In a talk titled 'Building Rage,' creative director Tim Willits expounded on the ideas that went into the creation of id Software's first-person shooter Rage, sharing effective paradigms and work philosophies.
Willits opened the Nordic Game Conference talk by explaining how the studio had initially been working on another title entirely, a survival-horror project that had been code-named Darkness, when the idea for Rage came into being.
"So, while [technical director John Carmack] was working on the early stages of the mega-texture technology, he began looking for data and assets. John downloaded terrestrial data from NASA and kinda fed all this geographical data of the U.S. into the prototype. As he was streaming all this landscape data, it kinda dawned to me that that was cool."
According to Willits, it was then that they decided upon the implementation of vehicular combat. "If we have all these large outdoor areas, what can we do for fun? We can drive around! After that, we thought, if you can drive around, you should be able to shoot, right? So, that kinda led to us putting guns on our cars. Then, we thought, what kind of genre or setting would have guns of a car? We figured it would be kinda of a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-y sort of environment."
After describing the conception of Rage, Willits went on to touch upon the key philosophies used during its development process.
"Make the game that you want to play. There's a basic rule in game development: If you want to play your game, if your team wants to play your game, there's probably a good chance that other people will want to play your game as well," Willits enthused.
"This is very important because sometimes developers make games that they're not very interested in. They end up working on sequels, movie tie-ins, Angry Birds clones and so on. Those games never turn out as well as the games you enjoy."
Willits also cautioned the audience to remember to ensure that their teams buy into what they're creating. He spoke about how the idea of vehicular combat had to be initially sold to certain members at id, something that he accomplished by having studio members compete in race prototypes. "The developer that won best time could put the trophy on the desk. It helped get the team excited."
In his talk, he reminded the audience that they existed in an industry of "limitless possibilities and infinite ideas". "Do not get stuck in such a rut where you feel as though the only way to be successful is to make another Call of Duty clone or an Angry Birds game. Look at those games that are successful, and see what you can improve on."
"Don't be afraid to take chances. There's a comfort zone for all of us, but you should still really push yourself within that comfort zone. Try to do something really different, and if you do that within your comfort zones, you can quickly recover if it falls though."
Nonetheless, Willits stressed upon the importance of keeping yourself grounded. "Check your sanity. You have this great idea, you are doing something different, you are tasking risks -- this is a good time to check with someone if you're not insane. The marketing folks and brand managers sometimes have bad reputations, but they're pretty smart. They spend all their time studying games and what is successful, after all. You should trust in the people who are there to sell your game."
Finding your team's core and its "ninjas"
While he acknowledged the importance of designing a great game, Willits was quick to advise the crowd to recall that they had to "create a game that the team can make." He added, "The discount racks are filled with games that had great design but failed in the implementation of them. So many times, designers try to do these great epic games with these inexperienced teams or the needed talents. "
"Team leaders and designers so often want the world to remember them but forget they may not have the right team to back them up. So, you really know what the strengths of your team are."
Willits observed that almost every team contains a core group of individuals. "Regardless of how big the team is, there are probably a few people in that team that are natural leaders. They aren't always the leaders, but they are people that other people listen to, people that lead by example."
"The game concept that exists in the mind of that core is probably the game you're going to get. Make sure that you're in sync with that core group of people. If you don't understand that core, you will become separated from your design staff, and the game will go astray."
Following a reminder to always be familiar with the technology that is being used in the creation of the game, Willits told the crowd to build on what they know. "Every experience you had in the past, you need to bring them to the table on what you're making now. This is so important. You have to look at the folks on your team and see who has been in the industry for a long time."
Apart from learning from the experiences of the veteran members of the team, Willits stressed on the importance of leveraging the strengths of the team. "Examine individuals. It is important to examine the individuals and their talent set. Every so often, you will find producers that make this waterfall of tasks that need to get don,e and they give these tasks to designers and artists that do not necessarily have the right skill set. These guys will try hard and they will want to do well, but if you don't examine the individual people and play to their strengths, your production will be flawed. You won't get the best of your game."
In addition to understanding the dynamics of the team and forming a close bond with the core members, the ability to look for "ninjas" is also important. "Ninjas are people that you give a task to and they go off and they do their task and they come back and they're done," Willits explained.
"For example, there's this story about the dragons of Skyrim who, as everyone knows, is a very big part of Skyrim. All that was really orchestrated by one guy. He was allowed to own that concept and from there, it was just built. We also had this one guy who was in charge of vehicle combat in id. One guy to make the vehicles cool. He owned it. And I think it was because he felt like that was his and he had design power and we gave him a sense of leadership. He wasn't a lead. He was just a guy with some great ideas."
"It's important to find ninjas in your group because the more ninjas you have, the better your game will be," Willits quipped.
He also added that it was imperative, as a leader and a designer, to foster an environment that cultivates genius within the group. "You never know where these great ideas might come from. A lot of things in Rage that made it cool were not planned from the beginning."
Allow your team to fail
Willits then expounded on the importance of permitting the team to take risks. "Within these comfort areas, let people take risks. Allow them to fail. Build a culture that accepts some failure. It's very rare to see a development schedule that has time to recover from fucking shit up, but it's important to give yourself that time because it always happens. Plan it in. Plan for geniuses, ninjas and that you'd screw stuff up. The whole development cycle will go easier that way."
According to Willits, this willingness to account for possible failure needs to exist hand-in-hand with production methods that work for the team, tool sets that have been properly understood, a comfortable environment and rapid prototyping. "Make the game fun fast. Until you have a feature in a game, you will never know whether or not it will be fun. You need to let these prototypes fail as well, as you will learn more from failure than you will from success."
"Constantly re-evaluate the game," Willits reiterated. "Make sure you're always playing the game, regardless of whether you're playing them internally or externally. You will have concepts in that game that are working. Expand on those concepts. You will have concepts that do not work. Put those back. It's okay."
Willits told the crowd it was all right to introduce external testing early in the development phase. "Every developer on your team has a different opinion about some feature in the game. The only way to know if those opinions are valid is to have external testers examine the game."
Developing your game's message
When it came to marketing, Willits was quick to stress on the importance of keeping things simple and elegant. "You only have one chance to announce the game. Be extra careful because what you say will haunt you for a long time."
Making an example of his own error, Willits expounded on how his enthusiasm for Rage's vehicular combat had led to the game being labeled as a 'combat-racing game,' a label he spent a year to abolish. "Start with a one-sentence explanation. With Rage, it was 'Post-apocalyptic shooter.' With Doom, it was 'shotguns and demons'. Once you have figured out your one-sentence explanation, work on one paragraph. When it came to Doom, 'shotguns and demons' became 'You are a space marine battling the forces of hell on Mars.'"
His explanation about the necessity of a concise message was followed by a reminder to always reach the core audience first. "For us, it was Quakecon. You need to reach your core first. Get them to buy into what you're making, and they will help you build on your base. if you can't sell your game to your core, you're screwed. "
"And don't ever change your message," Willits warned. "Find that one sentence, work on that one paragraph. Don't change to your message. Talk to your core. Repeat it. Don't jiggy around with your messages."
Lastly, Willits expounded on the key elements of a successful marketing campaign. "There are consumers everywhere, but there is only a limited amount of money that they will spend; customers will only buy the best games. You need to plan your marketing campaign from the moment you announce it until you launch it. "
He explained how effective planning can make the development process far easier by making an example of a vertical slice. "If you're making a vertical slice, you want to kinda design that vertical slice so that it can kinda be your first E3 presentation. You can then expand it into your first hands-on. Instead of making a demo while trying to make a game, you could cut up sections of your game and put them in your production cycle, and you use that as your demo, your hands-on, your cover opportunities and so on."