Budgeting and Scheduling Your Game
May 4, 2001 Page 1 of 3
That quote says it all. If you are one of the brave souls approaching a publisher with a game proposal, hopefully you have a budget and a schedule as part of that complete proposal. Usually, a publisher asks you to create a detailed budget and schedule, if they don't you still need to create a budget and schedule for your own uses during development.
Be advised that a the schedule and the budget is not only for you to use as you develop the game; a well-done schedule will help the publisher, investor, or banker see the scope of your project and, more importantly, it will be the biggest illustration as to whether you can actually produce the proposed title. A well-developed schedule is yet another factor a publisher will look at when determining whether you can do the game you propose and if you understand what you are trying to get into.
An all too common misconception of scheduling is that writing a schedule is simply filling in the blanks on the fly. Trying to write a schedule with out proper planning and research is a waste of time at best and potentially a great danger to your business. Schedules (like budgets, design documents, and all important documents) come from research and prior planning. If you write a business plan or proposal and gloss over (or make up) the answers, then you doom yourself and your proposal. When a publisher looks at your schedules and budgets, they will spot inconsistencies and errors right away.
Schedule Before Budget
You must take several steps in order to gather the information you will need to properly schedule your game. This information includes, but is definitely not limited to the following steps:
- Interview, separately and in groups, the team members to assess their needs and opinions on your first pass at the schedule.
- Interview those who have done what you are about to do and comparing notes. Talking to experienced developers or any person that has managed a sizable project will be a great help here.
- Read up on the latest in the technology, methods, and equipment you will be using.
- Be intimately familiar with each task and goal that must be accomplished in your project, or have a team of leads who are.
To generate budgets and schedules properly you have to understand project management to some degree. Project management for a game project entails the following:
- Planning the game project
- Extracting the schedule and the budget from those plans
- Controlling the generated budgets, schedules, activities, and overall objectives throughout the life of the project.
A good project manager will also do a thorough postmortem of the project for future reference.
Plan Your Dream Scenario
To begin with, you should plan your game title assuming you have the best possible resources at your disposal, whether they will actually be available or not. The time for compromise is later. Start by assuming you have the money to buy the necessary equipment, rent the best office, and pay the best people to do the work. The initial game design should be done this way as well; design the best game possible. You will juggle numbers and make compromises later—right now define the best possible solutions with no limits, working toward the highest possible ideal.
Working toward the highest ideal possible initially is good project management. This approach opens up opportunities to achieve goals previously assumed impossible or improbable. By aiming high, you may make it halfway to your goal, but by aiming low you will never get above the low standard set from the beginning of the project. If an ideal goal is never examined, then it does not have a chance of being reached. We'll look at an example of this later.
Put It on Paper
You should already have at least a rough version of your design document done at this point, the basics of what your game will be. At this point the seemingly simple notes you are jotting about you title, genre, technology, and scope of the game are almost an encoded version of your schedule and budget. After the actual treatment is written a publisher can read it and have a very good idea what it will take to develop the title you propose. They can then check your supporting documentation to see if it is in line with what they think to be true.
Warning: I must repeat that your statements of performance in your cover letter, design documents, and other selling documents tells the publisher what you are proposing, and your budgets and schedules tell them whether you know what you are talking about.
Once you start putting the schedule on paper you will begin to notice relationships you could not have seen otherwise and a million questions will pop up. Not until you actually list everything that has to be done and everything that you want to do on paper in an organized fashion will you start to see what you really have ahead of you. And once you start assigning responsibilities to the tasks, you start to see overlap in schedules and work flow.
Also, don't forget holidays, conventions, and other milestones and dates in your schedule. These days, even one-day events will be critical if they fall on a milestone day. If you set a milestone on a religious or national holiday when a key worker is needed, there may be conflict if they expect that day off. Holidays and days off are part of employee hiring and management as well.
Following are some common scheduling mistakes made by beginners:
- Defining the scope of the project (time and monetary budget to reach the desired outcome) by what they think the publisher wants to hear, or using so-called conventional wisdom to give pat answers, such as a game takes two years and $2 million to develop. That time and dollar figure will not always fit any given project.
- Defining the scope of the project using personal desires or agendas; inflated budgets, huge salaries, and even the opposite, tiny salaries and not enough resources to do a project hoping to woo a deal out of the publisher.
- Defining the talent needed by whom they have on hand or personal loyalty. This is not to say that loyalty should not be rewarded, but if any member of the team cannot produce the needed assets for the game, then they have to be released or demoted. This is where the reality of business can be harsh, and it's hard to be the boss when you have to let someone go. However, people management is another important topic and very different from planning a project. It is O.K. to schedule and budget supplemental employees or contractors to complete your game. Unless you have done it before, people management is very difficult and especially so with friends and family.
- Not understanding each and every decision in the plan and being able to justify those decisions. Salaries are often one of the biggest areas where developer and publisher disagree. While a developer may see certain top developers sporting the rich lifestyle, they may not be aware of what the typical pay rates are in the game industry.
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