In a system as chaotic as that of game development, it is not uncommon for production to take longer than expected. In fact, throughout the gaming industry, deadlines are either
moved or canceled completely every day. Thousands of games fail to see the light of day, often because of events that slowed their development to a crawl.
Still, as normal as a delay can be, it remains one of the toughest situations a developer has to deal with. Rescheduling a deadline not only adds pressure to the entire team, but can also alienate your community and potentially hurt your sales. In other cases, not meeting a deadline might also mean missing out on an important chance to present your game at a major event or to work with an investor.
So how exactly do you plan a delay-proof production cycle? META Publishing producer Mike Matytsin shared some tips and best practices on how to deal with production delays during his talk at DevGAMM 2020. If you couldn’t attend the event, here are the most important topics that Mike discussed.
How Do Delays Happen Anyway?
Before we delve further, however, you should understand what exactly leads to a delay in the first place. Fans and outsiders often blame rescheduled launches on poor planning or company greed, but these play a minimal role in deciding whether a game will come out on time. On the contrary, most developers indeed begin working on a new project by laying down a production plan.
Even a document that contains all of your game’s details, including thorough timelines and budget breakdowns, however, isn’t guaranteed to save you from delays. After all, humans are good at estimating things but we rarely excel when dealing with absolutes. You can try to look at other studios for inspiration but here’s the truth: the bigger and more complex the project, the higher the likelihood that something will go wrong with it.
Speaking of humans, the advanced bipeds that you share your workspaces with are hardly perfect beings. Someone within your team, for instance, might inadvertently make a mistake that needs time to be fixed. Others, instead, might be underperforming because of burnout. These events are impossible to predict, but they will happen and you should plan for them in advance.
Finally, in some instances, delays are completely unavoidable and out of your control. When a flood hit their offices in 2013, No Man’s Sky developer Hello Games lost most of their equipment and servers. That set their project back by several months and greatly contributed to the game being delayed. Still, there was nothing that could have prevented the disaster. All the team could do when the water receded was salvage whatever wasn’t swimming and start again!
Risk Assessment For Better Planning
Now that you know how delays happen, you can move to adapting your production techniques and minimizing their chances. Your contingency plan should start as early as your planning phase and cover the game’s entire development cycle.
To achieve that, though, you’ll need a solid set of data that you can rely on. Before your team starts working on a new title, you‘ll want to set aside a bit of time to thoroughly analyze the project itself. Among the many variables at play, here’s what you should focus on:
The actual scope and requirements of your project;
A full analysis of your market, competitors, and target demographics;
An objective evaluation of your team’s skills, abilities, and criticalities;
The technology you’ll use, including its perks and technical limits;
A functional order with which you’ll tackle the actual development of the game;
What you’re looking for at this stage are all of those weaknesses that could potentially lead to a delay. Those might be particularly resource-intensive areas of development — such as a complex level to design or intricate characters to model — but also tendencies that your team has when it comes to their work-life balance.
Once your list is ready, all you’ll have to do is create backup plans for all of the problems you’ve found. That way, if those issues eventually manifest themselves, your team will have a reference guide to fall back on!
The Importance of Good Project Management
We spoke at length of how teams can influence the development of a videogame, now it’s time to see how they help prevent delays. It seems obvious, but the people around you will ultimately be what makes or breaks the game you’re creating. Their health, happiness, stress levels, and overall ability to focus will all change the speed at which tasks are taken care of.
If a studio can afford the extra-hire, bringing a Project Manager on board might greatly improve your team’s efficiency. These mythical creatures spend most of their time looking for bottlenecks that could slow down production and for ways to solve them.
But that’s not all a project manager can add to the development of your game. Especially on larger titles, PMs tend to have a say in anything from pre-production, to planning, to execution. They are the people that assign the best persons to each team and those who ensure everything proceeds smoothly throughout the process.
Most importantly, often PMs also act as a balancing force within the studio itself. As they work in close contact with their colleagues, they are often the first to pick up and report on any personal issues that — if left untreated — might negatively influence your studio’s productivity.
Iterate Like Your Life Depends on It
Once you know that you can count on a team of professionals, you should also review the way your company approaches the actual workloads. Assigning tasks and having everybody report to a single person might work for smaller projects, but it risks slowing down the entire studio when the milestones begin piling up.
If you haven’t already, consider adopting what is known as the Agile Framework. This iteration-based approach allows you to speed up production by dividing it into self-contained cycles of implementation, review, and adjustment that last from 1 to 4 weeks. While we won’t be discussing the Agile Method in detail here — as doing so would require its own series of articles — there are plenty of resources on the internet to get you started.
On top of iterating, you can further optimize production by assigning reviews directly to the people that worked on a specific sprint. By doing so you’re not only giving upper management more time to focus on other things, but also leveraging each department’s knowledge! After all, nobody knows a task better than the people that worked on it.
Finally, there’s a last, vital, advantage to going agile: adaptability. While traditional development cycles rely on a pre-structured series of tasks, agile development lets your team dynamically restructure their workload. With each iteration, department heads can gauge how long a specific part of the project took and adjust your deadlines accordingly.
Don’t Skip Out On Quality Assurance
Alongside stress, human error, and unexpected problems, quality assurance is one of the most likely parts of development that can lead to a delay. In addition, a majority of game developers tend to underestimate the time required to properly vet their project before release. It’s not uncommon, especially in smaller studios, to leave that step until the very last minute.
Instead, producers should already account for QA sessions when they lay down their production plans. Making sure that each agile sprint ends with a period of rigorous testing, for example, can help your staff pinpoint and solve most of the project’s issues ahead of time.
Understanding how to properly do QA is also an important part of avoiding delays. Most smaller studios, for instance, only play the game internally and have the people that worked on it evaluate its overall quality. While that might be a cost-effective solution, however, it is hardly the best one.
Due to their attachment to title they’re testing, developers are usually biased or might have a skewed perception of its actual state. In lieu of that, you should opt for hiring an external QA team or recruit a small part of your community for the task. To maximize its effectiveness, testing should also be conducted outside of the engine editor and on a number of different hardware setups.
As we’ve seen together, delays are a pretty common occurrence in the world of game development and one that can seriously hinder your ability to meet a deadline. The tips Mike shared at DevGAMM can help your team minimize the chance of running out of time but you should still expect the occasional delay and must be prepared to deal with it.
For that reason, part 2 of our series on delays-proof production will entirely be about what to do (and what not to do) when the clock is ticking and that final deadline is ominously close. In the meantime, you can keep following META Publishing on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram or come have a chat with us on our Discord server!