[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.