A big part of this process has, oddly enough, been a large matter of integrating things I’ve neglected for the last twenty years.
First and foremost, I’ve seen just how valuable writing out documentation as an outline can be. To flash back to when I was in school, my teachers would always tell me how important it was to write outlines for my essays. I hated writing outlines. I hated writing essays. I hated having to plan out ahead of time, in part because I knew even then that plans were inevitably compromised and in part because I looked at writing as almost like jazz improvisation, coming up with the thoughts I wanted to get down on the fly. Yes, sometimes they were disjointed or obtuse to the point of incomprehensibility. But it was a vibrant work, and I always enjoyed being able to put that out there.
I got better at such improvisation as years went on. I grew in leaps and bounds in regards to that in high school, to the point that I actually grew to love essay writing by my senior year of high school (thanks to Mrs. Scott, Mr. Mitchell, and Mr. Pawcio, the teachers that understood what I was trying to do and helped guide me towards making it work). It continued in college, where I was in the process of not only learning to refine it, but I also was doing it in multiple languages. My days writing reviews were salad days of this, with some sour notes but overall enjoyment (even if I never quite got the audience I wanted).
I mention all this because things had to change, although I didn’t realize how much, when development of Point of Descent started in earnest. One thing that I had gotten in the habit of, when working on such projects, was regular phone conversations. There’s an immediacy of phone discussion that isn’t there with emails or forum posts, not to mention the whole “tone of voice” issue. There is one other part that I think often gets overlooked, though. A phone call shows seriousness. It’s one thing if I toss off an email or text to John saying “we should make this game,” and it continues from that point when he responds that he could try coding it. But when we talked later that day on the phone, it became more than idle speculation. I put more of myself out there, made more of an effort to find out how real it could become – and in terms of a happy self-fulfilling prophecy, that effort made it more real.
But back to the main topic, John also quickly pointed out the limitations of talking on the phone. Yes, it made things quite serious as opposed to random discussions on the subject. That said, ideas tossed back and forth in phone conversations, even if you’re taking notes on them, end up only hazily recalled later. We needed to get everything down. Everything.
And what this meant, for me, was that I had to actually sit down and write down all the documentation. This helped in two major ways, and a host of minor ones that I probably don’t even see at this point. First, for myself, it gave me a chance to really work out the ideas in my head. As I put down in the Design Document what I was proposing, I saw where things could go off the rails, and where I needed to shore things up. That’s in addition, of course, to John (and later Chris) looking over the document and pointing out the pieces I missed (as a side note – yes, everyone needs an editor and/or an ombudsman). But in short, writing out the Design Document, which is really just a formalized outline, helped organize all of my thoughts better, and made it much easier to move forward in the project.
Beyond that, though, a well-made document also made it so that John and Chris knew just what I was imagining. It’s one thing to come up with the general idea of a bullet hell shooter with some distinctions that we’ll reveal later in the process. But it’s entirely another to actually write it down and see how it would play out. We each had our own ideas of how such a game would work. Writing it out in detail actually led us to see how we were all thinking it would work, and we got to see just where we were differing. This also helped avoiding arguments later on – rather than surprise the others with something that was just taken as given, everything had to be revealed so it could be discussed and worked on. And every time I had thought of something different from the others that I hadn’t written down, it was clearly all on me that I hadn’t, and each of those items had to be discussed and evaluated before they could be incorporated.
There is one final point where the documentation helps worth mentioning, although how much anyone else might get out of this, I admittedly wonder. Namely, when you get everything down on paper and you know what you want and need, it’s much easier to budget your time. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, we need to do some things with hit detection, and make a few enemies, something like that.” But when you have your outline set up and ready (and yes, it helps tremendously to put a deadline on that as well), it’s much easier to say “We need X number of enemies, Y number of stages, and we can do X by this date and Y by that date.” It works so much more cleanly when you see just what you’re trying to do, so you know what you have to focus on, particularly in an endeavor that is, at its heart, an art and thus subject to artist’s block and the like.
I guess it comes down to the fact that every variety of communication is key. And that comes in both literally talking to your partners and making sure you plot out exactly where you want to go. I’m sure all of our docs have an amateurish bent to them, but producing them made us a whole lot more professional than we ever had before. I can only imagine how glad my middle school teachers would be to hear that I finally learned that lesson.