Designer Diary: Tuesday, September 15, 1995

A papier-mache mask of Manuel Calavera, made by the famed folk artist Inocincia Consuelo Rodriguez.
A papier-mache mask of Manuel Calavera, made by the famed folk artist Inocincia Consuelo Rodriguez.

Ah… This is the day I must turn in my design proposal. It’s been three months since Full Throttle was finished, and people are starting to wonder what I’m doing in my office all day with the door locked and the hot tub bubbling. Well, I’ll tell you what I’m doing: I’m STALLING. I’m stalling because I’m scared to go public to the rest of the company about my new game idea. So I want to wait and keep it to myself until it’s perfect. Ideally, I would keep my game design ideas secret until the game was actually done, then I could just hand the shrink-wrapped package to the president and say, “Here’s what I want to do next.” But you know management – always sticking its nose into things. That’s why you have to turn in a DESIGN PROPOSAL, and then have a big meeting.

It’s too painful to talk about my own game. Instead, let me tell others how to propose a game, so that the world can learn from the blood that was spilled on the morning of September 15:

The meeting where you hand out your design proposal is the big coming-out party for your baby. But beware, this is a party where you will see your baby beaten up and possibly killed. BE PREPARED!

Before you try to sell your game to other people, you have to understand it yourself. You have to know why it should be made. And these reasons aren’t good enough:

• “Uh, I don’t know. I just want to make it.”
• “I should be able to make what ever I want. I’m God!”
• “I have to do something or I’m going to get fired!”
• “Because I’m tired of sitting in my office alone.”
• “I want to go to another wrap party.”

The Wall! All hail the mighty wall of Fandango concept art by Peter Chan, Peter Tsacle, and Chris Miles! It is customary for other project leaders in the company to make a pilgrimage to The Wall and stuff little scraps of paper between the drawings, each piece of paper containing a prayer in hopes that someday they, too, will make a game this good.
The Wall! All hail the mighty wall of Fandango concept art by Peter Chan, Peter Tsacle, and Chris Miles! It is customary for other project leaders in the company to make a pilgrimage to The Wall and stuff little scraps of paper between the drawings, each piece of paper containing a prayer in hopes that someday they, too, will make a game this good.

They all seem reasonable, but trust me, I’ve tried them all and they just don’t work. There is only one reason that any higher power will accept as a valid reason to make a game:

• “This game will be a huge, huge hit and it will bring so much money raining down upon this company that some people will be crushed by the enormous sacks of cash that are going to fall on us every day after this game’s released, and, in fact, we are going to need to build a gigantic incinerator just to burn the extra bills that we just don’t have room for or don’t have time to count because every day the unstoppable flood of moola will just keep getting bigger and bigger until we are all down on our knees, begging, “Please, no more money! We just can’t take any more money!”

All successful design proposals are roughly paraphrased versions of this central idea. Of course you need some supporting arguments….

WHAT is this fabulous money-making machine? Try to sum it up in one spine-tingling sentence. You’d be surprised how many design proposals you can read completely through, and then ask, “Yeah, but what is the GAME like?”

WHY will this crazy idea appeal to anyone outside of your small circle of friends? You really have to believe that your game will have something different and fresh and appealing to gamers or it will show. People will smell your doubts like dogs smell fear. What new stuff are you bringing to the table? Why would people be better off buying your game instead of food?

WHERE do you intend to make it? And the answer is, “Here, or wherever I go once you fire me!” OK, never mind about “where.”

WHEN – the answer to this question is always, “We expect code release to be in August, with the product hitting the stores in September, making this a perfect Christmas product.” Do not paraphrase this sentence. Just cut and paste it right in, word for word, and move on.

WHO’s going to be on the dream team? This is optional. Sometimes it helps to show that you’ve thought of actual resources that might be interested in your project, but sometimes it’s just too much information. Use your own judgment. Whatever you do, try not to name people who are slated to be on other projects for the time between now and next September. You can always steal those resources after your game gets approved.

HOW the heck is a game this good ever going to get made in this company of mortals? Do you have any tricks up your sleeve that will save time and money? Are you going to be reusing anything from previous games? Did you find a bunch of art in a dumpster behind the supermarket that you intend to use? Do you have a genie that is going to make the game for you? List it all here.

Peter Chan concept art
Peter Chan concept art

On the Don’t side, don’t make your design proposal too fancy. You don’t need a marbleized cover with a cutout window that shows the four-color title page. In fact, this kind of stuff can hurt your credibility. A lot of the people you’re going to be pitching to may be programmers, and they don’t want to read anything that’s fancier than they are. Any proposal that’s superslick, they figure, is trying to hide something, and they’re probably right.

Don’t make it too long. Don’t try to stuff in every thought you’ve ever had about the game into the design proposal. Don’t put in all your maps and object lists and your combat tables and your AI flowcharts. That stuff goes in the completed design document. Usually what people are trying to prove by putting all that stuff in is, “Look! I really have been working these last three months! I’ve been working hard!” Nobody cares about those details at the proposal stage. They just want to hear about what the game is and how much money it’s going to make, remember?

Don’t do this: First page, first heading: “The Story.” I know we all work really hard on our stories and our back stories; we created this really cool world with its own monetary system and government agencies and nightclubs that we could actually go in. Save it. Your first heading should be something like, “The Game.” Even if you’re pitching a story game, you’re not pitching a story, you’re pitching a game. People are going to PLAY it, not READ it. You’re trying to sell the car, not the road. Whoa, I’m not even sure what that last sentence means, but it sounds intriguing…

In the end, actually, my meeting didn’t go that badly. People raised issues, and they were all valid concerns that needed to be addressed, and thinking about them helped focus the game’s design. It went pretty smoothly, until the point where someone asked how much it was going to cost. That reminds me, always bring exploding smoke balls for when you have to make a sudden exit. People will be startled but also delighted by the spectacle. And that’s really what we’re all trying to do here, isn’t it?

Tim Schafer, Grim Fandango Designer

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