Many games studios have core technology teams, centralised art departments or sound engineers responsible to every project - but what about sharing design staff? This is an approach advocated by Eidos' Crystal Dynamics and which was today presented to attendees at Lyon GDC.
Associate producer Arnab Basu and lead designer Riley Cooper were on hand to explain to delegates how the studio's Shared Design Group operates, having helped out with games such as 25 to Life and the more recent Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary.
Basu explained that the department is split into three components - one for design resource, the other for design services, and another that supports in-production titles.
The design resource is the core of the unit, designed to offer a strong design-focused career path for its members, said Basu. The team has a standardised set of design documents, pitch pieces and templates and conducts regular game analysis sessions, playing games during working hours.
"This means all designers get to understand the latest trends and help with copetitor analysis," said Basu.
It's not all playing games, though - the department also has a research library and conducts studio-wide design meetings, bringing design leads from each project together to discuss current plans and problems.
Added Basu: "This means other games gain a fresh perspective." He also said that the process allowed junior talent to learn quickly.
So far, the notion of a 'Shared Design Group' is as you'd expect, although it was in discussing how the team helps out the studio's various projects that the Crystal staff said having a unified team paid off.
At the start of a project, the design services team helps the studio's ideas go from concept to production, managing brainstorming meetings, document writing and stunt design, where in junior designers on the Shared Design Group join a game in its concept stages to help devise key set-pieces for demonstration.
Cooper added that the team has also aided with pitching designs, helping formalise the process of getting an idea on paper and correctly representing it to its publisher-owner producers by breaking it down into its constituent parts.
Also, added Cooper, the Shared Design Group can take on an exploratory role for potential new projects: "The Shared Design Group has been the first to look at new IP or IP revitalisation possibilities."
Crystal Dynamics' Shared Design Group isn't just forward thinking, he added: "One of the things the group is for is the ramp up and ramp off of designers on a project," explaining that the team reacts to the fluctuation of games in production.
The Shared Design Group also helps incubate talent, added Basu via a three stage process. The first step is 'awareness', allowing "juniors to get accustomed with the studio for two to three months". The second step, dubbed 'action', trains the designers in tools and in-house engines - "they then understand the technology's capabilities and it sparks their creativity," said Basu. At the same time designers contribute to focus testing (see below) - a process the Shared Design Group manages for all the studio's games. The third phase is 'application', where in designers are drafted on to perform the 'stunt' work outlined above.
Also key to the Shared Design Group is its role in focus testing, explained Cooper. Although developers are no doubt already familiar with the process, Crystal's take on it is slightly different. "It's a process we do when we think we're done and it involves watching new people who haven't played the game before work through it," said Cooper, comparing participants to 'mice in a maze'.
The team takes over testing the game on behalf of the title's original design team because "you as a developer cannot see the maze and the deadends because you are so familiar with [your game]".
Focus testing has become a key part of the Crystal Dynamics design and production process, he added, saying that the studio's games have benefitted due to the tighter, centralised management of its design expertise.