Parallel vs. Serial Concept Development

More comments on that Playdough report… My copy of Winning at New Products hasn’t arrived yet, though, so nothing specific about Stage-Gate.
While I agree that in an ideal world developers would be able to take multiple projects part of the way through development process and pick the best of them to survive at each phase, I’m not sure it’s practical. While the first few phases (like concept art and vision-level designs) are dirt cheap compared to the later phases (like cranking out thousands of models and a million lines of code), they aren’t free. Smaller companies (like the one I work for) may not even have the right personnel to develop multiple concepts at the same time.

Filtering projects in parallel

Trying to keep track of this number of potential concepts is going to have a fair amount of overhead. In the case of an MMO, you have probably recently launched a game when you’re going through this process, and most of your team is still on the live team for the previous title. Running through exactly the same winnowing process, only in serial instead of parallel.

Filtering projects one after another

In this scenario, you would go through the same brainstorming session, but pick a much smaller number of ideas to develop into full blown game concepts. You might even concept out one at a time. You still run all the ideas and game concepts through exactly the same filters. You still need the same level of discipline to kill off weak ideas, you just don’t have to develop multiple concepts simultaneously.

In terms of actual dollars spent, the cost of these two methods is probably pretty similar. Assuming that your first concept doesn’t make it all the way through to release, you probably still build the same number of total concepts. You have to apply the tests the same number of times. The biggest difference in cost is the smaller overhead from trying to manage multiple concepts at once.

Of course the obvious disadvantage of serial concept development is that you don’t have multiple concepts going through the filters at the same time. When you can see all the concepts at the same time you can just rank them all from best to worst and, assuming they pass whatever requirements you have in your filter, let just the top few through to the next phase. When you are testing concepts one at a time days or weeks apart, you definitely aren’t going to be able to compare a given to the next one on the list, and you may not remember enough of the previous one to compare against THAT concept. You have to rely on absolute measurements of value, which are likely to be awfully subjective.

Rapid Winnowing

The best approach is probably to bite the bullet and develop many concepts in parallel in the early stages, and then cut back to a single project at the point where you dedicate significant staff to the project. The first phase is probably a single designer with a word processor spending a day on a few pages of design doc. The second phase is probably a week’s worth of expansion on that same design, a programmer spending a couple days taking a SWAG at what tech might be required (defining, not building), and a few days of a concept artist’s time to come up with some initial visuals. Not a big price to pay to be able to pick the cream of the crop.

How did the last game concept selection process you went through go? Were competing game ideas allowed to progress beyond the one-page-description level, or did you pretty much pick the next game idea in the initial brainstorming and run with it?

~Joe


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