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The Top 10 Things The Game Industry Can Learn from Film Production

May 1, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

[What can game developers learn from the film industry, if anything? No, it's not about storytelling -- it's about the very style of production, argues Tess Jones, who has worked as both a film producer and a game producer.]

Over the years I have mused on the differences and similarities between producing games and films. Both have large, creative crews working towards successful delivery of a visually entertaining product.

When I worked on movie sets, I drove around the city to a different location each day. Once there, I was greeted by a troupe of 200 creative people on the movie set all trying to achieve one vision.

When I worked on games, I was again greeted by 200 creative people all trying to achieve one vision, but instead of using a physical set to stage their dramatic scenes requiring me to cross town, the environments and sets were all contained at the office on their computer screens.

Despite their different work environments, both mediums aim to entertain, creating tension and excitement, making people laugh, cry, or tremble in fear at the edge of their seats.

From there, the similarities seem to end. Producing works in these two fields is drastically different. Films have significantly shorter production periods than games. A detailed schedule is created based on the scenes required in a screenplay. The cast and crew are hired, production begins, and each day they film specific scenes until the entire script is complete. When all scenes have been filmed, the crew is done. This can all be done in as short as a month.

Games have long production periods. New gameplay mechanics present engineering challenges. Players have the ability to stop and walk around in environments, rotating 360 degrees around objects. Unexpected bugs may arise late in production, not to mention the possibility that players will navigate levels in unexpected ways or become frustrated with gameplay elements requires ongoing iteration as testing happens. And finally, games are generally much longer than films, and require a hefty amount of creative content, with "short" games providing a six to eight hour game experience.

Despite these differences, I believe there are techniques from the film industry that can be applied to game production. Film production teams deliver fast because they have to, with location, crew, and cast restrictions tied to a very precise clock. As the market tightens and consumers expect more features from games, we need to find ways to make games faster and cheaper. One place to look is to the well-oiled machine of film production.

Lesson #1: Never Shoot a Movie without an Assistant Director

The cast arrives at 5am for make-up, while the production crew of 200 people gets there at 7. First up is a scene in a downtown office building, which includes a complicated crane shot. A second unit is shooting up the street to fill in the gaps so the whole crew can pack up and be at a second location by 2pm. The second location closes by 6pm -- no ifs, ands, or buts -- and they have to get four shots before the sun goes down, one including 50 extras in the scene. Oh, and by the way, your key actor is late, meaning you have to rearrange your entire shot list and pray to God you get everything complete without having to add another day to the schedule -- and budget.

Holy jigsaw puzzle of time management! If you thought your teams were hard to manage, imagine the pressure on the shoulders of a film's Assistant Director. "ADs," as they are known on set, are unionized through the Director's Guild of America.

They are highly skilled in judging all the various elements that will go into a shot and determining how much time it will take. On a film set where money is literally being spent as each minute on the clock ticks by, they keep things running smoothly towards completing each shot on the list.

I've worked on small films without an AD, and the inevitable result is that you find yourself still trying to "get that last shot" at 2am in an apartment in the Bronx, eventually falling asleep with your face plastered onto a piece of pizza. It's not pretty.

People tend to avoid the clock in games. Thinking about time estimates hampers the "cool" and "creative" game dev lifestyle. It's all about iteration, and you can't put a time estimate on that, can you? That's all well and fun during concept phase when your devs are passionate, but when you're exhausted and pushing to Beta... Yup -- you got it. You're stuck with another brutal, middle of the night sleeping pizza face incident. Sleep deprivation -- that is the real obstacle to creativity. What you need is a skilled AD.

What? "I don't need that! My producer does that." Well, yes and no. Some producers are amazing at time management, and others not so much. Producers often also have other elements on their mind: big picture concept, correspondence with marketing, milestone reports, a whole lot of other things that draw their attention away from the nitty-gritty, day to day of making sure elements are "in the can."

Movie sets have both a producer and AD, each managing different responsibilities. What game teams need is a dedicated resource to manage time. A qualified, experienced resource that can eyeball time estimates and build a schedule based on the risks and elements in front of them. Headcount is always tight on game teams, and project managers dedicated to scheduling could be seen as unnecessary overhead. But if you want to shoot a movie in 45 days with no overages and to have a beautiful film in the can, in the movie business, you hire a good AD.


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Comments


Jason Bakker
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I felt like the concept vetting point doesn't make much sense, as game development is much more invention-through-iteration focused than concept focused. At the moment it feels like if that gigantic vetting process went on, the majority of concepts that came out of it would still need to be entirely reworked when actual development starts, because you simply cannot know how something is going to feel or the problems you're going to face at that pre-production stage.

To make that process more applicable to games, imagine instead of game designers and concept artists passing around "concept documents", game designer/programmers and concept/asset artists passing around game prototypes. The overall flow would still be preserved, and you'd have something concrete to show that has already been put through some of the iterative process of invention.

Similarly, with the printed game design bible idea, I think your thought of regularly playing the game and that itself being the point of reference is more on the money.

Thanks for the write-up, this is an interesting and thought provoking article :)

Clinton Keith
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I felt the same way. Didn't the game industry learn the lesson that big concept treatments that passed through a vetting and documentation process doesn't work?

There is a TV show on the Biography channel called "Inside Story" that examines the making of great films by interviewing the director, actors, etc. It's amazing to see how much iteration and experimentation happen with these movies after the script is written.

Jamie Roberts
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Basically, filmmaking is like cooking: prepare the ingredients and follow a basic set of directions. The strength is in the recipe, not the process, although talented cooks can certainly achieve a better result in a shorter amount of time with more nuance in flavor.

Game development is more like science: hypothesis, preliminary research, reevaluation, follow-up research, potential future research... with the next step unknown until the end of each stage. You're always building on existing research, but any time you delve into new territory there's no telling how it will play out.

Maybe we need a peer review process instead.

Sergio Rosa
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I come from a filmmaking background, and I'm into iteration as much as the next game developer but everything should have constraints and if so much iteration makes your game cost twice or thrice as much (did you really need to spend 100M making the game, or could you have made it with 50M?), or takes 12 years to be made (like Diablo III?) then something needs fixing.

Personally I'd say people shouldn't overlook the importance of preproduction. I'm not going to say you need the "game bible" from day 1 and describe exactly what the game is about, but having a solid concept is important. If not, what would prevent devs from slapping a 10-head mutalt soldier into WarShooter 9,000 because the iteration process proved it was cool? I know this is an exaggeration but you get the point.

I think this article can help us rethink many things and maybe find a more cost-effective ways to make things. After all, even if this is an entertainment industry, things still revolve around money and anything that can help us invest less in games is very welcome, specially considering the current economy.

Christian Nutt
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Were the vetting processes thorough, intelligent, and run by qualified people? The concept of vetting requires people who are truly capable of vetting, and I get the sense that the game industry lacked adequate management (at many studios and publishers) and process.

You also often hear (at GDC, etc.) that if management gets early buy-in in a concept, it doesn't have to get reworked during full production, as often happens when licensors and/or publisher management see a game that's well into dev and hate what it's all about.

So yeah -- I would argue that for these two reasons it's not so easy to dismiss.

Wylie Garvin
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I think concept vetting does make sense. You have to have a rough idea of what you're trying to make before you start paying 50+ people to work on it. You should have a very small number of people work on the concept for your game until they have at least a rough idea of: the main character, the world, what type of gameplay, how many hours of content and how it will be structured (linear? sandbox? etc), maybe the story, if that applies. Make concept art of characters, settings, etc. to inspire the team. Make gameplay prototypes and convince yourself that your core gameplay loop is still going to be fun after you've been doing it for 10-20 hours. If you can't do an actual prototype, maybe make "fake gameplay footage". I think you shouldn't enter pre-production until you have a very clear idea of what you intend to make (and approximately the team size, budget, and schedule it will take to make it).

Tess Jones
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Thank you for all the great, thoughtful comments on this thread. I love that my article is getting people thinking about the way that games are made, and all the different approaches we can take from a production standpoint.

Jason, I think what you are saying is definitely on point. It would make the most sense if the concepts weren’t just documents being passed around, but were an actual, small but playable example of the game. That said, if you had an army of people making game concepts across the world and submitting them to different game studios, I can’t see how that approach wouldn’t work in a very practical sense, since every game studio has different technology. Maybe there is something in between these two ends of the spectrum. Perhaps the concepts would include a package of art assets including game character mockups, environment concepts, storyline, and a suggested list of missions and gameplay elements. The package could primarily be art and story/concept driven, but the game team would still need to come up with gameplay foundation to fit that art/story package to fit with whatever type, size, and platform for the game they want to make. But at least the teams would have the ability to sift through hundreds of story and character ideas that they could then purchase and augment as they see fit. The forethought that would go into these packages, and the volume of the number of high-quality concepts that studios could choose from, would be the win.

I do have to say that the point in the article about concepting was mostly theoretical, as it would require such a huge paradigm shift in games that it is most likely impractical to consider. But it’s fun to discuss!

Tynan Sylvester
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Tess, I could see that "concept package" including prototype and some art thing working well.

Easiest way to make it happen seems to be for a large studio to take sub-groups of developers and let them explore wild new high-risk concepts with prototypes and basic art. You end up with a pile of wild ideas based on internal tech. Most won't work, but there might be a diamond there.

Now that I think on it, I believe we've seen this sort of thing work very well. Valve did it, as did Double Fine, both with strong results.

Dominic Cianciolo
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There's a lot of great insight in this article. The only bone I'd pick is the description of the script development and coverage process. Having been through this process, I can say that the development and coverage process is not really designed to churn out the "best" possible script. It's designed so that all stakeholders have their desired say in what a film could, or should be. If there's strong creative vision at the head of the project, which can be the director, producer, and other leads, all the feedback can coalesce into a great script. But more often than not the result is "script by committee" where a lot of what drew people to material in the first place somehow falls to the way side...

@Jamie - I also have to take a little exception to the statement that in both filmmaking and cooking "Prepare the ingredients and follow a basic set of directions. The strength is in the recipe, not the process". Both recipe (script) and process are of equal importance to a great outcome. Yes, you can't make a great film without a great script. But bad, or even middling, execution of an otherwise flawless script (or recipe) will simply kill the original vision.

To complete your cooking analogy, you should probably should analogize game development to baking... Even among cooks, baking is known as the more "scientific" of the culinary disciplines. Baking is a lot less forgiving, and permits a lot less improvisation than other cooking.

Jamie Roberts
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The cooking description was an oversimplification, yes, somewhat intentionally. Of course you can burn your food, that much is obvious. The problem with relating game development to baking is that (good) game developers DO experiment. Baking is very rigid, and if you don't follow the spec to a T, the whole thing falls apart.

Waterfall development is going by the wayside. Game design doesn't work like that. You're not operating from a premade recipe. You start with a recipe for something you've made before, and then you switch it up. Game dev branches out into new areas of knowledge, from technology to story interactivity and player psychology. It learns from past mistakes (ideally) and attempts new things (ideally). TES: Oblivion experimented with the "Radiant AI" system; Skyrim builds on that system and tries out many other new things.

Part of the reason my analogy is cooking versus science is that the two production processes are *not* variants of the same discipline. They have fundamental differences in purpose and methodology. It's true that some lessons can cross over, but most do not.

Game development can and should learn from every other form of media, and every field of knowledge: books, music, TV, economics, psychology, everything.The best game developers often know a lot about fields unrelated to games themselves, because that is where we find growth as a medium.

TL;DR: Electronic games are all about crossover and integration of seemingly unrelated fields, math, science, and art. Film production is about writing a story and then telling it in a visual form. They both can tell a story, they both employ technology to do it, but there is a fundamental difference in purpose and scope.

Tess Jones
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I wouldn’t necessarily compare making a movie to cooking from a recipe, movies have the screenplay as an initial blueprint, but the crew and cast make what you see on the screen. The way even just one actor on set plays a role can dramatically change the script’s intention for a scene, for example. Or the art director’s interpretation for environments, or the DP’s use of camera angles, colors, lighting, and lenses, will totally change the tone and move it away from what was written on the page. Also, page changes can come during production, additional scenes shot, to change what is happening. It’s all about where the team takes it.

In general, for the concept idea, I was in no way suggesting that we should make games from a recipe. I was mostly just theorizing a different model for concepting art and story for games, since games are getting bigger. This would not work for casual games where the concept is often the gameplay itself, but would be for bigger console titles that employ characters, big environments, and stories that drive player attachment to the product. The concept packages would have definitely limitations and I can’t imagine that they would include much in the way of gameplay elements because of technical limitations. The teams themselves would still need to create fun gameplay and face their own technical challenges head-on.

Dominic, as for script development, I definitely agree that sometimes by the end it is “script by committee.” I imagine that could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the original script and the crew involved. For what is applicable to games from the screenplay process, I was more interested in the script purchase process, before it goes into development with a director or team. The idea that all these stories are floating around and studios can pick which ones they like and then purchase them, is where films differ from games. Even after script development and production on movies, I would think that having a strong starting point at least reduces the chances of failure on movies as a whole.

Johanna Jones
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I am a producer in Advertising. As a producer our job is to uphold the client brand and deliverable, as well as nurture and facilitate the Creative vision. This is always a tricky balance because given the option creative "talent" (as we call them) will always want the most amount of time and the most amount of resources so their work can turn into the Mona Lisa of their day. But in the commercial world, which both film and video games are in, the reality of unlimited resources for artists exists only in the beautiful imaginations of the artist. Commercials are an even shorter turn around time than film, and there is a shared humor about what we all could be doing if we did have all the time and money in the world. But we have, some of each and let's not take our "cool" jobs and all the sub-cultural liberties that accompany them for granted. The phrase "starving artist" is an earned cliche. That being said, the Producer as the other half of making epic advertisements, games, films or turning anything creative into a viable and marketable product is tasked with shepherding the talent and their resources to the shelf. Dealing with resources in a way that supports creativity in a realistic way is a touchy job- have you ever told a 3 year old it's time to stop finger painting and take a nap! From a management and problem solving stand point, drawing on production process cross platform could very well result in a much more creative friendly atmosphere via the structure which is what producers do- they advocate for both the creative vision and the resources. Having a good producer managing your work, who is truly a good manager and skilled at putting the creative first while keeping the delicate balance of resources is critical. And talent that feel supported, who trust their producers, respect and trust their limitations instead of being on the defensive are also critical. And of course when the two get together- great things get done, and sometimes even history is made. We all work hard, we all have families and hobbies and lives. Positive effective leadership, and true collaboration with a few face down nights in the pizza is where it's at.

Jamie Roberts
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Actually, unlimited resources have a terrible effect on creativity. Restrictions are what make for great media in any form. I think it's no coincidence that commercials and music videos often showcase innovative concepts that are then copied over into film.

Maybe the games industry needs an equivalent short form to spur creativity. Indie games don't exactly fit the criteria, because they're more removed from commercial pressure than commercials and music videos. Maybe mainstream downloadables and DLC could fit the bill. Perhaps the industry could benefit from consciously adopting that approach. I don't know all that much about advertising, so I could be off here, but it's just a thought.

Wylie Garvin
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@Jamie:
That's a great point. And having "lots of resources" can be almost as bad as unlimited resources. You can easily end up wasting those resources, because you end up trying to make "everything" really great, and you end up spending a bunch of time on a difficult and complex feature which has only a very minor impact on the player's experience.

The thing I'm working on right now is the poster-child for this: its a minor aesthetic feature with no gameplay consequences whatsoever, and yet its sucked up several days of time from a programmer (me) and involves also modelling, animation, mocap. Its fun to work on, but its an expensive feature considering that it has no effect on the gameplay. This is for a big project though, on a more modestly-sized project with limited resources, this feature would have been rejected after about 30 seconds of discussion.

The problem with unlimited resources is that someone in charge can say "I want a pony" and three weeks and a small fortune will then be spent building one!

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Yes, a bag of chips pales in comparison to steak, shrimp, three varieties of salads, and a sushi chef. Film production has food down.

#4 and #7 (crunch time and food) are important points, since they affect the morale of the team more directly than the others. If you can't spend time with your family, at least you get to eat a steak. Not that those items compare, but morale wins battles. The powers that be should do everything they can to keep it up, and great food works wonders. And overtime pay may be a sensitive topic, but it does place the responsibility on the right shoulders and, like was said, keep morale up. Once, an otherwise dreadful 20 hour day became nothing short of awesome because meal penalties, combined with overtime, really shines on a paycheck.

Regarding post-production, since the elements film associates with that time are developed in tandem with the rest of the game, leaving sound et. all for "later" doesn't work in game development. Similarly, I'd agree the script vetting process would need major overhauls for game development.

But, no one would argue these industries are the same (I hope). From these differences we can still learn a lot and adapt. Film production has what, almost a century on us? Of course, we always talk about film production, but I wonder from which other industries might game development benefit in surprising ways.

Jamie Roberts
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I think in essence the most common problem with game development is that preproduction creeps into the rest of the dev cycle. Not enough time is spent in R&D and preproduction, important decisions are made too late, and then people keep wondering over and over again why projects miss their ship date. It's entirely possible to frontload more creative work while keeping the process organic.

When devs do things like change the story at the end of the project (Mirror's Edge), it's like you've rendered a beautiful drawing in graphite, and then decide to change the pose. You can do it, but it will be a pain in the ass. You should've just worked harder when you were drawing gestures.

In that sense I think the first part of the article has the right idea, but gets mired in details that don't translate to the game industry.

K Gadd
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This article has some really interesting observations and a few good insights, but it feels like it's written by a really skilled, experienced producer who has absolutely no idea how games are actually made (at least when it comes to engineering and content design).

The idea that game development tasks aren't carefully and precisely time-estimated just because it's not 'cool' is so completely, fundamentally wrong-headed that I can't even begin to imagine what kind of mindset would lead to it. Time-boxing engineering tasks is tremendously, astoundingly difficult and no software engineering discipline in any industry that I am aware of has come up with a reliable way of doing it. When you combine the difficulty of estimating time for software engineering tasks with a creative endeavor like game design I just can't imagine how you can ever get anything close to accurate estimates - I've certainly never seen it done. Once you accept that your estimates aren't going to be accurate, they become much less useful as a scheduling tool and it can make more sense to ditch them entirely, depending on how your product is being built and what your milestones look like.

And to be clear, I say this as someone with real experience as a designer, programmer, and producer - so I feel like I at least have a little perspective on this. Maybe that's why I found the author's tone so offensive on this subject.

Fawzi Mesmar
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I guess the biggest problem most game dev studios suffer with that all though there's usually one creative director, there are always opinions and lots of them.

But I guess that's also the nature of game development as well, and as we mature as an industry I'm sure that we'd find a collaborative way to solve this issue.

Great Article

Keith Nemitz
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A fine article. While I understand commenters' objections about the way scripts evolve in hollywood, I urge developers to let writers/designers work their ideas (via scripts or prototypes) long before core development begins!

Maybe a better analogy is the Japanese media system. It's integrated in a chaotic but fascinating and I believe powerful way. Consider manga the source of concepts (it isn't always), top manga is determined somewhat by editors, but more often by actual audiences. So much new manga is printed every week, the cream of the crop really is the cream of the crop by the time it's picked to become anime. Then, those anime which are wildly successful, (again due to audiences) are adapted into video games. Clearly, that's an oversimplification, but it is a common case. Great ideas, especially unique ones, rise to the top far more often than in American.

In America, our culture limits this wonderful mechanism. New comic books are targeted at niche markets. Regular print fiction is read by a handful of the population. Those potential sources for popular game concepts is sadly weak in the USA.

Tynan Sylvester
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I appreciate Tess writing this article. It's well written and well-intentioned.

I'm afraid it's also extremely misled and misleading. It's anti-advice. You would be better off never having read it. Especially if you haven't worked in game development for a while.

For decades, games production has suffered horribly from the blind importing of film production methods. Yes, both media go on screens. That's about the end of the similarity. There are fundamental structural differences in the product which invalidate the assumptions underlying the film production process.

Just to start with the assistant director part:

ADs can only do their job because they know how long things take. After years of experience they've basically figured out how long it takes to get extras together, set up a certain kind of camera crane, light a scene of a certain complexity, and so on. The reason is because these are primarily repeatable, physical tasks. You're not inventing anything new. You're just getting something done. So you can estimate to a good accuracy how long they will take. And since you know that, you can shuffle tasks to line up as needed.

In games, nearly every task, at nearly every stage of production, is inventive, not physical. It's easy to type code into a computer or click a mouse on an art program. But we don't schedule the physical of typing code or the physical process of mouse clicks. We schedule the creative process of engine design or artistic development. Creative, inventive tasks are fundamentally unpredictable because they deal with significant unknowns. Since these tasks are so unpredictable, times can't be predicted nearly as accurately as with a task like assembling extras on set. Which means that the whole "skilled manager shuffling tasks around like cards in a deck so they line up perfectly" thing is a dangerous mirage. It doesn't work. Nobody can do that in game dev. If you try, you suffer (and crunch). Many have. Many still do.

In games, we need to design the process to handle the extreme degree of uncertainty attached to every plan and estimate. Hence iteration which, while it has its downsides, is antifragile against the kinds of unpredictable outcomes that regularly happen in game dev.



Script development:

Again, the prediction problem. A film, even if it's bad, will do what it was told to do in the script. The good guy will always say the same line and kill the bad guy the same way. It is structurally inviolate. The experience might suck, but you know what the experience will be.

Games are interactive. You don't know how players will react. Nobody can because players are unpredictable. So you can't know the experience that is being created until it's tested. So you can't plan a game on paper like you plan a movie. It will disintegrate on the first playtest. You need playtests to even understand what experience you're creating at all. And to playtest, you need a working game.

Think of it this way: Reading the script and imagining the film in your head is akin to playing a prototype and imagining what it will look like when fully polished with art. You _cannot_ go from a written design document directly to a coherent and correct mental image of play.

Again, the solution is iteration.



Story equals concept:

This is a worthwhile notion to keep in mind. But don't apply it too blindly to games.

Game stories work best when they integrate with the gameplay instead of running alongside it. See Portal for a great example. This means that as the gameplay shifts during iteration (which as noted above is essential), the story must shift to match it.

So, I think we'd be well served to try to find high concepts over the course of development, but not in a big lump up front.


I don't really want to go on. Some of the later advice fits much better with games than what's above. But my general conclusion remains: be very wary of borrowed methods from film. There are hidden problems in them which spring from assumptions which hold in film production but not in games production. We already borrow too much from that medium without realizing it.

We need to develop methods native to our medium, not steal even more voraciously.

Dominic Cianciolo
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As someone whose worked in both film and games, I'm baffled by this notion I constantly see repeated that the game creation process is somehow more "iterative" than the creation process of film. Both are highly iterative processes.

Film production is never a straight line process. All through the writing, production, and post-production of a film you are trying different things, hitting roadblocks, finding stuff that doesn't work for any number of reasons and trying to change it while you still can.

The actual production of a film is chaotic and messy. Any number of roadblocks can come in and require radical reinvention of what was intended to be done for the story. It's high stakes, high pressure, and requires a need to be incredibly flexible with how the source material is approached. There's a reason that people in the film business call those outside the business "civilians".

The post-production process also, particularly editing, is highly iterative. When you've finished shooting, you have all this footage you have then turn into a cohesive narrative. Editors and directors try out numerous options before settling on a final cut. Individual frames can make a huge difference in the quality of a narrative.

Tynan Sylvester
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I'd be really interested in learning more about deep iteration in film if you could point me at some articles/books. The only film production book I've read was Sidney Lumet's.

I suspect that even many of the borrowed methods we take from film aren't actually the methods used in real filmmaking - just a naive outsider's assumption of what they are. Which is even worse.

But just based on Tess' article, it sounds pretty darn non-iterative. A lot of waterfall-style stuff there.

Epona Schweer
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Hey Tynan, deep iteration and the horizontal slice is something you'll see done at well run and successful animated film studios: the Pixar's and Weta's of the world.

Follow their documentaries and making-of features, you'll see them describe why they'll make a full storyboard animatic (blueprint) and then previs (prototype) of the entire film before spending money staffing up production. Heh, reason being that they do it because they want to make all the potentially expensive changes BEFORE production - so they don't lose any significant chunks of time or money that could be spent on polish and making a superior film.

I started researching them (and companies like Valve and Halfbrick) directly back in 2008 because I had started getting involved in the management side of things and couldn't find any books or resources on production management in animation and games.

Heh. There still aren't many good books or resources on it :P.

I've been applying methods from tech startup guides like ReWork and The Lean Startup and converting what's worked with my teams into articles and guides on www.indiebits.com

ReWork: http://www.amazon.com/Rework-Jason-Fried/dp/0307463745
The Lean Startup: http://www.amazon.com/The-Lean-Startup-Entrepreneurs-Continuous/d
p/0307887898

Hope that helps!

Tynan Sylvester
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Epona, thanks for the reply.

I'm aware of the storyboarding process. I'm confused why you would mention this as a kind of iteration. This is the opposite of iteration. It's planning up front and then executing the plan exactly, piece by piece. Like blueprinting a building and then getting workers to put it up. Not iterative.

Obviously they iterate a ton on the storyboard/script itself. But from what you're saying and from what else I've seen, once you're in production it typically comes out looking just about like the storyboard does.

Try to do that with games, and you're dead meat. You can't storyboard or write a game down and have it work. You have to build the game and playtest it to know how players will respond. So it changes all the way through production, at every level. Even after the basic prototyping is done.

Evan Combs
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I'm surprised by the backlash, especially to a more robust preproduction and "script". I also think it might lack a little from an understanding of what actually goes into a film production. Having a more robust preproduction or script can go a long ways towards producing a better game, with a more predictable development cycle. This isn't some film idea either, studies show that with software development the more planning and preproduction you do the more smoothly production goes. These are tenets that cross all kinds of fields, and would include game development.

Being native or not native has nothing to do with it. The only reasons these suggestions would not work is if you have poor management or poor creative vision. Certainly that is in an abundance, but that is no reason to dismiss the ideas blindly.

Chris Huston
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The one item I think everyone can agree on, which also happens to be applicable in most employment scenarios, is the food advice. One of the fundamental things that always gets harped on in the preservation or decline of the traditional family unit is the importance of eating together. It seems irrational, but there's something very beneficial and productive about eating together -- and of course, eating smart.

It's great advice that most companies in most industries would benefit from, but which, unfortunately, is so tough to measure that corporations are often likely to dismiss it. It takes progressive or "hip" companies like Google, Best Buy, Microsoft, to throw in these kinds of "perks", which actually end up being perks for the company via not just morale but employee psychological synergies.

Yeah, the rest of these points could reasonably be debated, but that one is golden. It doesn't have to be all the time or any kinds of lavish, but the act and the effort can pay significant dividends.

Tynan Sylvester
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Agreed. Getting good food is a cheap price to pay for a team that knows and likes each other.

Chris Remo
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Also agreed. Especially since game studios hire employees on a rolling basis (so over a three year development cycle the personnel might change considerably) it's invaluable for there to be ongoing opportunities for team members to regularly interact in a way that isn't purely work-oriented.

Epona Schweer
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Would include the importance of the Previs & Layout departments. Creating a horizontal slice of the entire experience gives the director the opportunity to make changes to narrative flow, fine tune pacing and tighten up the entire film before spending millions on production.

Just take that in for a moment. How many of you spent months (if not years!) on a chunk of the game that never made it into the release build? How much money do you think the studio spent producing that wasted material?

Games could save millions on production by taking the same approach as film does with previs by creating a horizontal slice of the entire user experience during pre-production. Yes you'll be making plenty of changes during development - but the big cuts can happen before they cost you time and money.

I worked in film for 5 years before getting back into the games industry. Yes there's a lot that would benefit games (most of which is brilliantly described in this article) but the film industry itself is also deeply flawed.

The entire reason I got into business in the first place was because every animated film production I worked on ended up burning people out, going over budget and either a) destroying the studio or b) leaving the studio with a skeleton crew struggling after another project.

#1 thing film needs to learn from games: Pipeline Optimization.

Happy Feet could have saved a few million dollars just on improving render time. And having worked on 85% of the shots in that first film I can confidently tell you that their use of polygons and textures was grossly wasteful.

Tynan Sylvester
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I think animated film production seems like an interesting comparison. Obviously it's quite distinct from live action and in many ways closer to games.

Your notes on horizontal slices sounds like an argument for broad graybox prototyping across the whole project.

Epona Schweer
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Broad graybox prototyping across the whole project is exactly what I mean by horizontal slice.

The indies startups I coach can't actually support themselves long enough to do the "make vertical slice, pitch to publishers, pray for funding" model.

The model we follow is 100% about getting enough cash-flow during each stage of production to keep the lights on until the game is ready to publish. It looks like: Brainstorm > Test Concept > Horizontal slice > Monetize > Alpha > Monetize > Beta > Monetize > Gold > Monetize > DLC > etc.

Tynan Sylvester
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Sounds like walking a knife edge towards a pot of gold.

Epona Schweer
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I've been doing it for three years because it's worked well.

Far prefer this method to developing in isolation and hoping and praying that people like it.

Tynan Sylvester
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I take back what I said. Bad metaphor. I was really thinking of being on the knife edge of running out of money all the time.

But actually, repeated market contact with minimum viable product isn't a bad or risk-adding thing. In fact it's probably quite risk-reducing.

tony oakden
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I think trying to draw comparisons between film production and game production is problematic for many reasons. That's not to say we can't learn lessons from film production but I think caution is required. There are many fairly fundamental differences between films and games which have been covered in gamasutra before but one I'd like to mention is the clear abstraction between filming and viewing which exists in films but not in games. In films once the film is edited it is transmitted through a variety of media which often has nothing in common with the recording media. E.g. celluloid, radio, internet, DVD etc. The reason this works is that finished films are simply a sequence of still images played one after another and this greatly simplifies, not only, the process of distribution but also provides a very clear abstraction between creation and viewing of the product. This is much less evident in computer games where the hardware used to develop the game is pretty much the same hardware used to play it. This much tighter coupling of development and viewing has much to answer for, IMO, for the difficulties we encounter in game production and is one of the main reasons why systems developed for film production often fail to work when applied wholesale to games.

Jonathan Lawn
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I had a think about this a couple of years ago, and put down my thoughts for my first blog post here. My conclusion was that an AAA single-player FPS could (and perhaps should) be developed and funded like a movie, but other models might be more appropriate for other types of game (e.g. from TV or print publishing).

The difference of course is that you have seen this from the inside, whereas I've very little insider knowledge from any of these industries. I know there are some authors on this site. Has anyone worked in TV?

Glenn Storm
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This is full of so much Win. Excellent points raised, critical correlations made, tricky spots navigated, very well said. Thank you, Tess.

Kelly Kleider
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I think tug boat captains could learn a lot about tug-boating from water skiers. That's what I hear when people do these kinds of comparisons.

Trying to shoe-horn one production methodology onto another is like a bad analogy; it will make sense in a couple of situations (maybe only one) but it won't work for everything. Streamlining production is about analyzing YOUR situation and adjusting accordingly...it is not about superimposing another methodology on your situation and forcing a fit.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Good point. However...

"I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him."
- Galileo Galilei

I'm sure a tug boat captain could learn something from a water skier. Similarly, if anything, you learned what not to try from this article. Take from it what you will, and you've still managed to take something.


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