on] has a very geometric art style."
Also, I help the artist cope with technical issues. His background is in traditional art, so entering mobile game development meant his skills are now expanding.
Nacho: "This petrol needs at least two frames of animation. It's floating in water. It just can't look static."
Me: "Nacho, programmers have already implemented it as a non-animated sprite, there is no space in the .jar and we have to ship this game.yesterday!"
Programmer: "Ok, will another frame work for you? You'll have it animated."
Nacho: "Ok, but now we need an animation for the petrol falling and another for the petrol touching the character."
Continuing with mock-ups; no matter how specifically I communicate an image to others, I always end up composing my own graphic prototypes. Cutting images from here and there (read: the Internet and/or Nacho's concepts), I can spend an hour and a half moving things from one side to another, changing sizes and colors and thinking and seeing how it would function and adapt to about 5 different aspect ratios! These heterogeneous screens in cell phones drive me mad, and I still have to find a good generic solution. In the meantime, I hope our lead can understand my apparently non-productive visual experiments!
As an aside, it was funny showing one of my "collages" to a newly incorporated programmer in an attempt to explain to him how the objects of a section should distribute just to have him say "No offense, but I think that GUI just looks grotesque." Of course it did! I take care of the function; Nacho takes care of the beauty!
Of course, pre-production means lots of research and design documentation, so I read and write quite frequently. By the way, be it help screens, story or any other text information, I have to write them in both Spanish and English. Plus, by the end of a project, I may be asked to write promotional text for the games. Although I know what our games have to offer to potential players, I think I could use some help from a marketing person. Anyway, the publisher seems to like my lines, since they posted them on their website!
|Another NGD Studios title, Charles Darwin's Ocean Life|
Coming back to production, recently I've been editing levels, and that takes most of my time. In fact, I went through several severe edits. It turned out that I tend to design very symmetrical and structured levels. This got more evident in natural environments. So I opened them and added some randomness, but they ended up with the player getting lost, as well as being ugly and lacking detail. This was a major drawback and I'm trying to catch up. Fortunately, things are coming to a good end. The levels are starting to feel and look good!
Right behind me, as almost a representation of the traditional rivalry between designers, artists and programmers, sit the programmers: "Camus", "Brutus" and "Jesus." Beyond casual talking, I know that any question coming from them represents some weakness in my design doc and therefore a challenge to my designer skills and my very being as a designer.
I mean, I would love to make design docs that are perfectly precise and descriptive as to not to generate any doubt, but it's an impossibly idealistic situation: programmers are as logical and exact as their programs, so they will find errors or ambiguities in even the most detailed of design documents. Plus, understandably, my mistakes probably affect them the most. Something that is as simple for me as to say "now the characters can pick up items" means a patch in the code, code that for mobile devices has to be as integrated, clean, small, and pre-planned as possible.
Here's a typical me vs. them i.e. organic, artistic thinking vs. logical, structured thinking:
Me: "So, if an enemy robot sees you, it gets mad and starts running from side to side in its sector, randomly stopping and trying to shoot you."
Programmer: "Why would it start running from side to side? It would look silly! Where is the challenge? Why not just try to shoot you?"
Me: "Well, the robots in the TV show are extremely silly. They are almost moving obstacles. Also, we need to transmit a very dynamic behavior. Finally, the difficulty is actually trying to punch them, so by having them moving erratically, we actually offer a better challenge."
And that was the easier conversations. Sometimes it's a little more difficult:
Programmer: "Nobody will note that the text is not centered! Why do it anyway?"
And then I could go on talking about harmony, distribution, fast reading, patrons etc. but in the end I just have to say "Please do it."
Now, multiply this situation by lots of design decisions and you get half my job.
Time to go home.
All of this is somehow related to a fact I find particularly challenging: being an inexperienced, small team working on small projects, game design feels reachable to everybody. Even casual gamers in the team feel free to fight a design decision. I welcome that. It can make a game richer, it surely opens minds to different perspectives and I still have to win the respect and confidence of my team anyway.
On the other hand, this kind of democratic design can deliver an inconsistent, out-of-focus game so I have to keep a balance between having the team happy by hearing to all their suggestions, but softly rejecting ideas that undermine the integrity of the game. Anyway, if I can't convince the team about a decision using irrefutable explanations, then it means it's not necessarily the correct decision, or that I'm having problems communicating an idea, which is just a flaw in a designer's skills.
Speaking of communication, since I'm also a programmer, I know coding requires a certain level of sustained concentration, so I try to find the right moment to interrupt our programmers with questions about how some parts of the game work. Anyway, any hard feelings resulting from a heated discussion are wiped out in the obligatory "after-lunch" or "after-office" death matches.
Besides those breaks, I do play-testing too. Of course, it's wrong since I know where to go, what to do, how to do it, etc. whereas a player has to figure out all of that. In any case, I just can't say no to playing a good game. Besides, putting myself in a player's shoes is a fundamental part of being a game designer!