For some of us, having ideas is not a problem. A shower, a cup of coffee, a trip to the toilet... and here is a brilliant new game idea popping into your head, ready to be added to an already lengthy list of potential games that will probably never exist due to a lack of visibility for their potential. A great video game idea in your mind does not guarantee to transform into an actual splendid video game. Because it is often challenging to estimate the value of an idea without first refining it or turning it into a prototype. Unfortunately, developing a prototype can be expensive and take time. So, how do you estimate what the game production will cost when the idea is the only thing you have? How can you ensure, in just a couple of hours, that a game concept is sound, and is worth the investment of several years of development and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars? Here are some steps to create a game concept document that makes it easy to assess and clarify an idea to determine if it is solid and viable enough for you to dive in it.
Step 1: Pitch, Pillars, and Ambiance
A raw idea is often too vague to estimate anything. It needs to be refined and defined to have a strong enough foundation for (almost) accurate budget estimations. That is why one needs a pitch, some pillars, and an ambiance to know exactly what the tone, the shape, and the color of the game will be. These steps will help to transform a fuzzy idea into something more tangible. From dirty rock to raw diamond.
Before evaluating the financial cost or the team size needed to develop the game, you must first know what it is about. The core game idea must be condensed and simplified until it can be summarized in a few words. It should result in one or two clear sentences to effectively convey the heart of the game. In short, you need an "elevator pitch."
Pitching an existing game that you know inside out is not an easy task. Pitching an idea that you stumbled upon during a shower is even more difficult. Please note that this is not (yet) about preparing a pitch deck for publishers or partners (a document designed to convince a potential partner to fund a game or studio). This is a pitch for your future self (which will also help convince your future team) that summarizes the initial intention of the project in a few lines.
When executed well, a pitch allows you to quickly share a wide range of information using very few words. You can think of the pitch as the heart of the game idea.
Once an effective, simple, and clear pitch is defined, it should be used to create the pillars of the game concept.
Simplicity is the great strength of a pitch, but unfortunately, it is also its greatest weakness. From the same pitch, different people will imagine completely different games. If the pitch is the heart of the game idea, the pillars are the brain that guides and frames the idea.
A pillar is a simple sentence that conveys an essential guideline to ensure the game remains faithful to the initial vision. Defining four or five pillars will ensure the consistency and credibility of the game concept, even in the long term. Examples: "not a god game," "only questions, no judgments", "the amount of storytelling equals the amount of management gameplay."
By combining the pitch and pillars, it becomes difficult to create a mental image of the future game that deviates significantly from the initial vision.
In addition to being fundamental for explaining the game to a team, the pillars help maintain the same course throughout the production cycles. In case of doubts about a game design implementation, or a new feature, revisiting the pillars ensures that the game in production aligns with the games that was initially envisioned. If not, pillars provide the keys to get the development back on track.
Once the pitch and pillars are defined, all that is left is to gather a few images and sounds/music to give a “color” to the concept. It is not necessary to build an exhaustive ambiance bible; on the contrary, a shortlist of references focusing only on representative elements will limit divergences of views. Following the “heart” and “brain” in our previous analogy, the visual and auditory references would be the “taste.”
Most of the time, screenshots or videos of other games are used as ambiance references. However it is also encouraged to use sources coming from other medium like books, movies, or anime… it will depend on what the game idea is made of.
It is also essential to annotate the references, explaining what they represent and the reason for their selection.
Step 2: Content
Once the foundations are solid, you need to create samples of content that aligns with the pitch, pillars, and ambiance. These samples will be the main component needed to determine the team's size and composition. They will provide a fairly clear view of the project's duration as well.
Anything distinctive that allows instant identification of the game is considered content. In short, what makes the game what it is and sets it apart from the rest of the world, needs to be defined, listed, and compiled.
A strategy game will list its iconic units and maps. For each unit, there will be a visual description and, more importantly, a list of their abilities and characteristics.
A card game will list some of its distinctive cards and the major deck archetypes possible.
Here, the goal is not to delve into the details to create a fully fleshed-out game design document ready to be given to the rest of the team. Instead, the aim is to define and highlight the significant and distinctive aspects through definition of the primary elements. Knowing what a "unit" is in said strategy game allows one to anticipate team or budget requirements. Understanding that a "unit" must be able to jump, run, hide, and shoot fireballs or even that the game must contain five maps, it all provides a better understanding of the "scope" of the game, shedding more light on content and motivation.
Step 3: Team and Budget
At this stage, the document should already provide all the elements necessary for defining a production budget.
Knowing that the game is in 3D [ambiance], that it will contain animated units [pitch] that move and interact in a fixed environment [content] provides the initially missing keys to deduce some of the game's requirements. In this example, it is obvious that the team will need at least one Character Artist, one Environment Artist, and one Animator.
Thanks to ambiance references, one can get an idea of the level of detail required to flesh out each unit. From there, estimate the time budget of producing one unit is simple. Add a couple of other estimates, adjustments, multiplications, and a bit of luck, and one will quickly provide an educated estimated release date as well as a global budget.
If creating a character requires the full-time work of three people for 5 days, and each person is paid 500 dollars per day, then the budget to create 10 characters is estimated at 75,000 dollars and 50 cumulative workdays.
Please note that budgeting for a video game is not an exact science. Even with 20 years of experience in the field, there are always unforeseen variables and unknowns that will lower the accuracy of the initial estimates (who could have predicted a global pandemic?). In practice, even if the production of one character is well cornered and known, nothing can guarantee some others won’t require longer. It is highly recommended to add 15 to 30% for "contingencies” to the total budget.
At this stage, you should have a document that, with a simple pitch, some pillars, and a budget estimate, provides the information necessary to determine if your fantastic game idea is worth pursuing. If so, you will also have everything you need to convince your team to join you on the adventure.
Now, all that is left is to rely on this document to create a compelling pitch deck to convince publishers and investors to give you the billions of dollars you so rightly deserve.