23 Mar Vertical Slice
Apologies for there not being a video diary this month. With Dom being away for GDC and Melina away on holiday for a couple weeks, we haven’t been able to get one done this month. We’ll get back on it as soon as we can but in the meantime I’ll give a general update on what’s what.
Way back, in this blogpost, I covered the broad phases of production we work by:
- Concept Phase – The idea behind the game with supporting art.
- Prototype Phase – Experimenting with game mechanics, art styles, processes, anything that is unknown and risky.
- Vertical Slice – A small section or two of the game that looks, feels and plays like the finished article, built under production constraints. It is here we discover the heart of the experience, and how we go about building it.
- Consolidation – Assuming we know what the experience is and how long it takes to build a small section, we take a month out to simply plan the approach, scope and detail for the rest of the game. It is also a phase where we ready our production pipelines to make the next phase as smooth as possible.
- Production Phase– This is where we put our heads down and make the bulk of the game. By the end of this, the whole game is playable from start to finish.
- Polish – This is where we nail down the story, VO, cutscenes, as well as playtesting the hell out of the game to give the best possible experience.
- Mastering – Bug-fixing, optimization, platform compliance.
Having completed the prototyping phase, the results of which was shown here, we are now deep into our vertical slice phase.
What is a Vertical Slice?
A vertical slice is a section of the game, perhaps 10 to 30 minutes, that is representative of what the final game will look, sound and play like: a bit of everything to a high standard. The vertical slice is an industry-wide practice in large scale game projects. Usually, it is put in front of the studio heads and marketing and a decision is made weather to fund it or not. For an independent studio like Ninja Theory, we typically have to create and fund this ourselves and then present it to publishers to see if anyone wants to fund the rest of the project. A lot of developers loathe doing a vertical slice. Why is that?
The Challenge of the Vertical Slice
To create a vertical slice, you need to have a large amount of game systems online:
- All core player abilities functional and feeling good
- All story elements (cutscenes, vo etc) present if you’re doing a story driven game.
- Finished looking art and animation
- All relevant effects in place
- Sound effects and music
- Functioning and fun AI systems
- HUD in place (health bars, maps, mission objectives etc)
- Memory and performance issues addressed
So almost every game system needs to be up and running. Creating, iterating and debugging your game systems takes years of development yet a vertical slice has to be done in mere months (3-6 typically). So you have to take shortcuts and fake it as much as possible, and then throw much of it away and start again afterwards. This can feel like a massive waste of time and resources when you could have been building everything “the right way” to begin with.
Sometimes, even in a AAA size project with 50+ people there is pressure to skip the vertical size phase as there are not enough team resources to spend in this way. Since Hellblade has a tiny team and doesn’t need to be green-lit by an external publisher, we don’t need to embark on a vertical slice, yet we still choose to do so. Why?
For Heavenly Sword, we focused the VS on the combat system which included stance switching, large enemy groups, use of props and a quicktime finale (sorry about that – we know better these days!). On the strength of this, I was then asked to present an abridged version on stage at E3 2006 in front of 2000 industry folks and journalists. This was the most nerve-wracking three minutes of my working life:
In DmC we did two Vertical Slice sections, one was focused on a section of the level and a boss fight. These eventually became the downloadable demos that were released to the public.
You can find a few other examples from other game studios on youtube here
On Hellblade we have been putting the various pieces of the puzzle (combat, exploration, story, art, audio) together into one section of the game world and are only now looking at what works and what doesn’t. Since we are using UE4, a lot of traditional waste is alleviated as we are building on an already complete engine. We are not done yet with our VS, but I expect that the results will be shown to you at some point in the not-to-distant future.
Reasons for a Vertical Slice
The idea that you can design an original game on paper, build it in the correct way over a year or two and then expect it to magically come together at the end and be fun is a fallacy, reckless even. It doesn’t matter how talented or experienced you think you are, you cannot assume that your game is going to be great without building it first. Perhaps this might be possible if the game is a clone or unadventurous sequel but in all other cases, you have to discover the game and to do that, you must build a section of it and work out what works and what doesn’t. Here’s what we want to find out:
How will combat feel in the context of a level?
Testing combat in a grey box room is one thing but we need to know how it will feel in a level with uneven ground, trees, enclosed tight spaces, changing lighting and atmospheric effects. How will we spawn enemies, set up waves of enemies and kill them within a combat encounter? And how do we go in and out of combat from exploration? Will you be able to tell how much health you have without any HUD elements?
How do we tell the story?
We are going light on cutscenes on this game and want to tell more of the story in the game world. How much should Senua talk vs how much information comes to the player externally? What shape will the in-world storytelling take? We have some ideas, some straightforward like VO, but others are very experimental so we want to see some of these ideas in context and see if they make sense.
What is the non-combat gameplay?
A large part of the game outside of combat is exploration. Just how open will our world be and how much should we allow you to go wherever you want? Our previous games have been fast-paced linear experience moving from scripted event to scripted event so a challenge for us will be to completely break away from that. We need to know the overall pace of the exploration and figure out how we lead the player without clear linear progression. We want to keep things as open as possible but the consequences of that is pretty unknown to us.
How long will it take us to build stuff?
Once we have built a section of the game that we are happy with, that fits in memory and performance budgets, we will have a better idea of how long the rest of the game will take to build. Based on this we can get a good idea on whether the scope of our game fits or not. Far better to know that now than late in production when it is going to be too late to make smart scoping decisions. Over-scoping is probably the number one reason most games fail. Once developers realise they cannot possibly make the game they intended, they cut deeply, throwing away vast amounts of work, unbalancing the game and leaving no room to do the most critical part of making a game fun: playtesting and iteration.
Is it compelling?
The whole point of making games is to make compelling experiences. So we have to get everything up and running and step back and look at it with a harsh critical eye. What’s good about it and what’s not? How do we make the good, better and deal with the bad? A good test is to put the vertical slice in people’s hands and see what they think. The more brutal the opinions the better. This is the best possible time to figure out what you have created and take the lessons, both good and bad, forward to the rest of the game. Without a vertical slice, you’re storing up trouble for later when it will be too late to do anything about it.
Does it represent all of your game?
If your game has several distinct areas that need to be proven, then it makes sense to do multiple VS’s either simultaneously or one after the other. Examples outside of your core gameplay may include stuff like boss battles, mini-games, multiplayer and so on. You don’t have to cover all the bases but it can make sense to represent different areas of gameplay in different VS’s.
Are you happy to show this to the world?
This is a good litmus test to see whether you are being honest about what you have created. Because if you aren’t happy to show it, it probably is not good enough and you are not ready to move onto the next phase of production.
Showing it to the World
There is a myth out there that if you build a great game, the audience will come. It’s a pleasing thought but simply not true as attested by the numerous excellent games, movies, books and comics out there that simply didn’t find an audience due to lack of exposure. They simply fade into obscurity and aren’t on people’s radar. It’s like saying, “I can always spot CG effects in films”. No you can’t. You just don’t register the times you didn’t spot them. The fact is that you have to build a great game and get great exposure for it. Only then will you have a fighting chance of making it work. Here are some sobering thoughts on the matter:
There have been estimates that only 1 in 3 games that start development are ever completed. I can believe that. Of those released, Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. Even if you make a top 10% game, without serious marketing, your game will fade into obscurity. If you are making an independent game, then chances are, like us, you have no marketing budget. Add this all up and that great game idea has less than a 1% of success and that’s assuming you have a good team already in place that know what they’re doing.
So how does a VS help all this? For one, focusing on the fun early on will help get everyone on the team motivated to see the project through. It will help you focus on the player experience and get on the better side of Sturgeon’s law so you are a top 10% game. Showing this publically can give you a big dose of awareness that marketing dollars can’t buy.
No one can guarantee success but we don’t have to be slaves to statistics. We can and should raise our game on all fronts and tilt the balance to our favour. A good VS that proves gameplay and that can be used as a basis for exposure will help with that.
Cheers for now.