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What to expect from a vertical slice.

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In the development cycle of a video game always comes a weird moment in the middle of pre-production where systems, content, and mechanics start to come together but are not yet fully functional. This moment, often as encouraging as depressing given the realization of the amount of work remaining to get the game initially planned is crucial. It is the best moment to produce and aim at what is called a Vertical Slice to confirm all that has been theorized earlier will exist one day. Let’s see what you can expect from a VS.

What is a Vertical Slice

A Vertical Slice, also known as a VS, is kind of a demo offering a slice of gameplay complete enough to represent what the whole game will be. It is polished enough to not contain game breaking bugs and offers an experience and feeling close to the desired level of quality expected in the final game.

It is not merely a glimpse or a partial representation but rather a tangible chunk of gameplay that players can immerse themselves in from start to finish. It could be a level, a track, a basic but functional environment… It provides an uninterrupted experience without the need for cheat codes or elements that would distort the final representation. While certain content may be missing, or in a rough state, preventing it from being labeled as a complete demo, the essence of the experience must remain authentic.

Upon confirming the team knows how to deliver the game that was hinted at with the prototype, a VS helps stabilize and project the actual development costs by adjusting metrics that were only theorized until this point. In the lights of actual game production constraints of so many different essential parts of the game, the budget, initially planned on bare estimation, can be adjusted or confirmed early enough to have a solid estimation of the whole game production. In most cases, if the initial budgeting was done properly, a Vertical Slice done at the right moment should not project budget variation greater than 10%. If the variation is greater, production plans must be rethought and reworked.

The goal of VS is not to be shown to the public. It is a special build that will most often stay confidential to the team and its key partners (publishers, investors, potential commercial partners), that aims to depict the full potential of the game. It is a valuable asset to help the team understand the quality of the raw, unrefined gem they hold in their hands, eagerly awaiting the polishing process.

As explained, it is important for a Vertical Slice to be representative of the final game. This is why two of the most important points to focus on are the moment and the feeling.

The Moment

The will to develop games in chronological story order, aligning with how developers intend their games to be played, is understandable but often counterproductive for various reasons (NB: a detailed post on this topic may come later). When crafting a compelling Vertical Slice, it is crucial to thoughtfully choose the “where” and “when” within the context of a playthrough. And starting at the beginning is rarely the best choice.

Placing a VS at the very beginning of a game may burden players with excessive tutorials, detracting from the enjoyment of the game’s core and how it feels to play it. On the other hand, setting it at the end could confront players with overpowered characters and facing challenges typically encountered after dozens of hours of gameplay.

The optimal moment for a VS is at the intersection of the “late early-game” and “early mid-game,” when players are expected to understand the game world’s context and the reasons behind their characters’ current situation. This positioning occurs just before the game hits its full stride. The powers, weapons, and content showcased are then beyond basic and reveal more about the game’s potential, yet not too advanced to avoid confusion. Locating this sweet spot can be challenging, leading some developers to create a dedicated scene specifically for the VS, which might not make it into the final game but effectively exposes its exceptional mechanics and features.

Choosing a segment from the mid-game for the Vertical Slice is a strategic decision. This allows players to engage in a gameplay scenario where characters possess the powers and abilities they will predominantly wield throughout the entire game. Positioned slightly beyond the introductory and tutorial phases, the goal of a Vertical Slice is not instructional but rather to spotlight the inherent appeal and solidity of the gaming experience. It serves as a testament to the game’s allure and strength, generating anticipation for the complete and polished product. At this point, explaining what happened right before (the game introduction and tutorial) is easy and can be done with a single loading screen. While explaining what comes after and what the upcoming experience will be is the primary objective of the VS.

The Feeling

If the Vertical Slice aims to reveal the essence of the game, an equally crucial focus lies on perfecting the game feel – the sensory experience that must resonate just right. The visual and tactile aspects of the game should be of a near-finished quality, no matter the quantity of the missing content.

While delivering a robust and precise gaming experience may seem challenging with large chunks of content missing, it is essential to remember that missing content is just that – content. Whether it’s more variations of the same crate, more variation of enemies, more variations of environment props, or more refined menu elements, it’s essentially “more” of what already exists in a very primitive form. A juicy and well-crafted character controller remains juicy even in a grey-boxed environment filled with placeholders and temporary content.

It becomes crucial to make the difference between what is semi-final and what is still a work in progress. The usage of bright pink materials and primitive shapes in place of semi-refined elements can sometimes enhance the perception of the Vertical Slice, leaving no room for ambiguity. This deliberate choice ensures clarity on what elements are considered semi-final and what remains a work in progress. On top of that the developers will have more time to polish the game-feel instead of wasting it trying to adapt visual assets not ready to be refined just yet.

Emphasizing the game feel ensures that developers unveil a version that closely reflects the envisioned final state of the game, not just visually but in terms of mechanics and gameplay dynamics. This strategic approach enables players to effortlessly immerse themselves in the gaming experience, cultivating a profound understanding of the upcoming developments in the game’s evolution. It confirms that the game’s strength isn’t solely derived from its visuals but fundamentally resides at its core, where the mechanics and overall gameplay contribute significantly to its appeal and success. It is simple to make something great visually appealing. The opposite is not always true.


In conclusion, the VS emerges as a pivotal milestone in game development, transcending the conventional boundaries of a mere demo. It stands as a tangible representation of the game’s essence, offering a polished and immersive experience that mirrors the anticipated quality of the final release. Not aimed at being shown to the public, a Vertical Slice plays a strategic part in affirming the development team’s ability to bring the envisioned game to life, which is always great for the team, the publishers or other partners.

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A special thanks to: Freyakyle, Damien Mayance, adngdb for being a crucial part of this journey.