Synergy and the Importance of the Vision Statement

I can see half you recoiling in terror already. Vision! There you went again. The vision is a 1 part tangible 2 parts intangible entity that tends to scare the hell out of gamers and developers alike. It is that which decisions are made from. It is that which denies feature requests. It is to feeping creatures as Raid is to ants.

Every game needs a vision statement. In fact, pretty much every game does have one. What they may not have a vision document. What they may not have is someone who maintains the vision–someone you can turn to if you want to know if something adheres to the game’s vision. What they may not have is a vision document–something you can turn to if you want to know if something adheres to the game’s vision.

Many games today do not seem to have a concrete vision. Or, if they do, they tend to stray from it without good (enough) reason. A game’s vision is not 100% immutable. It can be modified, if only slightly, and should if it must during the course of development. However, the modification of a vision statement or document must pass careful scrutiny first. Many projects have suffered by a constantly changing vision. Many projects have suffered from an irresolute vision.

Let’s back up for a moment here, as I’m sure a few of you aren’t familiar with what the hell a vision is in the first place. It is the overall concept of your game. It firmly establishes a game’s guiding development principals. It is what members of your game development team refer to when they sit down to write, design, conceptualize, program, eat, drink, and breathe. It is the concrete source that we turn to when we want to know what a game should look, feel, and play like. Most importantly, a vision statement establishes goals for what your game is and allows all members of your team to set the same goal.

When you or members of your team think about your game’s vision statement, they should get that tingly feeling that you get when fantasizing about Jennifer Garner, or recall a favorite book, favorite relative, best friend, etc. It should excite your team members, and it should excite your customers. It should ignite the imagination.

A game’s vision embodies the heart and soul of an entire project.

So, who controls the vision? It is rarely a single person who “owns” the vision. Generally speaking, all those who build the basic foundations of the game contribute to the vision. The lead designers, the lead artists, the audio leads, the producers, the lead programmers, etc. These are those who establish the vision. It is usually left to the lead designer and possibly a producer or two to maintain the vision throughout a project’s development. If more than one person controls the vision, all parties must agree on the same vision and see it in their head the same as the others.

If we do not adhere to our game’s vision, we will not have synergy. Why do we want synergy? Have you ever played a game that felt just right? A game that, even though it may not be the most technologically advanced or innovative, captured you and wouldn’t let go? Have you ever played a game that seemed to have all the right stuff, but there was something about it that didn’t feel right? Something about it that you couldn’t quite put your finger on? The former is a game with some semblance of synergy. The latter is one that failed to establish or adhere to a concrete vision.

Many developers believe that a vision is limited to a simple statement. Many believe that the high concept is the vision they should refer to. This isn’t enough. A vision statement must be a full document. It should include sketches, lore, required features, etc. It should have that one statement (or paragraph) that says what the game is. However, it should include a good deal more and should be something any developer can reference when s/he has questions about whether something will fit. This is the first area where many game developers tend to lack. They have a vision statement, and they have a keeper of the vision, but they don’t have anything that can be referenced quickly.

Where do many others fail? Adherence. Many game developers diverge from their original vision. They diverge, and then they forget. After all, if your vision statement no longer explains what your game is, what is the point in even attempting to adhere to it? This is, obviously, a mistake. This is what makes some games lack that cohesion that all truly successful games have. Yes, all of them. Ultima Online just about had it right early on, but they lost the vision. EverQuest had it early on, but they lost the vision. World of Warcraft seems to have a good deal of synergy so far. City of Heroes is the same way. EverQuest II diverges just enough to make it feel as if it lacks that “certain something.”

Synergy = Good. Piecemeal = Bad. Awesome Graphics + Awesome Sound + Awesome XYZ != Awesome Game. You can’t throw a bunch of k-rad stuff into a game and expect it to be good. It must all work together. It has to have synergy.

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