ION08 Conference – Brandon Reinhart on Conveying Your Vision

by Darius Kazemi on May 15, 2008

in conferences,design,ION 2008,production

Brandon Reinhart of SpaceTime Studios gave a talk called Using Storytelling to Craft and Convey Vision. These are my session notes, mistakes and misinterpretations are my own so blame me for those. My comments in brackets.

How many designers in the audience have worked on an asset brought through the pipeline that in no way turned out the way you wanted? This talk will help you avoid that through storytelling and visualization techniques. Brandon’s a lead designer at SpaceTime in Austin working on a future fantasy MMO ground/space hybrid, $15m investment, moving into production now. Brandon’s responsible for IP development, content design, systems design, wrote the story with a partner, day to day design production.

How to be a visionary designer. Most of our work takes place in our heads away from our computers, in shower, playing games, driving, etc. We build content in our minds and we can even play our game experience in our heads. Traditionally that process of getting the design communicated happens through the design doc. We delegate systems and say “document it.” What we get is “a big book of stupid.” Nobody reads the design doc except designers! Poor method of conveying ideas. The reason visionary designers are visionary is that they realize that design docs mean nothing if nobody understands what you’re talking about.

Not on a crusade to destroy the design doc. Publishers want them. They’re good at creating asset lists, scoping, and speccing game systems. But design docs won’t get a game made. We have to develop more fundamental descriptors of our design ideas.

Most commonly you write a linear story about game experience to convey your idea, but still not very effective. Two core principles of visionary designer:

One: thou shalt tailor thine delivery to thine audience. Should know your audience. We often go through a creative design process, but through that we obfuscate the core concepts that drive our game. We should convey the core concepts and educate the audience with that FIRST.

Two: thou shalt engender buy-in. [So that the audience perceives the vision as their own.] When you’re talking to someone about a cool idea, anything from an asset all the way to a game, if you pound them over the head they won’t be interested. If you can engender buy-in, a sense of participation, they’ll go so far as to do your work FOR you. Not just “here’s our idea what do you think?” but break it down and then get feedback on that.

Why narrative design? Illusion of transparency is the enemy. When we look at our writing we think intent is clear, but it’s not so much to our audience. We need make sure they understand fundamental concepts: describing emotions you want to convey is better than speccing out a whole document. A picture can be worth a thousand words.

Stories create mental images, mental images create real images, real images communicate concepts. Designers and concept artists should team up. Normally concept art is separated from designers by a few producers and managers. At SpaceTime there’s a a direct connection from designer to concept artist: CRP is a Concept Request Package. Contains a narrative description (one paragraph to two pages), scope of story scales with scope of asset. CRP links to material in wiki format. Eventually can back off on narrative because concept artists will come to “get it”.

Sometimes you have to make 150 blasters, and concepters make 150 random blasters. But designers should care about controlling some of the direction and detail. Don’t write 150 stories about blasters, but write maybe 15 stories about cultural background of the different blaster companies in your game. [I love this idea, it's similar to building a robust fictional world in general]

Tool 1: the concept pyramid

When pitching something large scale, we have a tendency to allow our passion for something to completely dominate our delivery. We’ll go off on weird tangents with pointless detail. Tailor your delivery to fundamental concepts. Concept pyramid is an exercise in your mind to get back to those fundaments. Futuristic scifi game: top of pyramid is SPACE WAR! Second level down: humanity, demonic aliens. Third level: humanity is about idealism and destiny, aliens are about religious prophesy, and both are about tech vs magic.

[random idea: "any sufficiently crappy magic is indistinguishable from technology", apologies to the late Arthur C Clarke]

As your audience gets more familiar you break down level by level as they ask more questions and GET things.

Tool 2: key moments

A picture is worth a thousand words. A key moment is a one-image storyboard. Translate your mental images into the visual language of the game. Fuels the viewer’s imagination during a pitch.

Let’s say we’re DC Online and trying to convey things to someone. Good position: all comic covers are key moments, so we’d make a scene that has Batman swinging through a window with thugs shooting and a damsel in distress with the Joker snarling. Has suspense, unknown outcome, aspiration (“I want to be Batman! Or the Joker!”)

Artists should look into speed paintings. 20 minute sketch, discuss, paint over, discuss, iterate on that and create a very detailed on-point image in about 4 hours.

In fantasy games, people understand the tropes, you don’t have to be a visionary communicator. players just unerstand what a fighter is. But these key moment sketches can help during character gen for a less traditional game (for example) to help people understand what the expectations are for the characters that they’re going to be playing.

tool 3: aspiration driven character design

Fantasy games get this for free. Characters speak to a player’s aspirations. You have to convey the character’s values without relying on words.

Start with aspiration: wealth, power, virility. One single word. Then write a few sentences about the aspiration. What does this character want and fear? Write this in the universe of your world. Tie it in to gameplay systems a little bit too.

Don’t be a douche when you’re conveying your vision! It’s fundamentally a social and political activity. You want to be knowledegable and talented, but also humble. Distill down concepts, incorporate feedback, avoid defensiveness, revise and rewrite. Always be willing to say, “wait, this is crap.”

[This is all very similar to the original BioShock pitch that Ken Levine discussed at the Boston Post Mortem in August '07: they built a few rooms of interactive super polished concept art and that was the pitch.]

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