After reading the book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, I am so glad that I do not devote myself to the gaming industry. The author, Jason Schreier leads us to the back stages of 10 video games developed by solo developer (e.g. Stardew Valley), indie studio (e.g. Pillars of Eternity), and established studio (e.g. Destiny). The misfortune resembles one another: crunch time, looming deadline, stress, financial instability, and burn out.
Why so hard?
The author considers the challenge stems from:
- They’re interactive
- Technology is constantly changing
- The tools are always different
- Scheduling is impossible
- It’s important to know how “fun” a game will be until you’ve played it.
Here are my take-away from the project manager’s point of view:
The scope is monumental
Unlike your Excel spreadsheets, people playing video games is purely for fun. The players MAY click with the grabbing story plot, realistic game mechanics, immersive experience, and cinematographic picture quality. All of these will be translated to massive content work. For example, CD Projekt Red released an astounding 200-hour play time for The Witcher 3 with fine details, such as rustling leaves in the wind. The Game development is closer to the filmmaking than the traditional software development1 in my humble opinion.
Iteration is ridiculously expensive
Few people can see through a group of gray boxes to visualize the user experience. The team needs to build scaffolding with rudimentary visual effects to explore the game mechanics. It is not cheap, and the expense grows quickly with the progress.
The worst nightmare is reset, aka throwing everything and back to square one. The Starwars 1313 team was forced to replace the main character with Boba Fett in a jet pack after E3 demo. The impact was so profound that they had to rethink the story plot and game mechanics from scratch.
The toolchain keeps evolving
As developers try to squeeze the last drop of performance to deliver the state-of-art visual effect, it is not uncommon to evolve the toolchain while building the game. For example, Bungie evolved the Tiger Engine from Halo’s blam! engine to build the Destiny. See Chris Butcher’s talk in GDC2015 for more insights.
How can we do better?
Can we? The the following alternative theory is proposed to underscore that those stories are not outliers:
Every single video game is made under abnormal circumstances.
As an outsider, I speculate that we MIGHT mitigate the risk of game development:
Leave some budget buffer
I consider one important factor that the Destiny was successfully released after 2 years delay is Bungi secured 2.5M / year contract with the publisher. The Obsidian also managed to control its own destiny by crowd source the game Pillars of Eternity via Kickstarter.
Leverage your edge
The Ensemble studio has accumulated the domain knowledge on the RTS game from the Age of Empire sequel. It seems a much safer bet for them to build a RTS game on the console than a new MMORPG game. The latter is intriguing, but hard to sell to the studio’s parent company, Microsoft; and had been consistently a distraction for the Halo War development.
The game development usually includes pre-production, production, post-production stages, just as filmmaking.↩