The Vertical Slice

Jul 9, 2011 twenty to noon

The vertical slice is one of the dumbest things the game industry has ever come up with.  I threw this together to show how dumb it is.  Not sure why I was thinking about it today, but I was.  The publisher I'm working with now doesn't want a vertical slice, some don't, but there are quite a few that do.

It's just a dumb way to build a game and it results in wasted time and money and doesn't produce the best game possible.

A publisher handing a developer a big chunk of money to make a game should mean a carefully planned preproduction, and if it's risky from a game play or tech stand point, absolutely build a prototype (not just for them, but for you as well), but doing a vertical slice is just kowtowing to the uncreative.

We work in a creative industry, I expect the 'execs' to understand that creativity.  Given that they are the ones getting stinking rich off of all our hard work, shouldn't we expect that from them?

What if movie studios required vertical slices of movies.  It just doesn't work.

Vertical slices might work in a medium where you start at the beginning and grind though in a fairly linear fashion and what comes out is 90% complete.  Maybe writing a novel works this way, but making movies and games do not.  They are an iterative processes.  You build foundations and the build up from there.

Da Vinci didn't paint the Mona Lisa one stip at a time, he slowly built it up from sketch to finished painting.  That's the way games should be built.

Other people's comments:

Posted by Anonymous on Jul 9, 2011 five past noon

Wat? Context?

Posted by Gamesindustry is Fail on Jul 9, 2011 twenty to four pm

You win a prize for most ironic comment.

What are you having a problem with here?

Posted by Yobgod Ababua on Jul 9, 2011 five to seven pm

I'm with Anon. Even a brief description of what is meant in this context by "vertical slice" would have been helpful. I've personally never heard the term before.

From context it sounds like they want to see a fully playable and graphically designed minute or two of gameplay as an early deliverable, which does indeed show a serious disconnect from how games (and many other artforms) develop.

Posted by Gamesindustry is Fail on Jul 10, 2011 ten past three am

A brief description? You have a gigantic picture to demonstrate the theory.

You are exactly correct in your assumption (so I guess the picture worked), what they ask for is 'final quality' for just a small (and random) portion of a game. The problem is that 'final quality' is whatever you end you end up with at the END. Most developers understand this, but somehow this is lost in translation with incompetant management and producers, who at first seem to take great pleasure in promising moons-on-sticks to CEOs and investors.

Later of course, they realise they've made some pretty dumb claims. At this point on it's damage limitation for their own skin, and everyone else has to pick up their slack as they are asked to come in every weekend for months to somehow get back on schedule.

Posted by Jeff Zugale on Jul 9, 2011 quarter past noon

It's dumb, but showing your publisher's production executive a graybox or lo-res version - even if it's fully playable and the gameplay and controls are near perfect - results in blank stares and possibly getting your game canceled.

It's like showing them a pencil sketch concept art. 95% of them will not understand what it is until it looks like it's "real."

I'm 100% with you, believe me... but in the practical sense of "they're handing us 8 figures of cash to make this game, they want to see visible progress..." You know what I mean.

Posted by Henrik Hinrichs on Jul 9, 2011 twenty past two pm

I don't think novel - or anything that is building up something new - can be created that way. Cars are mass-produced this way - but from the first version an engineer might have in mind until the final car can be mass produced there are iterations, sketches and improvement that add up to a final creation.

Posted by Gamesindustry is Fail on Jul 9, 2011 three pm

"they're handing us 8 figures of cash to make this game, they want to see visible progress..."

They should have trust in the people they work with. Go by reputation, expertise, experience, and passion, and whatever else convinces them they're investing in a good product.

Anyway the argument doesn't work, How many verticle slices have been done for complete game-failures? 'A lot' is my guess. So what are they actually proving here? To get a verticle slice done, many times it is before the tech is ready. So people hack away at getting something visually acceptable that has to be stripped out later; it just isn't practical for many, many titles. If you told an investor that he can have his verticle slice at the cost of half of that capital, and that it is mostly smoke and mirrors which will have to be redone at a later date...? Yeah I think they'd tell you not to bother. Perhaps the producers, managers and CEO's need to grow some bollocks and tell them like it REALLY is...

All of this bullshit to put a shit-eating smile on some crusty, grey old cunt's face for a few minutes while he lives out a childhood fantasy.

Posted by Gamesindustry is Fail on Jul 9, 2011 ten to four pm

In fact just the metaphor for this 'process' seems ridiculous to me, let alone the notion of it all in practicality.

To create a slice of anything, you're much better off making the whole thing first. To make one slice of anything is messy, probably hobbled together (in such a fashion that it no longer tastes as it should), and a complete waste of ingredients.

Well shit the bed, maybe it is an appropriate name after all.

Posted by JP on Jul 9, 2011 ten past three pm

Jeff:

We can help change that by better featuring the development process in promotional material for our games.  In the big Half-Life 2 PC Gamer feature back in 2003, Valve was happy to have full-page spreads of their greybox* levels.  Irrational did it more recently showing the press some rough levels for Bioshock Infinite.

People are very used to seeing how films and music get made.  You could show a layman a work in progress and they wouldn't freak out and say, "what is this crap?!?"  We need to get to that point with games... for many reasons, a big one being that executives will have no excuse for balking at what is obviously a work in progress.

Unfinished games are ugly, twisted, fascinating creatures.  Let's celebrate it.

Indie developers are already doing this in spades, of course:

http://the-witness.net/news/2011/06/a-few-new-graphical-effects/
http://blog.wolfire.com/2011/07/Overgrowth-a138-video-changelog

* - I think Valve's temp wall texture is orange actually.

Posted by tenochtitlan on Jul 10, 2011 half past four am

Have you ever been to a press demo or seen some early in-game footage "narrated" by some producer/marketing guy? The two things that those demonstrations all have in common is 1) mind-blowing hyperbole (at least if your talking AAA titles) and 2) "Remember folks, this is just a very early version, the graphics will look much better when it's done".

I think the problems stems from the stupid comparison of game development (even by developers) to the film industry. Way too many developers still want to make films (not telling the story through gameplay but using cutscenes are the perfect example) and in film you can (except for hardcore CGI) shoot something like a "slice" with a reasonably small budget. I'm not saying that's the right thing to do, I'm not saying good films come to life this way - but if you compare trailers to the finished product you get an idea of what I'm talking about. Games don't work this way - even when using an "instant development" graphics engine, you can't just have three real people stand in front of a cheap greenscreen and read some lines. (Some oversimplification here and there, but I hope you get my point.)

Posted by Juan Raigada on Jul 10, 2011 twenty five to one pm

"in film you can (except for hardcore CGI) shoot something like a "slice" with a reasonably small budget."

No you can't. That's the problem. What you are talking about are "teasers", not trailers. And teasers are not vertical slices, more like concept art.

If you want to do a vertical slice in a film (a scene) you need to write it, cast it, plan it, shoot it, edit it, and do post (visual and audio). If you try to do that out of sequence before each step is completed for the totality of the movie, you incur in absurd overheads. The scene might have to be rewritten, because the context changed. Actors availabilities might change (forcing you to reshoot). The shooting plan might be unusable, because the movie took a different style as preproduction for the rest went on. And you are paying people for a 2-3 day job that will expect a much bigger per-day payment than when you hire them for actual production (when you have some negotiating power). Basically you will be spending an absurd ammount of money in something that has a lot of options not to be usable at the end...

Nobody does it, unless funding is not yet secure. What people do then is short films on the style of the final movie. What you could call a prototype. And all that work is thrown away once funding is acquired.

Game development and film development is actually quite similar, but to know that you would have to be familiar with both. It's a process that needs a series of steps done before the next, in order to have maximum efficiency (not neccesarily artistic quality, but that's a different discussion).

Posted by Tim Huegdon on Jul 10, 2011 five to six am

Just so you know; it's not just the games industry where this happens, but pretty much all software development.

I'm a web development manager and my team are currently working to deliver a vertical slice of something much bigger just to keep The Board´┐Ż happy. To be entirely frank, it boils my blood.

Posted by Someone on Jul 10, 2011 ten past eight am

There is one solution - make games FOR gamers not for Developers.

Posted by Gamesindustry is Fail on Jul 10, 2011 twenty five past nine am

1) Developers are usually gamers themselves. Developers aren't the problem, investors and CEO's who are crusty old relics or from other industries, are.

2) If gamers are willing to pay 30 quid up front in droves, then that might well be a solutution. But unlikely, I think.

Posted by Andrew Goulding on Jul 11, 2011 five past one am

A gamer will not buy your game after reading a design document either, especially if the game won't be complete for a year.

Posted by Gamer on Jul 11, 2011 quarter past six am

Gamers buy game after you finish it. Use Lucas experience, earn money by creating good content and invest them in new content. In now days there is no such a thing like expensive PC, everyone can create own COD for 40 dollars.

Posted by marctaro on Jul 10, 2011 half past ten am

Hilarious! Totally perfect visual.

Posted by Scott Anderson on Jul 10, 2011 half past eleven am

I completely agree.  Vertical slices have been damaging to most of the projects I've worked on.   The funny thing is in my case they've largely come up outside of a traditional publisher\developer model.

Posted by Ryan Challinor on Jul 10, 2011 five to eight pm

Another metaphor: it's like publishers asking to see a slice of bread before greenlighting the rest of the loaf.

Posted by Andrew Goulding on Jul 11, 2011 one am

If you're wondering what this vertical slice business is I wrote a short blog about it a few months ago: http://www.brawsome.com.au/blog/index.php/2011/05/13/vertical-slice/

I'm totally with you Ron, vertical slices make for inefficient development and wasted time and money. However, when moving into development from a vertical slice you can usually move more rapidly to completion and just concentrate on fun stuff like generating content. That being said, when a publisher asks for a vertical slice before they will take a chance on you, it usually spells the end for most indie development.

Posted by Tom P on Jul 11, 2011 twenty past one pm

I find vertical slices to be useful, but obviously not when approached like many of the above posts and the OP discuss. Too often game development is siloed (everyone working on their thing independently) and a vertical slice requires that they come together to prove that the interaction between the development groups' work product works.

Ron mentions that movies aren't made this way, but you don't have to go far in Hollywood to see that television is done exactly this way. The pilot for a television show is a vertical slice.

That said, it should be a capital offense to compare game development to Hollywood, or any linear media for that matter. It just holds us back as a medium.

One commenter said that publishers should trust developers. They do, when they've got a reason to (i.e. you've proven that you can ship multimillion sellers). See Bungie and Respawn and Epic for truth in this.

Posted by Kasper Aae on Jul 16, 2011 twenty five past five pm

I agree. Vertical slices can be quite efficient as a sort of mini-prototype that also has the look & feel & sound of the finished product, or as close as possible at that current point in time. It can also be quite nice as a proof of concept internally for the development team to see everything being polished and combined, and not just be visions and design documents and concept art.

Yes, it all depends on when a vertical slice is expected and how polished it's expected to be. I think a combination of prototype interation and vertical slices could be a good approach (i.e. polish your prototypes and make them nice to look at and listen to instead of just making them technically focused).

And sure, if a publisher demands a vertical slice too early in the process or before actually putting money on the table, that's gonna spell trouble.

Posted by Ed on Jul 17, 2011 five past two am

The practicality of a vertical slice depends on a few factors. If a company is going to create their own tech \ engine for a game, then surely it's a nightmare. For a company using an established engine it is a bit more realistic.

It seems to me though that a publisher demanding a final-quality slice of the game is just lazy and ignorant of the development process. If they can't tell, from the design doc, pre-production work and the past work of the developers and artists, whether or not a game is likely to be any good, then it would seem to me that they don't belong in the game industry.

Posted by Alex on Jul 11, 2011 twenty five past two pm

Posted by DickVanSTFU on Jul 11, 2011 twenty past four pm

The vertical slice is not the real problem here, it's game budgets and projects exploding in size.
But yeah, having just left a company where I've been creating vertical slices for the last three years... I'd like to say. Fuck you EA. ;)

Posted by Mike Acton on Jul 22, 2011 five past seven pm

In practice, isn't it usually just synonymous with making a playable demo though? It's all about reducing risk and just demonstrating that the core "stuff" has merit. Obviously if someone is looking for something in a "vertical slice" just for the sake of it, it's a waste of time and money for both parties involved.

Posted by Bla on Jul 23, 2011 quarter past four am

Blabla bla Blabla blaBlablabla blaBlabla bla Vertical Slice?  
Bla bla Blabla blaBlablabla blaBla bla blaaaa! Bla bla Blabla Blablabla blaBla!
BlablaBlabla - Vertical Slice!

Posted by Isey on Jul 23, 2011 ten past one pm

Go easy on the CEO's :) you'll find most progressive companies now realize that empowering and supporting your work force leads to a more dedicated, productive work force. There are fewer industries today that believe or practice the methods gaming companies use.

Notice, I did say few-ER.

Posted by Joe momma on Jul 24, 2011 ten to four am

I'm not sure. In my opinion vertical slice is a good method to start with, to get a good idea of what sort of aspects you want the game to include,learn from your mistakes etc, but using it for the entire development WILL ruin the game in the long run.

Posted by Athomas Goldberg on Jul 28, 2011 twenty past five pm

I think there is a value to producing a vertical slice but not for the reasons they are usually created.

If the critical decision makers can't properly evaluate the viability of a game from a design doc, concept art and prototypes, than they aren't the right people to be making those decisions, and while I hear many of you saying "but they're the one's paying our salaries", I would argue that you really don't want these people paying your salary, because these aren't the only critical decisions they will be unqualified to make over the life-cycle of your project. That said, if you can't communicate the viability of your game through the use of design docs, concept art and prototypes to a reasonably savvy decision maker, than you're probably not qualified to be making the game.

I've worked with a number of people over the years who've complained of how having to produce demos, vertical slices, etc. for executives has severely hampered their ability to effectively produce a quality game in the time allotted, while at the same time repeatedly making major design changes right through to the end of the project. It's all well and good to say that the publishers should trust developers, but you're not being given $20 million dollars to "find the fun", you're being funded to produce a profitable title. If you don't know what game you're making, don't expect someone else to put their money and/or career on the line while you spend the next 18 months trying to figure it out.

On the other hand, as you approach the end of pre-pro, you really do want to make sure you have the right people, systems, pipelines, tools and work-flows in place to support the creation of finished content, and the vertical slice is a useful tool for demonstrating to both the executives (and yourself) that your team is ready to move into production. Working out any remaining issues on the smallest possible subset of the game is far more efficient than having to overhaul the entire game toward the end of production after discovering you're unable to achieve the necessary quality with what you have.

Posted by Capelino on Aug 5, 2011 twenty past noon

Well, it's up to people to enjoy what they are making. If they like their work and have fun with it, chances are that the work will proceed with a sweet rhythm so making a vertical slice wouldn't be that much of hard work while you maintain focus on the game as a whole. Then you get the MONEY and start to work like crazy!

Of course, if jerky publishers still remain jerks, better switch up to another one, it's not like you pay for them to check your game. Right?

But in meantime, Mr. Gilbert, you could of tell us who's the dreamlike publisher you're working with, who doesn't bore companies with vertical slices :P

Posted by Ron on Aug 13, 2011 ten past four am

please
please
please
please
please
please
please
please
please

Ron please tell us something about your new game

Posted by McCoy on Aug 19, 2011 twenty to one pm

All the root of this problem is that game industry is a business now. If you want to sell a game and/or find investors for your project, you have to show them something good looking AND fun. Vertical slice can work with FULLY (and not partially) ready engine, so licensed engines have advantages.
Alas personally I also believe that game developing is a creative process, you cannot force end results in an early stage, it makes no sense, as the author mentioned it is waste of money and resources...

Posted by Da vinci on Aug 24, 2011 ten past ten am

Ron?

Posted by AzureSpanking on Sep 3, 2011 five past eleven pm

I know this is an offtopic, but Ron, you are gonna love this:

Monk-O-Poly!

http://rosepurpuradelcairo.deviantart.com/#/d47ztxf

Posted by unwesen on Sep 6, 2011 five past three am

For better or worse, "vertical slices" exist in other creative industries. As a novelist, you're often expected to submit an N-thousand word part of the book before it's being accepted. It might not be edited, but it certainly isn't just a general plot outline (that is usually requested in addition to the "slice").

In movies, things are a bit different. But in recent years - thanks to cheap HD recording equipment and powerful computers - "vertical slice"-type things have, on occasion, launched films. I can think of District 9 straight away. Someone liked a low-budget short enough to finance making it into a full-blown film.

I don't think the concept is terrible, either. It requires you to start integrating different components as early as possible. Of course, you can't require a vertical slice too early, nor should you expect it to be as polished as the final game. But it should demonstrate core concepts reasonably well.

I imagine - my background is software development rather than game development - that part of the problem with vertical slices in games is that design elements take disproportionately more effort in games than in other software. I can understand the vertical slice concept from a pure functionality point of view very well, but I can imagine it doesn't work half as well with the design part of games.

Posted by Please on Sep 6, 2011 half past six am

After 2 months of looking into slice of Mona Lisa, Ron maybe give us some news about your project?

Posted by DeathSpank on Sep 12, 2011 five to eight pm

hi Ron! Did you involved in creating this game DeathSpank: The Baconing?

Posted by finbo on Sep 15, 2011 twenty five to four am

are you gone forever ron?

Posted by Ron Gilbert on Sep 15, 2011 nine am

No, come visit me on Google+, I am spending more time there right now.

Posted by G on Sep 19, 2011 ten past five am

Did Google pay you for this?

Posted by Next Monkey Island by Ron Gilbert on Sep 20, 2011 quarter past two am

Hello Ron? i guess is the one million question but.....is there any posibility of making a new Monkey Island game done by your hand Steve Purcel and Tim Schaffer?.

Thanks for all the magical monkey moments.


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