A Step by Step Production Framework
This is the production framework I’ve used over the years on indie and commercial projects, across both film and games. It takes you through the early discovery stages of finding that game worth making, getting setup right in pre-production to finally producing and publishing your game.
[You’re reading a post from The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Self Publishing Your Games Online series]
Started developing this framework way back in 2008 when badly managed projects, crunch and industry wide layoffs had me looking at Pixar and Valve asking “How do they do it?”
That kicked off 4 years of research into successful companies across all kinds of digital industries, interviews with my hero’s, and a whole hell of a lot of iterating on the process until I had something that worked well repeatedly.
Those stories, examples and anecdotes form the basis of the book I’m writing (can’t believe I’m writing a freaking book) but there’s enough folks right now who need this framework that I don’t want to wait until the book’s done to get it onto the interwebs.
This framework exists for one purpose: make awesome stuff sustainably so we can keep making awesome stuff for as long as we want.
Who’s this Framework For?
If You’re Going Indie:
Right! I’m going indie! That’s it – no trading the best years of my creativity for a wage making the same old stuff – from now on I make games that I want to exist!
…shit, what am I going to make?
If You’ve Gone Indie
Okay, this is it, I know exactly what kind of gameplay I want to start experimenting with. No one else is making games like this and there are folks out there who want to explore that kind of gameplay as much as I do.
…so, where the hell do I start?
If You’re In Production
Finally! I’ve got a game that I love working on! This is for real, folks know we exist and playtesting feedback is only getting better. Okay, time to go all the way and publish this…
…um, how are we going to do that?
How to follow this Framework
Just answer the questions. Don’t move on to the next one until you’ve answered the last. Some are going to take a lot longer than others to answer – and everyone’s answers are going to be different.
By going through these step by step you’re building a strong foundation to grow from. You’re making absolutely certain that you’ve got a game worth making, a community of peers for playtesting and feedback and a group of players that you’re already getting to know long before you launch anything.
Take this slow. Rushing ahead means you’ll end up wasting time and money on the wrong stuff and you open yourself up to being influenced by fleeting market trends and buzzwords of the month.
The great studios, the ones folks always say they want to work for someday, they all got to where they are now by taking things slow. Go on, you can do the same research I did. Look for their origin story and what they were doing way back in the early days of their startup. They were exactly where you are now, trying to find that sweet spot between the stuff they wanted to explore and what no one else was doing.
All you have to do is wait for the next “studio closes after layoffs” story for an example of what not to do: grow too big, too fast doing stuff that no one really cares about.
Framework Stage 1: Discovery
1.1 Your Niche Focus
- what kind of stuff do you find yourself doing / thinking about / working on (when you lose all track of time)
- what kind of people do you want to talk to every day (cause you’re going to – might as well be people you get on with)
- what resources you’ve got to work with right now (skills/contacts/knowledge)
Result: you’ve got a full character sheet describing what you’re focused on, community to belong to and what you’ve got to work with
1.2 Hook into Your Community
- where are these people online and off? attend meetups / reply to threads
- what are all of you really interested in that you totally want to explore in a game?
- what are folks already doing to explore that interest (other activities outdoors/indoors, not just games)
Result: a shared interest with your community that you want to explore through game development
1.3 Validate Your Theories
- how would you explore that interest in a game? what would that play like?
- anyone tried making those games? what did they do well that you like? where did they fall short?
- what gameplay possibilities do you still want to explore that they either left unanswered (or did badly)
Result: some unexplored gameplay possibilities you want to start testing out right away
Checkpoint: Wait! Have you got a full character sheet with your areas of focus, a community that shares your interests and a complete inventory of your skills/contacts/knowledge – AND you’ve got gameplay possibilities you want to start testing out? No? Don’t move on to Pre-Production until you do!!
Framework Stage 2: Pre-Production
2.1 Test All Assumptions
- what’s the cheapest/easiest way to start testing those gameplay possibilities right now?
- after playtesting within your community: what did people enjoy the most and what felt weird/klunky?
- do you really really want to develop this further? if so, what core mechanics would you need to get right first?
Result: gameplay possibilities playtested, both you and your community want to develop it further, core mechanics nailed down
2.2 Your Deadline and Milestones
- by what date do you need to be able to cover your minimum cost of living? (pick a ship date halfway between now and then)
- what industry events/competitions happen between now and your ship date that you want to get yourself to?
- which of those events/competitions make the most sense to have your prototype, alpha, beta and gold builds ready by (see definitions at the end of the article)
Result: you know how much you need to live, when you need to be supporting yourself by and what needs to be ready when
2.3 Create Core Development Infrastructure
- what’s the bare minimum business stuff you need to operate legally in your state? (Google time!)
- what skills/tech/pipelines will you need to develop to get builds of your game online for weekly playtesting? (peer to peer feedback)
- who else would find those skills/tech/pipelines valuable and will pay you for them? (example: how Epiphany Games got started).
Result: all your bare business essentials are in place, you know what core infrastructure you need to develop first and how you can keep the lights on in the meantime
Checkpoint: Have you sorted out all your bare minimum business requirements? You’ve developed or are currently developing all the skills/tech/pipeline stuff you need to get feedback and iterate on your game every week – AND you’ve got income coming in to keep the lights on? No? Don’t move on to Production until you do!!
Framework Stage 3: Production
3.1 Iterate, Playtest, Improve
- who can you send builds to to get feedback on gameplay every week? how can you make that easy to keep up?
- getting to alpha: every week ask “what’s missing for this game to FEEL complete?”
- getting to beta: every week ask “what’s missing for this game to LOOK and SOUND complete?”
Result: your game is getting better every week with feedback from peers AND you’re developing relationships industry
3.2 Self Publish and Distribute
- getting to gold: every week ask: “what’s missing for this game to be shareable?” (easy to download, play and share)
- share what you’ve learned: what websites can you submit articles to? what conferences can you present at?
- pre-launch: what would your community of peers and playtesters appreciate as a special “thank you” for helping you get here?
Result: you’ve given before you’ve asked, thanked the people who’ve helped you and the world knows you exist
3.3 Replace Yourself
- business automation: what plugins/services/autoresponders can you replace yourself with? (More Google Time!)
- distribution partner: what platform/portal/device is your community of players using?
- take a break: where have you been meaning to visit on holiday for some time now? Go there.
Result: your game and your players are taken care of so that you can take a break and start thinking about the next game
Checkpoint: Have you replaced yourself in the pipeline after thanking your community, contributing what you’ve learned to industry after releasing the game you’ve all spent so much time making? No? Don’t start this whole process over again until you have!
Definitions of Stuff
As much as I’d like to think that you’re as nerdy about project management as I am – I understand you’ve probably been spending your skill points on other things.
…and yes, while I look at life through the lens of table top game mechanics, things like skill points and character sheets will only mean something to those of you spent many many playing dungeons and dragons and white wolf games.
So, with that in mind, here’s some of the vernacular I’ve been using throughout this framework and what I mean when I say:
Character Sheet: A complete snapshot of everything that makes up who you are right now. What you know how to do, people you know, resources you have available and what interesting stuff makes you lose all track of time.
Testing/Playtesting: This is all about making sure we’re on the right track and testing big assumptions like “I can make something playable” and “people will enjoy this”.
Core Mechanics: Those mechanics that gameplay elements branch off from. They’re the basis of every action/calculation. If you took the core mechanic(s) away, you would have no game.
Ship Date: The day your game needs to be packaged up for digital distribution.
Builds: All work is “built” or “compiled” so it can be playtested and its awesomeness reviewed in context of actual gameplay (your art/code isn’t done until it does what it needs to do in game!)
Alpha: The game feels complete. It may be buggy and ugly, but the gameplay feels all there.
Beta: All polished, pretty and ready to be packaged.
Gold: All packaged up and ready to be distributed from your website and through a key distribution partner.
Key distribution partner: That portal/platform/publisher that will help you reach more of your customers (ie: the one your customers actually use).
Pipeline: The repeating series of steps/tasks/actions that have to be gone through for something to get done.
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