There’s an old joke among game producers, that the job is herding cats. “What we’re doing,” explains Tim Huntsman, “We’re herding people across multiple disciplines.” The senior producer from Disney’s Fall Line Studio goes deeper into the topic, saying that programmers speak a different language than artists. “There are sub-dialects within that,” chuckles Huntsman.
Huntsman says that an engine programmer and AI programmer are interested in different things. “People are interested in what affects them up-front,” he suggests. A good producer learns to tailor that language – on the fly – to the individual.
On a process side, Huntsman recommends spending time at the start “to decide what it is you’re really building.”
“It’s been my experience that if you tell creative people to go do whatever-the-fuck they want, they don’t do anything, because they’re creative, and there’s too many things to do.”
Establishing that who-what-when-where-why-how early in the project is key to Huntsman’s idea of production. He describes a process of sitting down, and asking “What are our pillars? Let’s pick five things we’re going to hang our hat on.”
“Every decision we make for the next nine months to three years is going to circle right back to that,” says Huntsman.
It might sound like a limitation, and it is. As Huntsman states: “Creative people work very well within constraints, because they know where the boundaries are.” And knowing where the boundaries are lets the team go to the edge, or push the envelope if need be. “Which, in any creative endeavor, I think is vital,” he says.
The five things will be different with every project, every IP, warns Huntsman. “It’s absolutely relative to what the project needs.” He admits it sounds squishy, but offers an example from the Salt Lake City-based studio’s current project.
“We’re investigating the arcade space with the stuff we’re working on right now,” he says. “And a hallmark of the arcade is that your game needs to run at sixty-frames-per-second. That’s the center of our bull’s-eye for this project.”
Hitting the mark
Every decision the team makes going forward comes back to that decision. Huntsman says art is particularly affected by maintaining that sixty-frames-per-second.
Another pillar from the property revolves around anthropomorphic vehicles. Instead of crashing into walls and scraping paint, “These cars will actually put their wheels up to stop themselves from hitting the wall, because that’s their skin. It’s not the side door panel, it’s their skin.” Huntsman points out a decision like that effects your animation system, part of your design, input controls, and that the thread runs throughout the production.
Choosing five pillars lets you know what’s out of character, and what characteristics fit the game. As Huntsman explains, “The reason I try to enforce that notion of discipline is because it keeps you on target.”
Every project is completely different, continues Huntsman. And knowing what five pillars to choose is why game-makers are pros. He describes the ability to look at systems, extrapolate, or deconstruct. “It’s making that leap of faith, of what you want the interactive experience to be, and then just sticking to your guns, and making it happen.”
The benefits go far beyond just development, Huntsman notes. He says that, particularly for a first-party developer, rolling the message out to the entire organization, from marketing, to sales, to public relations, becomes easier to communicate.
The same could even be said for pitching and green lighting. “It works at every level,” says Huntsman. “It’s a simple messaging device. Get it out there. But at the same time, the team can stay focused on it.” Using the five pillars even curtails feature-creep, which Huntsman says every project suffers from.
While it starts at the concept stage, before pre-production begins, five pillars can even save a game that’s flailing in mid-production. “If you don’t have that,” Huntsman says thoughtfully, “You should probably take a week and sit down with the principal interested parties that are working on your team.”
“It’s not too late if you’re halfway through. Draw some lines in the sand,” he advises.
Fall Line Studio’s most recent title was Ultimate Band, and the developer is currently working on an unannounced title.