Video game industry veteran, Nick Thomas, and CEO/Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., has been through 10 years of creative kick-off meetings, both productive and unproductive. In this month’s Game Audio Artistry column, Nick highlights 10 tips to make the most out of your creative meetings.
One of the most daunting stages in the collaborative process relates to how and where to start with the creative and logistical partnership with a game developer or publisher.
Approaching a new game or, even more so, jumping in on a live product, can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. We have participated in more than a few meetings with game developers, producers, game designers, programmers, and creative directors wherein time was spent in discussions, but at the end of the call, we are no closer to understanding what is needed, or what the vision for the game is. This phenomenon birthed an approach for us that works well for all stakeholders in the project.
Developing a Process
Over the years, we have developed a tried-and-true process in which we lead these creative meetings and drive the conversation forward to a successful launching point for the collaboration— rather then squandering that key opportunity to drill down and get to the core of what is needed. We seize the moment at the outset to ask the key questions, explore the possibilities, and develop ideas that will help us realize the vision.
To this end, here is the SomaTone process for leading a creative kick-off meeting, along with key questions and discussion points that are often forgotten, but should be standard in nearly any creative partnership. These suggestions are outside of the obvious discussions on the scope, technical requirements, and timeline for the partnership, which are (of course) necessary details, but they do little to define the goals for the game or the vision of the game designers and producers.
Creative Kick-Off Playbook
1. No Surprises: It is amazing how rarely meeting agendas or creative summaries are provided from our clients prior to a meeting. So our standard practice is to take the time internally before the kick-off and create a list of all the key questions that need to be addressed in the meeting (many of which I will share with you below). Simply laying these key discussion points out in a format that is easy to edit or notate is a very helpful exercise, and provides structure and clarity to a meeting which can otherwise often feel loose and sloppy. Better yet, send these questions to the meeting partners in advance so they can prepare answers prior to meeting, and not be caught off guard and left thinking on their feet.
2. Creative Mind-Meld: The kick-off meeting is the best opportunity for a creative mind-meld. Getting inside the developer’s head and establishing the baseline for a collaboration are key to a successful outcome. Having access to and reviewing the GDD, concept art, or, best yet, prototype of the game build itself are highly important to clearly understand the vision of a game. Ask for these materials before the meeting, not after, so all questions can be understood inside a clear picture of where the project is heading, not on guess work and assumptions.
3. Use Existing Samples in Your Discussions and Don’t Forget the Love-Child: Looking to existing games, mechanics, art, animations, and musical scores is a great way to help frame a creative discussion. This is often confused as a process of cloning, which is quite different. It is amazing how often Candy Crush is referenced in a creative meeting (or Hay Day or other hit mobile games). However, 9 times out of 10, these titles are not referenced in an attempt to replicate the creative style, but rather to point to other aspects of the game, such as the mechanics or production values. To say I like ___ aspect of Candy Crush really helps communicate the vision without asking for the aspect of said game to be copied. Another tried-and-true method is the love-child analogy. “I’m looking for Clash of Clans meets World of Tanks” is a very helpful way to communicate the game style, mechanics, and production values, and gives us a very clear idea of where the project is headed.
4. Get the Vision: Who is the visionary of the project, or do they have a “vision” for the gestalt of the game? Often times, we find this is a role that developers are looking to outsource, while their primary concern is on the mechanics and technical execution of the game design. The exact look, feel, or sound of the game is generally a 50/50 split between the internal game producers and designers knowing what they want, or asking for outside assistance and leadership in helping to define the vision. Either way can lead to a successful outcome, but it is best to specifically address this early in the process so if a vision is not being provided, we can create one.
5. Know your Audience: Who is the audience? Sooner or later, all game developers learn that making music/SFX/art for an ultra-wide demographic means you make no one very happy. While it is tempting to say I want 5-80 year-olds to like my game, the reality is that this strategy is rarely successful, and if so, it’s often by mistake rather then by design. So, defining the demographic you are appealing to is key to the approach taken. A Pokémon-style card game is quite different from a slot machine in its demographics, and the creative conversation should leverage that key point, not hide from it.
6. Identify the Game’s “Wow” Moments: What are the key moments of the game? Game design and audio/visual supporting elements often have wow moments, or payoffs for the player at key times within the game play. These can be moments such as level up or quest complete, or are used to support other Free-to-Play elements to encourage the player to pay for features. These key moments are great to identify, so they can be given special attention and help brand the game. Internally, we call these “signature sounds”, which are the key branded SFX in a game that help brand the experience.
7. Factor in Time Expectations: What is the time play-length expectation? Is the game designed to support long play sessions, such as an RTS, or are they usually short and dynamic play sessions, such as Casino? Again, understanding the tempo of the game helps define how to support the game play sessions with impactful or more subtle audio. Long sessions, for example, call for more ambient, less thematic music that is not intrusive, with subtle sound design. Short game play sessions, such as in casino games, tend to really pop.
8. Think Ahead: What is the plan for new content support? Setting up a pipeline for new content is helpful to discuss up front, while still in the pre-launch production mode. Many game designers have not thought much beyond just hitting a code lock version of their games and successfully launching on the app store. An important comment I have heard many times is: “releasing a game is the easy part, growing your audience and supporting the live product is the real challenge.” Assuming this is the case, creating a plan for ongoing support is a good idea to discuss so all parties know how best to support the game post-launch.
9. Identify the Lead: Who is the ____ Lead, (in our case audio lead)? In AAA/Console gaming, there is almost always an internal lead who is tasked with managing the creative pipeline for whatever is required, such as audio. However, in many small studios, and even in larger mobile publishers, there is often no dedicated person assigned to the audio, or even the art. Many mobile producers wear many hats and as such, they are responsible for overseeing a variety of the creative aspects of the game.
10. Find the Fun: What makes this game fun? That is a tough question to ask flat out— it’s almost like asking on a first date why you should spend your time with someone— but ultimately, that’s what we are all trying to figure out. If you can navigate that key question, and help the game developer identify what is inherently “fun” about their game, that can often be the building block for the vision of the entire collaboration.
Admittedly, this is not such an easy task. As a self-professed Candy Crusher, I have a very hard time communicating exactly why that game is, in fact, so much fun.
However, when I stop and think about it, I realize that the fun is not just the matching of items (after all, there are hundreds of games that do that); the fun has to do with the overall creative experience of the game, with its delightful glossy candies, trippy dreamlike music, and the saga aspect of the game, which compels my curiosity to need to know what is behind curtain #348.
Exploring these fundamental questions and ideas at the beginning of the collaborative journey assures that the process will lead to the best possible outcomes and rewards for all.
Look forward to next month’s installment, when Game Audio Artistry will share lessons learned from an indie collaboration.