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  • A Day in the Life: Three Slices of Life from the Front Lines of Game Development

    [09.29.09]
    - Ben Schneider, Ben Lichius and Andrew Zaferakis

  •  Designer

    6:15 AM Chances are, I'm the only game designer out there who gets up this ludicrously early of his own accord. There couldn't possibly be more than three of us. But I like my mornings, the quiet before everything happens. Between a good walk and my other morning rituals, I'm rarely on my way to work before 8:45. Today, I get distracted playing Rogue Galaxy and am running a little later than that.

    9:35 AM Iron Lore Entertainment is situated in a lovely old brick (former) textile mill building complex, which sports some really long hallways. I'm in the parking lot now, and it will be more than five minutes before I reach our office suite.

    9:40 AM The office is still pretty dark and quiet at this hour. We're supposed to be in by 10:00, but not everyone is able to hit that mark. In fact, mornings tend to stay fairly quiet around Iron Lore, at least until 11:00 or so, even after all of us have drifted in. I often take this time to do the focused writing or planning that can be difficult when the company is at full buzz. After checking my email, a few daily web comics, and other web sites, it's down to business.

    Today I'm writing dialogue. Knowing that it's just a first draft, that design changes could scrap all of it, and that perfectionism is my enemy, I try hard to breeze through it, getting the gist right even if a few words are awkward. The enemy I can't avoid is research. I hit a detail about the mythos that I'm a bit hazy on and waste more than a quarter of an hour double-checking my memory against Wikipedia and a few other all-too-familiar web sites.

    10:00 AM After my first cup of coffee, I'm back to writing, even though by now my office-mate has showed up and I've got emails from programmers and designers to respond to.

    11:15 AM I've gotten some good writing done, but the distractions are starting to make it harder.

    Normally I'd start looking for something to do that's more multi-tasking friendly, but today, it came to me. Dave, the designer who implements all the content that I plan and write, drags me over to his cube. One of the quests that we had planned, which sounded great on paper, turns out to have some issues in practice. We sit in his cube, looking at the level in our world editor, discussing ways to solve the problems that have come up.

    The solution we decide on involves some scripting changes and tweaks to the AI behavior of the enemies in the quest. Dave knows the gameplay database pretty well, but this time we go to one of the gameplay designers, Shawn, to change the units so they work the way we want them to. Dave will make the changes and get it working. Later on, I'll test the quest and give him feedback on how it works.

    11:45 AM I update my schedule. What did I just spend the morning doing, again? Why is this part always so hard?

    I look over my to-do list and a large planning spreadsheet for the quests and other such content in the project. Sometimes I feel like managing my workload is some kind of spiritual Bust-A-Move. What's coming at me that I have to worry about first? What's farther off that I have to remember not to forget to worry about later?

    Of course these mental knots only happen at certain stages of development. When we're closer to finished, everything boils down to testing, polishing, and tweaking. In the pre-production and early production stages, you might have a head full of design ideas you have to sort out, but that generally just amounts to too many Word docs, or Post-It notes, or dry-erase board charts, depending on your process.

    I end up spending the time before lunch updating the quest planning chart and talking briefly with our producer about impending localization deadlines.

    12:05 PM Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I'd be trundling off to the gym (conveniently around the corner and downstairs), but it's Tuesday and the weather is gorgeous, so a couple of us go out to lunch.

    1:05 PM At my desk again, I quickly read through the rest of the web comics that I'm addicted to. Back to work!

    While playing schedule Bust-A-Move before lunch, I realized that I need to coordinate with our map guys and art team before they build a quest-sensitive part of the game. I walk down to the cube of the lead content designer, Tom, and start talking to him about how the area needs to work. This area features a large setpiece, which is built by our extremely talented art team. The two of us wander over to see Mike, the art director, and as we discuss what we need, he sketches examples with his markers on a sketchpad.

    1:35 PM I confer with Dave about some other art I think we'll need and make sure it's properly described on the art schedule. Then I check with the artist who will be making it and edit our quest-planning documents to describe the use of this object properly. Finally, I skim back over the art schedule to make sure that there's nothing else we missed.

    3:00 PM The Coffee Train. I brought this tradition to Iron Lore, which hails to my Stainless Steel Studios days. Every day at this time, a bunch of us walk to the café down the street. It's a break that gets our blood circulating, lets us focus our eyes on real 3D objects, and, most importantly, gives us time to joke, complain, and process the tumultuous phenomenon of more than 30 people working hard to build a video game.

    3:15 PM Second coffee in hand, I skim Slashdot, Gamespot (news and reviews only), and Gamasutra. A designer must stay informed!

    Some feedback has come in from our publisher's creative liaison. Much of it is on the quest and story content. I take my time reading it over carefully. I email my response to the design team. An email discussion thread develops where we go over the feedback. I work on the quest-planning spreadsheet while reading this email thread, which updates every couple of minutes. By 4:00, we've gone over everything, and I draft my part of an email response. We'll compile responses per department and send them to the liaison.

    4:05 PM I go back to writing dialogue. Although I'm not nearly as focused as I was this morning, it needs to get done. I plug away at it and make some progress.

    5:30 PM My brain is a little frazzled at this point. Since I need to check in on Dave's work, not to mention see how our map team has been coming on the areas where certain quests take place, I decide to do a little play testing. Of course, it's still work -- I keep my notepad by my keyboard and pause frequently to share bugs, ideas, and other feedback not just with Dave, but with the rest of the design team as appropriate. In my humble opinion, this sort of internal feedback can be as valuable (in its own way) as outside tester feedback. A good design team stays in excellent communication with itself.

    I type up the feedback and email it to all designers.

    6:50 PM We're in mild crunch this month. Crunch is a fact of the game industry. Even in studios that try hard to avoid it, crunch still happens. It actually hits me before everyone else. Because voice over editing takes a while, the dialogue needs to be thoroughly done before a lot of the other content. I worked much harder last month (mid-milestone). I'd be on my way home by now, but I know there's a lot to do before our milestone deadline.

    So it's back at spreadsheets -- every quest needs rewards. I'm adding a list of what rewards are needed where and writing notes in each cell so that one of our gameplay guys can pick appropriate rewards that won't spoil the balance in game, which is what would happen if I chose them.

    7:20 PM I wander back over to Dave's cube and we spend more than half an hour talking about how to handle several high-level quest issues we see coming down the pipeline.

    7:55 PM I find some responses to my earlier feedback in my inbox. I respond to each and shut down my applications. I toss my bag over my shoulder and tell Dave to go home already. He won't. Then it's back down the long, long hallway, to the parking lot, into my car, and the night ride home.

    - Ben Schneider

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