What Went Wrong? Learning From Past Postmortems
April 22, 2009 Page 1 of 5
[In this feature, originally printed in Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer earlier this year, EIC Brandon Sheffield and the editorial staff compile the most-repeated 'what went wrong' issues from the development of games -- spanning Rock Band to Final Fantasy XII and beyond.]
Postmortems -- articles written directly by the development team on the creation of a particular video game -- have been a staple of Game Developer Magazine for well over a decade.
With so many authors revealing what went right, and of course the car-wreck style appeal of what went wrong with the development process, patterns start to emerge. It becomes clear that a lot of the same mistakes are being made over and over again, and that some companies are even repeating their own mistakes.
With that in mind, we decided to round up every "what went wrong" entry from the last three years, and compiled the most frequently made mistakes (usually over five times each) into this cautionary feature.
As the saying goes, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. So here you have the top 10 "wrongs," in no particular order, over the lifecycle of the current generation so far. No one is safe!
1. Content added too late.
Getting story and features right is difficult at the best of times, but when that content comes in just under the wire, not only does that content suffer, every element of the game that relies on that content suffers.
Titan Quest (Iron Lore, Jeff Goodsill) "We struggled getting 25 detailed design documents to the technical department on time. We were still working on first cut design documentation more than one year after the start of the project, so the technical team had to fly blind in the beginning and some systems had to be redone.
"There was a fairly constant issue of design documents not being detailed enough for technical implementation."
After this trouble, the company devised an approval process, which would have the producer, lead designer, technical director, and the publisher's creative manager sign off on each document before finalizing it. While this helped, it did slow down the company's process a bit, and it's worth noting that for all Iron Lore's good points, the studio is now closed. It stands to reason that a "what went wrong" from a shuttered studio would warrant extra scrutiny.
And to quote Riley Cooper, who had a similar problem with Tomb Raider: Legend, "This clearly serves to remind us that if you don't want any features in your game to under-perform, you need to do them 100 percent or not at all."
BioShock (2K Boston, Alyssa Finley) "We had many drafts of the story over the course of development, but the final draft turned out to be an almost complete rewrite.
"Competing demands for time and resources meant that, unfortunately, some of the important narrative details of the game weren't created until the final rewrite, and therefore required quite a bit of work to retrofit into an existing game."
In an RPG-like game, story is the guiding star of the project. While ideally the systems would be fully integrated into the story to the degree that each can affect the other, at the very least the scenario needs to be nailed down before full-on production. In a game like BioShock, which features loads of spoken dialog, implementation and pipeline problems can crop up at the last moment, if you don't deal with them early on. This is exactly what happened to the 2K Boston team.
When deadlines get fierce, and everyone's chugging away, communication is most likely the second thing to go. The first, of course, is quality of life, leading to crunch, but you can bet that we'll get to that.
Age of Booty (Certain Affinity, Max Hoberman) "Over the course of the project there were numerous disconnects between the perceived state of the game and the actual state of the game.
"The hardest hit were the designers, who continued fine-tuning plans for sophisticated features like matchmaking and party support long after the programmers had already made huge simplifications (and often cuts) to these systems. A combination of lack of attention to the project, poor communication, and wishful thinking led to the design team believing that several features were far more advanced than we were actually able to implement, and they did not find out the reality until very late in the project."
This depressing quote is made moreso by the fact that this was an Xbox Live Arcade title, and thus had a relatively small team. The company was working on multiple projects at once, which widened the communication gap. But that's another element we'll get to in due time.
Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, Taku Murata) "During the development of Final Fantasy XII, the pressure to succeed was at such a high point that we were on the brink of losing control during even the slightest misunderstanding. What happened was our team was given the freedom to make changes at various stages of development, but the adverse affect of this freedom was miscommunication, confusion, and disorder. How work was to be distributed was also often ambiguous, which contributed to the problem."
Management overhead is a particularly large problem in Japan, but that's not to say it can't happen at home, too. Often there are too many managers, but not enough actual management going on. Sound familiar?
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