While there are several interpretations on exactly what polish means, every developer we spoke to agreed that the most important factor in creating a polished game is proper scheduling. Proper management of a project from its early stages to its completion was singled out again and again as the surest way to create a quality product.
"A team achieves polish by allocating time in the schedule for polish, understanding its quality bar and by playing the game over and over. Too often you see polish time as the buffer time in a project schedule, which doesn't really work," says Epic's Fergusson. "Buffer time is required to deal with uncertainty, and even though the quantity of polish required is often uncertain when you're early in your scheduling, those two uncertainties are not the same thing.
"Changes in scope, schedule and resources will eat your buffer time, and you'll still want to have dedicated time outside of that for doing nothing but making the game better through polishing."
Concurring, Robomodo's Dwyer says, "The goal of the developer is set aside time for polish, plan for the unexpected, and be flexible. A team achieves polish by setting priorities based on the high level goals of the game before reaching the 'polish phase.'
"Polish is all about planning. There is a deadline by which the game is supposed to be done. When it comes to the 'polish phase,' you don't have time to get every aspect of the game to be one hundred percent perfect.
"As a team, you look at all aspects of the game and your current resources. You make a list of everything that needs to be polished and how much time it will take. You also factor in the importance of polish, meaning how much it affects the overall gameplay experience. You then start prioritizing the work that needs to be done based on all these factors."
As important as it is to allow enough time for polish at the end of the project, it's equally important not to let a team work indefinitely. "It's easy to get caught up in the 'ship it when it's done' mentality, where you claim you are quality-driven. But at the end of the day, no game is ever truly perfect, so when do you ship?" asks Fergusson. "You have to understand what the appropriate quality bar is for your game and how you can effectively use your polish time to achieve it."
Gears of War 2
BioWare technical director Ross Gardner pointed to a perfect example of what can go wrong with seemingly unlimited development time. "The ultimate example is Duke Nukem Forever," he says.
Gardner continues, "The game industry is so different from some of the other industries out there. It's so competitive. Something that really works now, two years later it might not work at all. It puts a lot of pressure on studios, especially studios that have a reputation to maintain and a sort of quality bar that they have to hit. And what that can lead to is changing direction mid-stream.
"Games that start out to do one thing and just do that thing, and then go with that all the way to the end, that's sort of the ideal scenario. The more meandering you do along the way, like, 'Well, maybe let's make this type of game, or let's do this type of thing, or let's add multiplayer, or let's remove multiplayer.' Those kinds of kinds of changes made along the way, depending on how they're done, that can cause you to waste huge amounts of time and lead to an unpolished product."