Dev Blog Ep. 07: Paving the Road to Nekovia
By Liam Wickham, Lead Producer
This is the first in a series of production updates from me, Liam, the Lead Producer of Nyan Heroes. While it would be tempting to tell you about where we are at, instead let’s give you some background into the perilous road of planning a game. I hope that this will help illuminate the arcane world of game production, as well as the approach we are taking. In the battle for Nekovia, we need to translate the lightning fast reflexes of our cat warriors into how we make the game — every day that goes by without the PvP battle simulator is a day that Nekovia remains under the dark thrall of the Enemy. We work tirelessly together towards a common goal — freedom for Nekovia!
What is a Producer?
Game Production is a dark art that exists within nearly all but the smallest of games studios; production roles cover everything from straightforward project management through pastoral care to full production-line workflows handling tens of thousands of art assets. There can be many different kinds of producers just as there are many different genres of game.
Depending upon their seniority and experience, producers tend to be accountable for delivering the game on time, within budget, and exceeding all expectations — without crunch — then doing it all again when the game goes live. They assist in building the right team, make tough calls, cut losses, and need to be prepared to be ruthless with heart in order to do the right thing. The more experienced producers will be breaking down silos, enforcing collaboration, championing facilitation, and being models of servant leadership.
They will also be optimizing processes and workflows, improving how things work, supporting others so they want to be there, mentoring, coaching, listening, as well as delegating effectively. They fight battles where needed, change and innovate, have difficult conversations, keep us focused and relaxed, laughing in the face of chaos — of which there is plenty.
Many producers emerge from the hellish fires of game testing (also known as Quality Assurance)), where they often show a flair for organizing and management that gets noticed by the leads they work with. Others come directly in from completing game design degrees, using their foundational knowledge to assist in understanding the basics of game development. You will also find specialist producers who may have been, let’s say, artists, that end up becoming art producers.
In almost all cases, producers are expected to handle complex and complicated planning, with little to no formal training. This makes them ideally suited to the underground freedom fighter roles they find themselves in now. Many throw themselves into learning the foundations of project management in their own time, studying lean and agile methodologies, always bettering themselves for the good of others. Truly, we producers are a selfless bunch, often playing medics or meatshields on the battlefield.
Throughout this article, you will see artwork from our game world that were created with the support of our talented production team.
What does it take to plan a game?
Making a game is difficult. It is often a battle between encouraging game devs to “find the fun” and working to deadlines. There are incredible challenges that are unique to game making that you will not find in other industries. I write from experience, having been a project and program manager across a multitude of industries (Life Science, IT, Local & UK Government, Education etc.).
In other industriesplaces, you are generally making a product, such as an app, or completing finite projects, such as a new service for an internal customer. You can generally tell when the product is finished and when you can hand over and move on. Here though, we are attempting to wrap together the pillars of an articulated vision and manifest it into a live game that will breathe and prosper for years to come. We are not just releasing a game to PC or console in the old “fire and forget” mode either., we are instead part of the “games as a service” modern world, in which you need to think about how your title will serve players and keep them excited for years to come.
Indeed, the very concept that we are here just ‘making a game’ is rather idealistic. It sounds almost romantic, as if we are lounging in our smoking jackets discussing the intricacies of line of sight and real world physics all day while sipping cognac. While that may be true of me 😉, others are not so fortunate and actually have to do some work. But what work? And in what order? And who with? And to what level of quality? And to prove out which pillars or features? And to what success metrics? And for how long? And what if the feature turned out to not be fun after all?
The game is very much the end result of a mass of intricate interwoven interdependencies. Tracking who is working on what may sound simple, but with games it is always a case of who is working on how many things all at once. Producers are charged with bringing some focus to the planning and steering the galley across multiple maelstroms.
Studios generally start small and simple, with a concept team and tight focus, where they try to prove out if the idea is a good one (mostly to themselves). If they feel they are onto something, they expand and scale, build out infrastructure and frameworks for delivery, hire new people, wrap in more and more of the key pillars of the game vision, adding more and more features and trying to make all that happen without breaking it or skewing too wildly away from the original dream.
There’s no backing out now..
At some point they find themselves fully committed, producing thousands of art assets, perhaps generating hundreds of game levels or an entire open world to explore with countless quests, cinematic pieces, audio, animation and, of course, realistic weather. Every decision made has an impact on another team or the entire game — and this is where producers need to be intricately interwoven into the blood and sinew of the game and the people who are contributing to its manifestation.
These days, large games like ours are also very much dependent upon the success of partnerships with outsourcers and development houses. Very few studios can afford to make everything in-house these days and there are hundreds of outsourcing studios around the world offering to help. We are fortunate in that we already have outsource managers on board working directly with Tore, our Creative Director, as well as with production and the leads, to ensure that we are plugging any gaps.
Project managing these partnerships is another dark art. We are not simply ordering in a bunch of “arted objects”, but rather we are cycling through iterative levels of quality, as we determine if they are fit to purpose, if we still need them after all, if they require tweaking, if they are ready to be completed to final quality, and all the rest. At a simplistic level, this means placing objects in the game, seeing if they are fit for purpose, giving feedback, waiting for it to be implemented, cycling through that a few more times, and then probably using your in-house art team to polish them off to the releasable quality you need.
It is rather terrifying to realize that during this phase, we are also attempting to finish the game itself and probably have thousands of players having a go and giving us their feedback, while we work on any bugs that emerge. This can mean completely changing some of our earlier decisions and making large changes that can mean thousands of hours of work across all teams (internal and external) may never make it to the live game. Imagine working on the animations for a final boss for months only to discover that it has been removed along with the whole level as it failed when player-tested.
It is common for years of development to have been completed before anybody outside of the game studio even gets to see it. It is also common for the teams on the ground to be asked to work longer and harder for the final six months or year before a game launches, as all the problems finally emerge — only to discover they have to keep working just as hard as soon as the game launches, due to the slew of new bugs and new content that needs to be created, as well as demands from players for new or modified features. Game balancing and seasonal content means no rest for many of the hardest worked team members.
Perhaps you can see why so many games these days end up going well over budget and rather late.
Lean, Strong and Flexible
Much of what I describe above is true of the larger game studios, who have established teams and infrastructure in place. They are ‘ready to go’ when given a new game to make. They will write their design documents, assemble the troops and head off to a secret base to make their game. Particularly in PC/Console and with the big companies, you can wave goodbye to 4 or 5 years of your life making a single game. What is staggering is that often the game being made is not actually playtested with real players until 90% of the design and implementation has actually already been finished. Sometimes enormous budgets are consumed on games which were simply someone’s “good idea” four or five years previously.
In mobile gaming, there is a different emphasis entirely — using modern product development learnings, there is a data-driven approach to games, in which player feedback is expected almost from the first day. Games are created in a smaller, lighter form with rapid playtest feedback encouraged and measured. The iterative process of making faster changes and then measuring feedback has worked for mobile apps as well as mobile games. Although many of the larger mobile games rely on rather questionable habit-forming and addiction mechanics, this does not colour the effectiveness of adopting a lighter iterative touch.
At Nyan Heroes, producers create this same working environment that supports this agile development process, while also ensuring that the core foundational work you always need to complete is properly supported.
We are also working outside of the more corporate gamedev world in which decisions need to go through countless reviews and approval stages. Here we can move quickly, pivot fast and keep going without grinding to a halt. We have a flatter hierarchy and are encouraging our team to contribute and dream big.
Our strategy also focuses on deliberately hiring experienced leads who are willing and able to help collaborate with our co-dev partners and feed the outsource companies effectively. Our production team wraps around them, assisting and mapping out our progress.
When you work lighter like this, it means less time is spent on design documentation and more time on actual experimentation in the game — leading to the ability to assess success or failure far faster.
The Transparent World of Web3
With Nyan Heroes, we are partnered with the Web3 community and we understand that this is an opportunity. Rather than disappear and create a game we think you should like, we have been exposing our development to you from the start. So far you have seen some art drops, a trailer using in-game assets and most recently actual gameplay. We are also adopting a lighter, more iterative approach through the use of agile teams working together to rapidly develop and test out features. It is difficult with a highly ambitious and complex game like ours to expose much of that to players at this stage, but we aim to do it as quickly as we can. In fact, we have already announced that Genesis NFT owners will be able to take part in beta testing as a perk.
While I have been talking about game development on the whole, with Nyan Heroes we have the additional excitement of including blockchain features, such as the land sale, marketplace, and even the accompanying virtual world/social space and how we will plan these out. That can wait for another time though!
We believe that we are making a game that will stand the test of time and we cannot do that without you and our community alongside us. You can expect a great deal more transparency and engagement directly into our progress as we prepare to win back Nekovia together.
The Bald Producer