[Henrik Markarian, a veteran developer with over 20 years in the industry, including stints at Mindscape and NovaLogic, shares production secrets he's learned over the years -- best practices aimed at improving efficiency and studio culture.]
I believe that making a game is part art and part science, so it's no wonder that managing a game project is also part art and part science. Clearly if it was all science then the industry would get a collective F for not having made any significant progress over the last decade - all one has to do is just glance at the published postmortems to see that the same patterns are repeated over and over.
A game has to be fun, engaging, grab users in the first two minutes and also keep their attention for countless more hours. These requirements place a very difficult burden onto design directors and project managers who are tasked with quantifying "fun" and then determining that at some point in the project enough fun elements have been introduced into the game so that it can actually ship.
Complicating matters are fixed budgets, tight timelines and dealing with team dynamics. All of this combined with the well-documented issues surrounding collaborative software engineering are the chief reasons why game projects are so difficult to manage.
While there are no clear-cut answers, there are obviously best practices. The goal of this article is to outline numerous lessons learned from the trenches of game development that when applied properly should help control and manage a process that by nature doesn't want to be controlled or managed.
Limit the Chefs in the Kitchen
"We have the happiest employees around because EVERYONE here contributes to the design!"
How many times have you heard this? Or perhaps you were the one saying it, when trying to hire a promising candidate? It's a common theme, and one that is often discussed during interviews.
While this sounds great in theory, in reality its execution is fraught with problems. Game projects (much like other entertainment properties) are most successful when guided by a small and focused group. This doesn't mean that the group will make a hit every time out, but it does ensure a cohesive vision for the game that in turn increases the likelihood of success.
Put together the best small team possible and empower them to make the final design decisions, while avoiding the temptation of introducing multiple points of design direction from inside or outside. If you take only one lesson away from this article -- this should be the one!
Make a Short Game
On numerous projects I've come across situations where the development team is saddled with delivering a gameplay experience that must last an inordinate number of hours. In one particular example, a publisher with a solid hold within the RPG realm tasked our team with designing a space-based action game. There was pressure in delivering a game that provided 40-plus hours rather than concentrating on a targeted experience befitting the action genre.
Put simply, this was a recipe for disaster. Most often, in order to meet these types of expectations the core gameplay experience is stretched through such a lengthy sequence that the impact is lost on the player. Similarly the story is stretched through so many unnatural twists and turns that at the end the player has little connection to the original premise or the main goal.
If we compare this with movies, rarely would a filmmaker opt for a movie that's over two hours long. Clearly there are business reasons behind the two hour movie format (number of showings in theaters, etc.) but there is a wonderful byproduct: filmmakers know that they have a limited amount of time to grasp and maintain the attention of the consumers and that anything in the movie that is not driving towards the ultimate goal is extraneous and possibly harmful to the overall experience.
Let's view this from an entertainment-value perspective: Games generally cost four to five times the cost of a movie ticket, so is it fair to expect more than 10 hours of entertainment from a $50 game? Games are different from movies, but the entertainment value aspect is not that different. There are exceptions (e.g. MMOs), but the overall lesson is solid: aim for a great short experience, rather than a lengthy mediocre experience. Walt Disney, a man who knew a thing or two about entertaining audiences, had the right idea when he said "Always leave 'em wanting more."