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Game Development is Collaboration
It is very expensive and time consuming for developers to create games and often the returns are much smaller than you might imagine. For a great game to make it to market collaboration on a grand scale is required. For things to run smoothly the creative, technical and business sides all need to work together. A fine balance is required for success and if any one of these aspects dominates the project is in trouble. In practice this balance is rarely achieved.
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In the Beginning
The vast majority of games start with an idea. The initial idea can come from anywhere. Whether it is a setting, a character or a game mechanic this idea will form the basis for a game design. The next stage is to ask questions about how the game will be implemented. How things progress depends on the financial situation of the company.
The people who really make the games you play are the developers. The big publishers would like to take the credit and they do occasionally have internal development teams but for the most part the role of the publisher is a supporting one. When a developer starts on a new project the first thing they need to do is secure funding. The most common way to do this is to pitch to a publisher who will partially fund development and distribute the game in return for the bulk of the profits. For further discussion on this check out What Is the Difference Between Developers and Publishers?
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If developers can raise funding by giving away equity in the company to investors this is one possible alternative route. It used to be common to take large bank loans but the credit situation has changed dramatically over the last few years and this is much rarer now. If they are lucky enough to be based in a country where the government supports game development then they may be able to apply for funding assistance or tax breaks. If a developer has had a successful game they will often use the profits to fund their next project but the majority of games don’t even cover their costs.
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If the developer is looking to fund the game by attracting investors or going the traditional route and signing a contract with a publisher then they need to pitch the game. The design department will craft a brief outline of the basic idea in conjunction with the production department. If the developer lacks a track record then a pitch document will not be enough and they may have to produce a demo or a vertical slice of the game. A vertical slice is similar to a demo, but since it won't be used by customers, it can have plot spoilers, skip the tutorial, and usually comes more from the middle or late game content to show off as many features as possible.
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As the negotiation process advances the details are all agreed upon. This includes the size of the team, the budget, the timescale, the platform of the game and the basic design. Most projects enter a period called Pre-Production which is used to nail down the specifics. Ideas may be prototyped, art styles suggested and concepted, engines may be experimented with and at the end of this period the game has a solid plan and is ready to enter production.
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Many people make the mistake of thinking that a story idea is a game design. Coming up with the initial seed is a very small part of a game designer’s job. The design department looks at how every aspect of the game will work: the story; the camera; the controls; the weapons or items; the characters; the movement speeds; the individual mission structure; the interface; the menu system; truly all aspects of the game. Every detail of how a game will work has to be written down and if you are working with a publisher they will want to approve it. This means producing a highly detailed design document which has to be kept up to date throughout the project.
This game design document will serve as a reference document for every team member. If they want to know what happens when you fire the rocket launcher they should be able to look it up and find specific details. Once the production is underway the specific design roles depend on the type of game. Some companies expect their designers to script missions and this can involve in depth programming. Others employ level designers who design the basic layout of environments. Designers should always play test features as they are implemented and request changes as necessary until the game feels right.
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The programming department have responsibility for implementing the design. Some companies will develop their own game engines. Most will license an existing game engine such as Unreal or Source. Licensing an engine is expensive but it saves a huge amount of time and gives the team access to an existing code base and a set of tools which can be used to create a game. Different companies have different working practices but in general the programmers read about a feature in the design document, ask the designer relevant questions and then make a plan to implement the feature. Any gaps are filled in during meetings and the plan is approved so the programmer can begin work on it. They work on implementing each feature in the document and these are then tested and refined as necessary. Programmers often specialise in specific areas but this depends entirely on the size of the company and the type of projects they produce.
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The art department is responsible for the visual style of the game. There are various roles within the art department and everything starts with the concept artist. The concepts can be simple sketches or full colour detailed paintings. They set the visual style of a game and give the rest of the art team inspiration to create characters and environments. Character artists take 2D concepts and use them to create 3D models. Environment artists craft the textures and models to bring each level to life. Visual Effects artists create graphics for things like explosions and weather. Animators create individual character animations which are then triggered in code by programmers.
Each simple process in the game requires collaboration. For example even something as simple as making a character walk involves all three departments. The animator will create a walk cycle for a character which is a looping animation of a few frames of a character walking, and the programmers will ensure that the character moves the correct distance and speed and triggers that animation when you press the W key. The specific parameters will have been decided upon by a designer.
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The production department sets the schedule and controls the budget. They create a job list and time estimates for every aspect of the game’s development. It is their job to ensure that every staff member knows what they need to do, has what they need to do it and knows when it is supposed to be done by. BioWare's Dorian Kieken, a development director on Mass Effect 2, uses a "Living Plan" facilate this. It is a massive document with carefully controlled structure and permissions so that people know what they need to do and can comment on their progress.
Producers also need to liaise with the company bosses and outside parties like the publishers. They provide frequent progress reports, deal with staffing and purchases and generally ensure the project runs as it should.
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Towards the end of production the sound designers implement sound effects, music and voiceovers if required. This is often left until late because changes are common in game development. The sound designer will create sound effects to match each action in the game and ambient sounds to give environments depth. They also arrange for actors and actresses to record lines of dialogue. Sound design is often outsourced because it requires specialist equipment and because the process is generally completed during the last few months of production.
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The final department to get their hands on the game are the testers. It is good practice to begin testing your game as early as possible but in reality this process is often left until late in the day. Game testers play the game and try to find bugs which they report in a database. The rest of the team work on fixing the bugs assigned to them until the game works well enough that it is ready for release. This decision is usually made by senior management or the publisher, although for console games there is an additional stage where the game must pass a technical requirements checklist. If you release on PS3 for example you will submit the game to Sony and they will request changes or pass it for release.
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This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the game development process but it does at least give you a basic overview. It is very common for games to be under funded and for them to run over schedule due to unforeseen problems or change requests. This means most projects enter a period of crunch towards the end of production and the development team is expected to work long hours. The vast majority of developers work long and hard to bring you games and they rarely get the rewards they deserve. Most game developers are in the industry because they are passionate about making great games. When it goes well game development can be the most enjoyable career on the planet. When it goes badly….well that’s a different story.