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Towards the end of any project, how do you build in gameplay iteration and polish into the schedule alongside testing? Are they separate phases, or integrated to some extent?
Robbie Edwards: We typically handle gameplay revisions in parallel to the development. Features and tasks that have a dramatic impact are usually completed first so that we can begin gameplay reviews very early. Where possible, the gameplay evaluations may even be done where there final tech and content isn’t available.
When it comes to polish though, we strictly focus on polish post Beta. At beta, all features are complete and we spend our remaining cycles addressing bugs and adding polish where feasible. During our polish phases, we regularly have great strides in performance improvement and visual quality.
Frank Rogan: On this, I’m a big fan of productions that heavily front-load mechanics and character, camera and controls into prototyping and long-ish pre-production phases (a la the Cerny Method), so iteration and polish is essentially built into the entire development cycle.
Adrian Crook: First off, gameplay refinement is done throughout development. Scrum focuses on taking features to completion before moving on to additional work. But it's always nice to have some time at the end to tweak. To do this, you'll need to have managed the project's scope shrewdly. Often you'll have a hard ship date to hit - there are very few companies that can take the "we'll ship it when it's ready" attitude - so any slippage along the way steals time from a pre-established polish period at the end.
And every project slips their milestone dates at least a bit during development. So be prepared to refocus scope along the way, trimming lower value features in order to retain your polish period. When the final bell rings, I'd sooner have 5 features at 100% complete than 10 things at 50% complete.
Re: whether or not polish and testing are concurrent, I think they are. Fixing bugs goes hand in hand with polishing and balancing a game.
Peter O'Brien: We aim to build gameplay iteration into the project much earlier than at the end, note the words aim to. In some cases, gameplay is your primer so you can be iterating from month one. Depending on the gameplay component it will either run in parallel with content (circuits design when creating the cities in PGR for example) or sit within its own area. It really depends on the goals.
Harvard Bonin: I believe they are integrated - but it takes a disciplined producer to recognize when its just time to be done. Build in the polish phase and be very greedy about giving it up. Create specific goals for bug counts, type of bugs to fix and when, etc. Work and partner with your QA manager and also make sure the team if very aware of polish cut off dates.