Creative Due Dilligence

True Story:

A few years ago I was hired to work on a video game project. Although I had game design experience from “pen and paper” games, I had never worked on a console game before. But I really wanted to! And some of the guys at the company recommended me, and I was brought on to help with “the story.”

My first day there I’m handed a three ring binder with an inch and a half thick document inside it. I’m told, “Read this,” because this is the design document.

So, excitedly I sit down and read the design document.

What I find is this: a description of the major characters in the game’s setting, a very, very elaborate backstory of why the game’s science-fiction-fantasy setting is taking place, lots of details about the city the game takes place in, a list of monsters, a list of weapons, the plot the player’s character will walk through, basic scene descriptions of the cut-scenes…

And… well. That was it.

I finished the design document and realized that nowhere on the pages was, you know, a game. It was an intellectual property waiting to be turned into a movie… But we weren’t about to make a movie. We were about to make a game.

No thought had been given to why what buttons might be assigned to what game-actions. No thought had been given to any unique qualities of game play that might make this game anything more than a half-baked Half-Life 2 re-tread. The basic assumption was that if you let the player move, shoot and shoot in an environment with an elaborate backstory you’d have a compelling game.

But, of course, this is nonsense. A person playing a game wants, first and foremost, something to do while playing the game. They want, in short, a game. The narrative context in a First Person Shooter console game is great icing. I think people LOVE having narrative context. (The designers at Blizzard called this, “Killing for a reason,” when working on World of Warcraft. The activities the players are sent out to do are all in the context of helping your tribe, or getting known to your elders, or saving the day or whatever. It’s still the same hacking at monsters, but that narrative context does wonders to make it feel special!)

So I went back to the lead designers and the producers and said, “Um, I’m not sure what the game is.”

The answer came back, “Don’t worry about that. Start designing levels.”

I answered, “How can I start designing levels if I don’t know what the game is?”

I pulled aside the other designers and, using all the background elements already in the design doc, we hammered out a game with a bunch of cool resource management issues, tactics that would vary depending on how aggressive or stealthy you wanted to be and so on. We designed a game.

Now, a few things. This was a real company, with major titles and sales under their belt.

Moreover, I wish I hadn’t experienced this again and again since that job, but the truth is, I have signed on to several projects — always late in the game — where the core design work has been slighted.

Basic questions like, “What make this a movie?” or “What makes this a game?” or “What makes this fun?” are questions that always have to be asked. And they have to be asked hard. Because simply rushing forward with a half-baked outline is a sure recipe for disaster. Yes, it might work. But most likely that will be a function of chance more than anything else.

A lot of ideas is not enough for what I call “Creative Due Diligence.” You are obliged to sort through the form of the media you are working in and figure out what works well for that form, what doesn’t work well in that form, and really press yourself to find what works best in this form that hasn’t been done yet. Some ideas might be great for a video game, but not for a TV show — and the ability to see that is what’s going to help make both a TV show and a video game better.

Creative Due Diligence is the Due Diligence you would expect of any company in financial matters — but in this case testing the basic premise of a creative project to make sure it is sound. It might not be sound from the get-go, but you work it and work it until you know you have something worth writing/making/sending out into the world.

Here’s an excellent example of Creative Due Diligence at work: Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer of Gears of War talking at the 2007 Game Developers Conference about how they kept building the game, taking the game apart, and building it again.

And here’s the terrific trailer they built for the game. Yes, it has scenes of First Person Shooter action. But it also touches on the game’s visual themes of a once beautiful culture that’s been torn apart by war. The spot was also shot completely in-game, which means that the whole ad is actually showing off the game. It’s all of a unified piece of design:

All of these design elements fit together: how will the medium match the core conceit of the idea match the music match the formal issues of shooting or writing it and so on.

Look at this clip from F/X’s The Shield.

For someone used to only watching network television, the camera-work might be too jerky, almost amateurish. The film stock is grainy, almost cheap. And yet… The look of the show is perfect for the content of the show. It’s about rogue cops in a rough-and-tumble section of L.A. Life is cheap there. Money is always a concern for the characters. It is not a glossy take on life, and so the look of the show is perfectly not glossy.

And just as importantly, it’s cheaper to produce than a glossy network show. The look of the show is built off of two hand-held cameras running at the same time, covering the actors at they do their damned best to find the simple and often rough truths of the moment. They shoot fast on The Shield, and it shows. But it produces a look that is a part of the show’s entire aesthetic and design.

Money and resources are vital part of Creative Due Diligence as well. You have to design to what you have, but you build the best version of what you can — adjusting and readjusting — to shape the material and the form and the production elements so you build a successful whole that looks all of a piece.

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