When game developers are asked when they plan to polish their game, the most common response is "once the functional aspects are complete." It is a pragmatic approach. Why invest valuable time and energy in making a game visually appealing or bug-free when certain elements are not finished and are likely to change or evolve soon?
Let's explore a counterintuitive strategy that challenges this simplistic viewpoint and helps support a more effective game communication plan.
What Are polishing bits?
When game developers discuss polishing their games, they typically refer to a dedicated phase in production (often the couple of months before release) when both code and content are complete. This phase focuses on bug fixes and improving the overall visual quality of the game.
In this article, we will concentrate on a smaller aspect of the grand polishing scheme, which we call "polishing bits." These are small touches of polish planned throughout the production process and applied continuously until dedicated polishing milestones occur. The idea is not to polish the entire game during development, which would be impractical. Instead, we aim to identify aspects of the game that can benefit from quick polishing phases even during development to enhance the game's appeal.
Why do polishing bits matter?
Most games are ultimately created for sale, and selling a game is a complex endeavor with countless variables that developers can't fully control. One of the most common strategies for selling a game can be summarized in three simple steps:
- Communicate about your game during development.
- Use communication to build an audience.
- Continue communicating about your game after launch to your established audience.
These three seemingly small steps are among the most challenging aspects of game development in today's world. Polishing bits are a method to efficiently support the first step and maximize the effectiveness of the second one.
Building an audience is tough. Developers may want to communicate early to allow more time for the audience to grow. However, early communication when the game is not yet in a satisfactory state is tricky. Nobody wants a player's first experience with their game to be clunky, semi-functional, and filled with placeholder content gameplay footage.
The influence of game feel and visual quality on new viewers should never be underestimated. Presenting early polished content that could be almost final aids in conveying the essence of the game, leaving less room for viewers' personal interpretation. What is shown is (close to) what they will get. Having a pool of presentable content early makes a significant difference in the communication plan.
Furthermore, spreading the polishing phase throughout the production helps avoid grappling with a colossal, often unattainable milestone dedicated to polish at the very end of development, when budget / time constraints can be a reality. Plus, polishing bits can significantly boost team morale. Knowing that something works is nothing compared to the joy of seeing it in action and at a quality level that could be considered final. It's the best way to appreciate the game's evolution, and it is one of the secret to keep a game dev team happy and ready to tackle what’s coming next.
What should polishing bits address?
Marketing and communication plans should be considered as soon as the game prototype is created. The role of prototypes is to confirm that the vision and game concept are solid enough to become an actual video game. With these confirmations, it's time to devise a communication plan.
What do we want to showcase? What are the most fundamental elements that can convince players this game is fantastic? What is the best medium for this game—trailer video, screenshots, a demo?
All these questions should be asked and answered. While it might not be easy to answer them all immediately after the prototype is finished, and some answers may only become clear over time, this exercise is crucial. It helps guide the production plan. While it's not necessary to let marketing or communication dictate the entire production plan, integrating bits of communication planning into production considerations will make a difference.
Since the goal is to show the game as soon as possible without investing excessive time in polishing elements meant to be changed or discarded, it's essential to be discerning when designating targets. It's logical to apply polishing bits to the core of the game—the elements that genuinely represent what the game is about and why you decided to invest a part of your life on this particular game.
If the game revolves around gorgeous animations and particle effects, it is crucial to apply polish on these specific parts. If a significant part of the game involves funny ragdoll physics applied to characters, then that's where developers should concentrate their efforts when it's time to apply polishing bits. As long as it helps fully express the essence of the game, the question of where to apply polishing bits should be considered. Every part that will be showcased in trailer videos or screenshots to make the game stand out, should be the focus of polishing bits as soon as possible.
Of course, the areas to focus on will vary from one game to another, but it's highly recommended to polish Character, Camera, and Controls (3C) elements very early to ensure consistency when sharing content online. While the art direction may change significantly, or the environment may transition from a blockout to highly detailed assets, it will never be as disruptive as a mid-course change in camera or player controls. This is the primary area to address when applying polishing bits as it is the most important.
When to work on polishing bits?
A dedicated portion of each milestone can be allocated to polishing bits. The ultimate objective is to distribute the polishing effort in small increments throughout the development, rather than trying to accomplish it all in a massive, hard-to-reach polishing phase at the end.
Therefore, it's advisable to allocate 10% to 20% of each milestone to polishing. This way, considering that each milestone typically focuses on a specific aspect, polishing bits can complement that particular focus.
Working on polishing bits during production ensures that, even if funds start to become scarce at the end of the project, a quality game can still be released. Waiting until the last couple of months of production to fully focus on polishing may not yield the same results in a similar situation, as the entire polishing effort may have to be scaled back due to budget constraints.
Considering the polishing phase as a task to be deferred until the project's conclusion poses the risk of running out of resources and energy before reaching this important stage. Early communication about a video game can be crucial for maximizing its impact. Doing it with impressive assets and effects that look almost finale, can enhance the game's visibility beyond what it would otherwise achieve. Polishing bits can streamline the polishing process, for specific aspects, while preserving the excitement almost as vivid as on the project's first day.