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The Big Question - What jobs are important for pre-production?

Posted by: Stig Strand

Many aspiring games developers begin by jumping directly from an idea in to creating a game.

However once you’re running a studio as a business, the bridge between concept and production becomes a serious business to avoid wasting valuable development time. There are many broad questions to ask up front:- Who’s the game for? What’s the central gameplay mechanic? What’re your timelines? What’re the pillars of our game? What’s the budget? The more ambitious the game and the larger the team involved, the more there is at stake when linking the path from concept to creation. We asked studios, what jobs are important during this phase?

A gathering of minds

Jo Wilkinson, Producer at Flipbook animation studio in Manchester answers:- 
“In a nutshell, all of them! We like to get a range of people involved at pre-production stage, across the board - account handlers, producers, modellers, animators, concept and technical artists. Pre-production is when ideas are brainstormed, drawn up and realised. Those early ideas can come from anywhere and anyone! It's also at this stage we develop which routes we might take and where individual strengths can be utilised, whilst developing schedules and workflows. 
Involving all parties at this early stage drives the creative, develops ideas and processes, and also ensures going into the production stage that all parties and team members have a clear understanding and vision moving into production, which is key to the project’s success.”

Who does what?

Jonathan Amor is Operations Director of BAFTA-winning, independent game developer Supermassive Games. He gave us am insight in to who does what during pre-production at their studios in Guildford:-

  • Designer – creating a high-level game design, proving out key elements of the gameplay, writing the narrative
  • Concept Artist – creating concept art for locations, objects and characters, both for reference and to define the look of the game
  • Production Designer – specifying the locations, mapping out the environments and gathering reference to define the setting and time period of the game
  • Programmer – prototyping key gameplay systems, creating tools and systems for use in production
  • Audio Designer – creating audio mock ups to set the style and audio quality bar, selecting and commissioning music
  • Producer – creating the plan for production based on learnings from pre-production, and making sure everything is on track to hit important milestones like first playable

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

James Dobrowski Studio Head at CCP London explains why this phase is so important:- 
“Pre-production is one of the most critical phases of product development, and failing to do it properly will result in an over-budget, late, or subpar game. By the end of pre-production you want a solid understanding of your games vision (it’s design, art style, technical architecture, etc.), the production pipeline in place, a full game-roadmap with an understanding of outstanding risks and unknowns, and as much of the team on-board as possible.

To get to this place, you ideally need to have as much of the team in-place as possible to support the planning and preparation process, with the lead of each discipline – production, engineering, art, design, audio and QA – on the team from the get-go to drive things forward in each area. By the time you move into production you want the team aligned and fully bought into the vision and the plan”.

The Team as a collective 

Several jobs coming together for pre-production doesn’t imply any blurring of roles however. Artist, Designers, Coders etc will continue to uphold their specialism but bring their input;- “it’s impossible to do it properly without the right specialists in each area driving the decision making process” Dobrowski told us.

Andreas Firnig is CEO of Nosebleed Interactive and is currently putting the finishing touches to Vostok Inc. due for release later in the year. He told us “rather than a particular job role being more important than another, I think the team really being able to effectively communicate as a single entity, and get to the point where everyone has a shared vision for the project is the most important skill to have for pre-production. It means that everyone has buy in and ownership of the product, and it makes steering the project much simpler. It also allows the team as a whole to know where each member’s strength lies and how best to utilise those strengths”.

Staying agile

One challenge is to ensure the creative heartbeat is able to bring life to a great game without new mechanics or features hindering progress. Pre-production is all about mapping these steps however there is a level of agility needed to establish a feedback loop and identify and make any necessary changes. Dobrowski of CCP points out, “Making games, as with any creative endeavour, needs to be agile and the plan will change with time, however a team should have a long-term plan in-place to use as a baseline to support any future decision making – e.g. effect on budget of changing Feature X.” In some ways then the plans generated in the pre-production phase are designed to be broken, but the roadmap is key in a wider sense to sustain the greater vision and keep everyone involved heading in the same end-destination.

Smaller teams

Firnig of Nosebleed points out the importance of having a multi-disciplined individuals, especially within a more compact business; - “Being a small team means that there’s an element of everyone needing to be able to fulfil several roles, which in larger studios might be split across several people or even whole teams. During pre-production in particular, this “Jack of all trades, master of several” has a really positive impact on our projects, with prototyping and getting to a first playable being achieved much faster”. Provided all the key dependencies in each discipline are covered, there is some fluidity possible across who does what role, provided your team have the skills to wear different ‘hats’.

Service providers

For outsource studios providing services to developers, the pre-production process forms a key phase in ensuring a shared vision between client and supplier about what’s to be delivered. This isn’t unique to the games industry but is a principle for creative services that utilise the same production lifecycle. Jane Forsyth, Head of Production at Realtime where their mission is to create inspiring animation, cinematics and VFX told us:- 

“Representatives from all production departments get involved in preproduction to allow us to work out costs and schedules and plan the most efficient way to work through projects – this proves for a smoother process in the long run. 
If required, we use our creatives to write and develop treatments with our clients. Once agreed, storyboards or an animatic are produced to visualise the idea – this allows quick feedback for timings and content. Alongside this we develop an art document to discuss and confirm look dev, mood and assets.”

In a nutshell

Liam McGinley is Co-founder of Wibbu Ltd, an educational video-game studio with the goal of modernising foreign-language learning. He told us; “Pre-production is the fun bit! Researching and playing with new tools and tech. Seeing what we can do to push the hardware to squeeze as much performance out as we can. Prototyping parts of the game to find the moment to moment fun. Setting the art style and pipeline”.

All in all the pre-production phase equates to preparing to add in all the ingredients in the right way. As with any good recipe, it is not possible to miss any particular role out without changing the end result. However the flipside of this is that when the balance is right, the end game experience is often truly greater than the sum of it’s parts.

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