We see the job title bandied about across all media; from film and television to music and of course, video games. But what exactly is it that a producer...does? Today we’re going to take a look at the role of a video game producer and how a publisher can lend a hand, even in the later stages of a game’s development, and take a nearly finished product to a version 1.0 game that’s ready to be enjoyed by players.
For the development of Wonhon: A Vengeful Spirit, which Super.com published recently, we have two people in this situation. A one-person development studio, Busan Sanai Games, who, despite being extremely talented, works alone and can become hyper-focused on small aspects of a game — fixing a really irritating bug, getting that boss encounter just right, and so on. On the other side, you have a producer that, in this case, came in rather last minute and hasn’t been a part of the process from the very beginning. At face value, the game is pretty much wrapped, the last milestone has been conquered, and all obligations are met. However, the developer still isn’t satisfied with the product, but due to the aforementioned tunnel-vision, can’t exactly pinpoint the issue — and now, as a result, the release date has been shifted. How does the producer step in, and help identify — and potentially fix — the problem?
Kirill Lapshin, Producer at Super.com, provided some detailed insight into the production process and the steps involved.
Step one, according to Lapshin, is to utilize a tried-and-true method for analyzing the “whole package” of a title: design by subtraction. Essentially, how many features can be removed before the essence of the game disappears? What are the core parts that are left when everything else is stripped away? In the case of Wonhon, these core “pillars” are:
• Korean Mythology/Culture
• Morality of Violence
• “One more try” mindset
This may seem like a rather random set of elements to focus on, when most would assume that the genre, the basic gameplay platform the game’s story is built on, would be the driving force. However, the stealth-action genre isn’t new, nor is it groundbreaking. The setting itself — the specific period in Korean history with Korean culture and mythology deeply ingrained in the game — is what makes the game stand out as original. Therefore it makes sense that these three core principles would be used to expand on the features already presented in the game instead of bloating it with unnecessary mechanics.
The next step involves the producer and the developer sitting down together to bounce some ideas back and forth based on these three pillars. And as a producer, it’s also important to ensure the developer isn’t working endless hours of overtime and crunch — which isn’t good for anybody involved. According to Busan Sanai Games, "I would have lost my mind if I had to do producer-imposed crunch on top of self-imposed crunch and overtime," so finding that delicate balance is essential.
They begin the idea generation process, starting with the little things:
• Idea — the initial idea is presented
• Details — additional details are fleshed out discussing how to execute the ideas from a logic perspective
• Why it's fun — the idea is viewed and approached from the user perspective and a discussion occurs as to why it would be fun to encounter.
• Commentaries — discussion between the developer and the producer occurs going over the idea and details
• Estimates for creating it — the developer estimates the time to create it.
• Implementation Detail / Additional Thoughts — the developer shares the roadblocks or any technical issues they have with implementation
• Difficulty Rating (out of 10) — how challenging it will be for the developer to implement this idea (is there a possibility of failure?)
• Interest Rating (out of 10) — how interesting is it for a developer to execute this new idea?
With Wonhon, The developer and publisher decided not to drastically alter anything in the completed game as it stands, but merely look to add things that will support that established structure — both mechanically and thematically.
• Idea #1: Secrets hidden off the beaten path that either just rewards the players for exploring with some kind of mythical encounter.
• Idea #2: Random events that may happen or not during the playthrough so people can share the events that happened only with them making their playthrough unique yet interesting to share. For example, the rivers in the game can become filled with blood, which slots nicely with the themes of mysticism and the morality of violence.
• Idea #3: This last set of ideas were the most difficult, according to Lapshin, and involved implementing more extensive features like secret encounters, new game+, alternate endings, and other neat things.
The developer is given a week or so to analyze the ideas and see how they would slot into the nearly finished product given the current metrics. At the end of the week, there is now a clear list of features that they can start working on until the new release date.
While this all makes perfect sense laid out nice and neat in a few paragraphs, the reality of the process is a bit more nuanced. That’s why it can be extremely useful to have an individual that can step back and provide an additional pair of eyes, like a project manager who can distance themselves from the project just enough to change their perspective and see something that is hidden inside and wants to get out.
“I think it’s important to note that every, I repeat, every, game has unreleased potential,” said Lapshin. “That’s why people when reviewing the game find pieces of that potential and lament that they were not included in the game. The producer is someone who helps to release enough potential to make sure the game feels whole and fulfilling; not only for the game but the developer as well.”
After following this process, let’s take a look at what changes and additions were made to Wonhon:
• A more layered narrative that heavily plays into the Korean culture/mythology pillar and can be woven into any future game opening the possibilities of franchising.
• What began as simply a stealth action title has grown into an exploratory experience set in an alt-history Korea that supports the “morality of violence” pillar.
• The addition of new game modes helped to expand on the “one more try” mechanics while being thematically relevant to the myths and secrets.
After a few months of implementation, Lapshin said that the biggest moment was seeing the developer become more and more entranced by his own creation and at the end of the process, was really happy with the new additions. "Having a fresh pair of eyes go through the game is incredibly helpful at any point of the development process,” said Busan Sanai Games. “Being a solo developer, I'm always looking for detail to fix in every department, so after some point, it becomes incredibly hard to zoom out and look at the game with objectivity."
Following this method, Lapshin’s best advice for producers (and devs) is to keep it simple. Deconstruct the game to its core features, trying to keep it below four. Ensure the game itself is satisfying, and reward is properly balanced with the risk/punishment. Create with the devs, not for them — improve and expand on current features rather than insisting on new ones. And most importantly, keeping the creative process fun and ensuring the developer remains invested in the final product — because if they didn’t have fun creating it, chances are the customer won’t have fun playing it.