The benefits we stand to gain by protecting against premature production are immense. Better games come from improved early creative development. Eliminating creative unknowns facilitates stable production. Stable production facilitates massive savings, and the need for crunch diminishes -- in fact, crunch will become a warning sign that a project is off track (just like in other industries). Ship dates can become predictable, and our talent can enjoy long-term careers in the industry.
The road to a crunch-free game industry will ironically require sacrifice and innovation. As project leaders, we can't be satisfied with the familiar money- and talent-bleeding approaches; we need aggressive results -- projects that are more fun, created for less money, in less time. We need to work at least as hard at the beginning of a project, as we ask our talent to work at the end of one. Our success needs to be defined by higher quality games, reduced actual costs, and sustainability of the investment in our talent.
We are all familiar with the concepts of technology risk, pipeline risk, production risk, and visual quality risk. What we don't properly account for is "fun risk". "Fun Risk" is not the sum of the others; it's a totally separate thing.
Fun is the reason to buy a game. Fun is required for great sales and scores. Fun needs to be argued about, tested, iterated upon, sweetened, objectively evaluated, and it deserves a prominent place in project documentation and the schedule.
While many companies profess to have a green-light process which culls unviable projects before the full investment has been spent, I haven't heard of one yet that, in practice, truly requires projects to demonstrate the core fun factor before entering production. Green-light processes need to reflect the concept of "fun risk".
Fun Risk is the greatest of all risks. We should follow the lead of more successful creative teams in our industry: play it before we build it.
Our games must be compelling before the tech design and visual targets, and before production planning begins. To prioritize differently misunderstands the nature of what we make. People don't buy games. People buy fun.
Through quick-and-dirty rapid prototyping, even with the intent of throwing away this implementation once a viable proof-of-concept is achieved, we can ensure that fun happens first. The great thing about this approach is that "fun" can be proven for relatively little investment, utilizing only a small pre-production group.
If a game needs to be fun before production financing comes, it greatly simplifies the focus of pre-production. When fun is proven in pre-production, creative experimentation will not occupy a critical piece of the production schedule. The impact of properly addressing "Fun Risk" has on crunch is that the creative unknowns become known, the road ahead is predictable, and a sound production plan can commence.
The effort to resolve creative unknowns can also be aided by a few tools: cost transparency, early user testing, and a right-sized pre-production team. Even if your project is death-marching, if you have major unknowns, these tools can help decompress your project and make the production more bearable.
Cost Transparency. It may sound as exciting as tax law, but cost transparency provides an invaluable decision-aide: the stalwart cost-benefit analysis. A cost-benefit analysis of creative design features facilitates sound prioritization of those features around actual gameplay value, which reduces time wasted on dubious features.
In pre-production, a feature's perceived gameplay value can be paired to its estimated cost (estimated cost can be quickly gleaned on the back of a napkin). By estimating costs for the majority of a game concept's ideas, we can get a ballpark cost-benefit value range and use it to make informed decisions on which ideas, if invested in, will return the best player value.
In game development, almost all costs are labor costs, so we can't have true cost transparency if we don't have labor transparency, which includes overtime. Without including overtime, the cost-benefit analysis will produce flawed values; it's the equivalent to "cooking the books". By factoring it in, areas of waste in the production can be illuminated, and through their elimination will create savings as well as reduce the need for crunch.
When using cost transparency in production, actual costs can be captured (and again, for costs to be "actual", they need to include overtime labor). Actual give more precise cost/benefit values, and often reveal hidden waste in the process (for example, discovering long light bake times, month-long lead times for legal contracts, or time zone delays with remote vendors). Making waste visible allows it to be managed and eliminated from the flow of development.
Whether in pre-production or production, cost transparency begins to add value as soon as it is implemented. Even if a project is careening off the rails, this practice will help the team leadership gain confidence in its decisions and sleep better at night.
Early User Testing. Another way to validate fun is to solicit the feedback of an objective party, in the form of early user testing. Understandably, exposing a fledgling idea to group of insensitive players can be nerve-wracking. But over time, the criticism received will improve the team's knowledge of its customer, and its creative decision-making.
Start with testing small combinations of features that create a component of the game experience. As confidence builds and iterations grow stronger and stronger, test larger components or component combinations.
To do it on the cheap, enlist the help of local schools and make it a field trip event; to keep it confidential, keep the content generic and use the project codenames. If there are enough users, segment the tests to allow only a small portion of the game to be seen and played.
Charging a non-interested party (such as an experienced test lead) with design and execution of an ongoing user testing program will help ensure objective and accurate results. Beyond providing a sounding board for the creative team, the data gleaned from these tests also helps build confidence with investors and stakeholders.
Well-conducted early user testing serves to ensure the game resonates with the market and that it maximizes those traits which resonate best. Less time is wasted by taking fruitless paths, and the product can come into focus more clearly.