The one before GDC...

Sitting in the office at almost 3am waiting to leave for my flight to the US* (need to leave the office at 4am, oh the joys of early morning connections through Amsterdam) and reviewing the presentations we'll give at GDC in San Francisco next week.

So what goes into the preparation for a show like GDC?

Things generally start a few months before with some short meetings and discussions with the PR and marketing folks. This is mainly to establish the message we want to deliver and what the 'theme' of the presentation will be. Contrary to the expectation of many this usually isn't that much of a difficult process for us. Maybe we are lucky with our structure and having an internal team (rather than going through a publisher or third parties, although to be honest I have found most of the publishers we have dealt with to be supportive as well.). People usually presume we fight with the marketing folks about approach, and while there is definitely the odd contentious issue, it's a pretty collaborative process.

That stage is very much to establish that 'theme', the key selling points you want to re-enforce about your product. It is vital that you have some clearly defined goals about which elements of your product you want people to take away from the sessions.

Of course what we can show, and in what detail, very much depends on the stage the product in question is at. The earlier in the cycle you are the fewer elements you are likely to have polished and fit for public consumption. Sometimes this is actually a push for the dev team to get certain elements polished and ready to show. There may be elements that you think are very important to show, and the deadlines for a major trade show or press event can often act as a mini-milestone of sorts. Those elements that have to be ready for show like GDC will be prioritized and worked on so that those elements can be shown at the show. There are some that dislike moving things around to accommodate a trade show, but personally I think those deadlines often allow us to see a proof of concept for any given area sooner than we might otherwise, and that often helps the development overall.

It also varies for the type of project. If the game isn't launched yet, a lot of the focus will be on the features and system, if you are working on an expansion to an existing game, then your focus is a little different, you'll be looking at the new content, and what new elements are being added to improve the experience.

They key thing is that all important 'theme', the best ideas can often drown in a poor presentation if you don't decide carefully what you want to communicate. Setting your goal and objectives in that regard as early as possible, and building a coherent presentation around it, is usually preferable to trying to piece together random elements. Those pieces might be cool in and of themselves, but if you don't consider the communication carefully, good ideas may get wasted amid a chaotic or directionless presentation.

If you are working on a long term project, you probably also have a media timeline that has set a timetable for when certain features will be revealed. It is important you release information at a certain pace depending on your development cycle. You don't want the best parts of the game to be 'old news' by the time launch rolls around!

The next major decision we make is whether we want to use video footage or play with the game client. This largely depends on the stage of the product. Pre-alpha and in early beta you will most likely want to use video footage, or very short in-game sequences. When we at a stage of doing expansions you generally don't need to focus as much on live in-game shows and can work with more edited presentations. Since the game is freely available you don't have to prove stability or the basic systems and we can focus on what cool new stuff the improvements will bring.

This has a major bearing on what then faces us in terms of practical preparation. If you are working on in-game presentation it actually usually means slightly less preparation work for some, and more for other parts of the team (depending on what stage you are at in production). If you are working on a video presentation it actually take a lot of additional time in terms of practicalities. Raw footage has to be captured in order to edit it down to a suitable length for the presentation. That takes time in itself.

Then I will sit down with the producers and make sure that what we plan is feasible, and see if we need to amend schedules of shift things about. This might reveal some things that we should or shouldn't show based on the current schedule, or we might adjust the schedule to get something in we really feel is valuable to show. We have to be careful there as it's a delicate balance, you don't want to disrupt the team's schedules too much. It is important to build the best presentation we can, but not at the cost of delaying your overall production or interfering with important milestones.

So that done, it's down to preparing the actual presentation.

On a very mundane practical note, anyone that has ever worked with raw video footage, will readily tell you that it's time consuming, even just in terms of file-size. For example in putting together this year's GDC presentation we captured some six hundred gigabytes of raw footage. That's before the time that the team spend actually making sure the parts of the game being featured are ready for video capture.

It usually entails a good few late nights, and a fair amount of time waiting for render queues hoping the sequences complete. Rendering out the footage can sometimes take several hours depending on the length of the presentation.

Capturing footage can generally take several weeks of off and on work. Then we will have several days, or longer of editing to do drafts of the presentation. Then I usually check with the marketing folks again to see if there is anything they would like to tweak, or to get any feedback on the pace and timing of the presentation.

Then we will finalize the presentation and agree on the final sections. Usually you want to try and minimize the impact on the team (so they can focus on actually making the game!)

If you are doing an in-game demonstration the work more closely resembles a normal development cycle. The team will work on polishing that area so that it will function smoothly in the demonstration and will show off the elements of the game that you decided were important to show. Just as with a set presentation, it is still important to stick to your theme and have a very specific goal as to what you want your audience to take away from the demonstration.

Given that all this takes place alongside ordinary development, it usually makes for some nervous moments as the show approaches and you are getting things together. I have found myself staring at a clock more than once, at time's just about when I writing this hoping that a build will finish, or a video will render in time for me to have it with me when I leave for the airport!

This time out we actually managed to get everything done almost a week early. Which was very cool, as early as I have been with having final drafts done. That gave me an opportunity to have a session with the entire development team this morning where I actually walked through the presentation with the team. Good practice for me (it always helps to check the timing) and a good opportunity to thank everyone for their hard work and show them what we will show the journalists. When we often finish up close to the wire it often means the team don't get to see the presentation until after the show, so it was nice to be able to do it in advance this time out.

It's really the combination of a lot of work by a lot of very talented and dedicated people. I just have the honor and the privelage of being able to show off their work and present it to the media, and ultimately to you, the players of our games.

...so next time I update the blog it will be from San Francisco and I'll hopefully be able to provide some updates as the show progresses.

* I'm flying out a few days early to attend a friend's wedding in St Louis first, then on to San Francisco for the show.
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