Ambition is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as necessity's sister, it is the aunt of invention. On the other, biting off more than you can chew means your project will bite back.
Schedules aren't always determined by developers, but they are agreed upon by them. Keeping the schedule and the scope of your game within reasonable limits while still doing the best you can is not easy. But it's absolutely critical.
Stranglehold (Midway Chicago, Brian Eddy) "Believe it or not, Stranglehold began its life as a free-roaming GTA-style game. But after about six months of development we convinced management that this would take far too long to develop, and was too risky to be Midway's first next-gen game on top of everything else we were tackling. We were then allowed to cut the game back to a more linear sandbox experience.
"But it still had an extensive feature list: the single player game, world interactions, four special moves, massive destruction, drivable vehicles with combat, and extensive multiplayer. We aggressively cut down the scope of each of these features as we progressed, but we kept them all in the game. After about a year of development it was clear we could not complete all these features at AAA quality, but we still kept trying.
"At the two year mark management set the hard end date. This let us cut drivable vehicles so we could concentrate on getting the rest of the features done at a high quality level. Ultimately cutting vehicles helped get the game shipped, but if we had made that decision a year earlier we could have put more time into mission variety and overall polish."
There's not much you can do when you're fighting against a parent that's beholden to stockholders. This just goes to show the importance of upper management pushing for realistic goals and cuts when necessary -- or in fact making sure the scope is manageable in the first place.
Guitar Hero (Harmonix, Greg LoPiccolo and Daniel Sussman) "We were really excited about including a freestyle mode so players could assemble their own crazy solos with divebombs, feedback, finger-tapping, and all the other adolescent guitar showboating moves that we so dearly love.
"We poured a lot of precious development time and resources into this feature, and sadly, had to cut it. It was very ambitious and we simply didn't have the time we needed to both make it sound good and integrate it into gameplay. Some of us feel that it was a gamble worth taking. Others aren't so sure."
Proper managing of time and scale can prevent some, but not all cases like this. It's one thing to cut a feature when it's not working, but another when time is all it will take to improve it. Cutting partially-developed features primarily because of time doesn't make anyone happy.
Humans are the most expensive aspect of game development, and also the most difficult to find. It was incredibly common for past postmortems to mention not only the reluctance to hire, but also the difficulty of integrating new hires into the existing culture and methodology.
Rock Band (Harmonix, Rob Kay) "The only way to complete the title on time was to grow the team. We put most of our staff onto the game, and expanded the organization to new levels. Our offices were bursting at the seams. With staff spread across three floors, and no room left for the new hires, we needed to finish the game, we bit the bullet and moved the entire company to a larger space mid way through Alpha.
"Despite all of this, we still didn't hire aggressively enough. Many years making small, tightly focused games had ingrained an efficiency bias and 'smaller is better' mentality that was hard to shake. We were afraid of the additional management required to hire more people, and it resulted in a longer harder crunch for all of us."
EA/Harmonix's Rock Band
The Rock Band team had further trouble later, and "fooled ourselves into thinking it was too late to integrate any new hires." But ultimately, they had to do so during Beta -- not the easiest time to be training new employees.
Crackdown (Realtime Worlds, Phil Wilson) "Another shocking reality was that the number of coders yet to be hired was expressed in the order of tens. In a pragmatic development environment there would have been three choices: 1) increase the budget, 2) lower our ambitions, or 3) pull the plug.
"Unfortunately, the stakeholders were far from pragmatic, and rather than moving to jettison anything that wasn't in direct support of the clearly defined 'project pillars,' they used the scope discussions as a forum to add yet more ideas."
Keeping the team to measured goals is difficult when re-evaluating a project. Hiring more people and then increasing the scope kind of defeats the purpose! But as a counterpoint, Tomb Raider Legend had the problem of too many cooks initially. With too large of a team in the pre-production phase, attempting to get 45 people to agree on the direction for the title was a challenge.