Building Concentric Products
How to ship products on tight timelines.
In school, I learned about Concentric Development, a game design framework championed by Richard Lemarchand that makes it easy to scope and ship products on time. After applying the framework to several personal projects— including my thesis— I understood just how valuable it was. I’ll cover the basics here so you don’t have to learn it the hard way.
Concentric Development boils down to building the core of a product before working on successive layers. Imagine the keep in the middle of a castle, where kings and queens are hiding away safely, surrounded by layers of walls, moats, and barricades. In game development, the “kings and queens” are the core mechanics; in film, it’s the story. If there’s one thing you remember from this post, it’s that developing concentrically means building something worth supporting before building supporting features.
When we built Ollie, we wanted to craft an animation tool that was approachable for beginners. Concentric development taught us to build our core features first, which meant making sure that we could track keyframes before we polished our interface. Even the most beginner-friendly UI would be meaningless if we couldn’t animate with it, so we made sure our foundations were solid before adding more models or tweaking our visual effects. The most important aspect of concentric development is that every layer should be “shippable” before you move on. In that way, building concentrically is very different from iterating on a minimum viable product; rather than building a half-baked version of your project, concentric development involves building each layer at the highest quality possible. When we kept that in mind, we always had a version of Ollie that was ready for testing.
This sounds like a lot of work, and it is— following this framework involves planning ahead and thinking critically about each piece of your project. But when it’s done well, it will save you from countless hours of tedious work. With this approach, you have three key advantages:
You can test periodically. You don’t want to wait until the end of your project to see if everything’s working— it’s much easier to test when there are fewer variables to deal with. When you’re able to evaluate your work often, you can make changes and re-prioritize without sacrificing too much.
When you run out of time, you’ll still have something to show. Most projects will take longer than expected and produce last-minute problems that compromise your work. If you’re building concentrically, you’ll always have earlier versions of your project that are ready to ship.
If the core of your project isn’t working, you can confidently cut your losses. When projects are disorganized, it’s hard to figure out why things are going wrong and how to move forward. If you’re only evaluating one, high-quality piece at a time— starting with the most important piece— you’ll know whether or not your project is headed in the right direction.
Building concentrically gives you more control over your work. When you have a strong understanding of how the pieces fit together, you can run more effective tests, diagnose issues quickly, and produce excellent work under less stress. Every project has its own set of problems, and no framework can solve them all. But if you’re building concentrically, you can identify the most important problems before it’s too late.
Inbetweens is a newsletter on animation and technology, featuring interviews with artists, project breakdowns, and more. Subscribe to receive new issues in your inbox!