Operationalizing Game Development

Justin Nearing
This is WIP. Actually I dont remember writing it. Seems reasonable though.
  • How does a group of game developers grow out of the small, scrappy team with a surprising hit to a midsize/large game dev studio?
  • The majority of game dev shops I have worked at were trying to make that jump, with varying levels of success.
  • Growth is hard. Damned hard. Especially with the nature of game development. Companies that are in a position to grow are usually there because they have a big hit on their hands- revenue stops being a bounding issue, and you have to start now to capture lightning in a bottle again.
  • And it's not just the core game development tracks you need to scale up, at the exact same time you need to bootstrap marketing, legal, HR, finance, business development departments.
  • You need to integrate these into the game development process, while trying to figure out how to make a fun game all over again.
  • And this is where I see one of the most insidious problems for midsized game studios- they become overconfident about their ability to make games. Success, plus this being their core competency, usually results in mediocre follow-up titles.
  • Making a game takes skill, time, and money. Making a hit game takes all those things and luck.
  • Misattributing luck for skill is death to a midsized game studio. Making a game is hard. Making the next game is even harder.
  • It's harder because now you're integrating all those new departments into the process, which slows things down and forces you to consider new opinions- product/market fit, copyright, branding and IP, into the creative process.
  • This means there's a hell of a lot more people involved. The easy joy of having a small team of friends building something cool is replaced with meetings trying to figure out the marketing budget for next fiscal year.
  • Balancing the very real requirement of determining next year's marketing budget with replicating the magic that made your first game so successful is hard.
  • Here's the thing, by virtue of being part of the founding group, the small group of friends that started the whole thing are usually the ones now “trapped” in marketing budget meetings.
  • These people fucking hate marketing budgets. To their bones. That's why they're game devs. But what are you going to do? You're the boss now and society dictates you be at the top.
  • Never mind that being at the top means literally 90% budgeting and the requirements of running a complex corporation.
  • Never mind that what you are frighteningly good at is prototyping and iterating games.
  • I can't tell you how many times in my career the founding members of some game dev studio left to start something new once things went corporate.
  • It's the same number of times I've shown up to work with what was left in their wake.

Scaling Communication

Probably the biggest issue I've seen with a rapidly scaling gamedev studio is the struggle with communication.

When you're small, you just turn around and talk to buddy to make a decision. Everyone can be made aware of that decision by osmosis.

Once you scale, that osmosis stops working, and if you aren't thinking critically about how teams communicate, they won't communicate at all.

That is, of course, until something breaks, and you now you have to sit through umpteen meetings to postmortem why nobody is talking to each other.

This is doubly hard for those pesky corporate departments like marketing, finance, etc. Unless comm lines are put in place and used, no one will even think to talk to these departments. This is where you see giant WTF's arise- these departments do their best, from the outside, with no way to look in at what actually being made.

Development Stages

A game goes through several stages of development- roughly prototyping, pre-production, production, launch, and post-launch content.

When operationalizing development, you have to determine the importance of each departments voice is in each stage of development.

Where marketing and business development isn't so important during the prototyping phase, they become much more important as you get closer to launch.

Furthermore, you have build things in parallel. You always wants something in each stage of development - always be prototyping, always be in pre-production, always be in production, always be launching.

At least, that's the dream- you want a factory line of games being churned out. The only way to replicate hits is to play a numbers game- the higher number of games you get out there, he more likely one will hit.

This also inoculates you from failures - because failures are guaranteed. So many midsized studios fail because they end up pinning the future of the studio on the next game. A studios sophomore game is the most dangerous and the easiest to have unrealistic expectations.

Naturally this factory-line of games is bounded by the reality your business is facing, but if you are able to grow, building into a constant stream of products is the way to go.