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GDC 2011: Epicís Fergusson Describes Timeliness As Key To Success

GDC 2011: Epicís Fergusson Describes Timeliness As Key To Success

March 3, 2011 | By Kris Graft

March 3, 2011 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, GDC

At GDC 2011 on Thursday, Rod Fergusson, executive producer at Gears of War house Epic Games, sought to answer the question, "What makes a successful game?"

"It's more than just quality," he said, as there are games that are high-quality but commercial failures. But also "It's more than just commercial," he added. "... We've seen a lot of commercially-[successful] games that are shit."

The truth, said Fergusson, is that it that the ideal form of success would be combination of high quality and commercial success. A happy team at the end of a successful project is a key component of success, he said.

"Having a healthy team at the end of your process is a great way to ship a game," the producer said.

But how does a team achieve this ideal success? Fergusson referred to the Iron Triangle, a production concept that involves three aspects: scope, schedule and resources. If any one of these "sides" change, the others will either have to give or grow.

Out of those three sides, Fergusson stressed that the schedule should be the component that doesn't change, if at all possible. "The schedule side is what's really, really important," he said. "You have to know when you're shipping."

A developer's ultimate goal should be "Shipping the right product at the right time," he added. A quality product shipped in a window with little competition from other games or other forms of entertainment can make the difference between success and failure.

And Fergusson also was adamant about the importance of great marketing, and a strong relationship with a publisher to make sure a game hits the ground running when it launches.

"Marketing is what's going to put you over the top. A game without marketing very rarely succeeds," he said.

Epic would know a thing or two about shipping the right product at the right time. 2006's original Xbox 360-exclusive hit Gears of War had some odds stacked against its success.

The Gears team was very young, which can affect a schedule. The studio had never shipped a story-based game, the underlying Unreal Engine 3 technology wasn't finished, and the Xbox 360 hardware itself wasn't finished when development of the game was underway.

But the challenges were met by the team's passion and determination, Fergusson said. The studio also jumped those hurdles because it was mindful of scope, which should match the team's quality expectations -- look closely at competing games, find the state of the art game that's considered "the best," and also look at the games that represent the minimum bar, and use those games to determine your goals for your game.

"You want to know what you're competing against, what's the best," he said.

He again stressed the importance of aligning marketing with development. The "it's done when it's done" development cycle doesn't equate to success today, at least not for Epic. There are thousands of people that could be involved in marketing a big release. Just getting an ad for the game in the Best Buy flyer can take 14 weeks.

"That shit worked way back when, when you didn't know when it was coming out," he said. Now marketing needs to know what's going on. "Marketing is just not a phone call to Best Buy, then [a request to] throw it in [a flyer]."

So much of a game's success is related to timeliness, he said. "Have a fixed ship date mindset," he said, and do everything possible to keep that date from changing. That date provides a clear goal for the team.

Epic and Microsoft decided to delay the release of Gears of War 3 from April this year to the holidays. Fergusson said very few features have been added with that extra time -- mainly, it has been dedicated to polish.

He added that game makers should establish a game's pillars -- core concepts to stick to. Gears of War 3's pillars include the idea of being stranded, being an overall accessible game, and stickiness that keeps players coming back.

If design ideas don't relate to any of a game's pillars, it's easier to toss those ideas out, and that saves time. And those pillars can be used when talking to press, and may eventually even make it to the back of the retail box.

Fergusson said teams should not be afraid to cut features, and to not fret too much over lost time. Cut the losses now, and save time and money by not continuing to mess with features that don't really even belong.

"We'd rather have small and polished than large and mediocre," said Fergusson."Never be fearful of the ability to cut ... because it will grow again. ... Every feature you add is taking quality and polish from your other features. ... It might be worth the effort, it might not."

And make sure to provide a good amount of buffer into the development schedule. "[Buffer is] a basic recognition that the future is uncertain. ... You need to build extra time into your schedule that is not on your schedule." He added, "The more uncertainty you have, the more buffer you need."

Fergusson stressed that polish should have time dedicated to it in the schedule - polish time is not buffer time. "You need to spend polish time to make that shiny golden nugget," he said.

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