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  • How a Game Gets Made: A Game's Journey from Concept to Store Shelves

    [05.28.09]
    - Brandon Van Slyke

  • Where does the idea come from?

    Let's take a step back and look at where an idea for a game comes from. The initial spark can originate from just about anywhere and can be influenced by pretty much anything: classic novels, a leisurely stroll through the park, or a favorite movie on the 37th viewing. More important than the actual idea, though, is how well it lends itself to interactivity. Finding the right context in which to frame your idea is a key part of moving forward with its implementation.

    It's a common expression in the game industry that good ideas for video games are a dime a dozen, and in the case of today's larger console titles, popular franchises, recognizable intellectual property (IP) and big name licenses will more often than not win out due to previously established market awareness. This is why you tend to see far more sequels to successful titles and a lot of games based on hit movies and television shows; they simply provide lower risk to the publisher.

    Where does this leave new ideas? Historically, original IP has come from one of two places: an independent studio that is able to self-fund the project or a publisher's most successful teams who have spent years proving themselves to their risk-adverse owners.

    With that out of the way, the question then becomes, who decides what game gets made? In the case of an independent studio, that honor goes to the owner. If it's a mod group, the entire team may be a part of the decision. It's really based on the dynamic of the group. On the other hand, when the studio is under the umbrella of a large publisher, the studio has the ability to put dibs on a popular IP or pitch its own unique idea. At this point, factoring in the state of the market and the track record of the studio, the publisher decides on whether an idea gets a green light.

     Conceptualization. The core purpose of preproduction is to allow the development team to plan out every detail of the project and outline the production schedule based on the time estimates provided by each department. When the title is a sequel to an existing franchise, the length of preproduction is shortened. The emphasis then becomes figuring out what features will be added and evaluating existing data to see what is already available to work with. It's at this point that new artistic directions are experimented with while determining which path to take.

    Planning it all out. When it comes to planning a massive project like a AAA console game, producers can be a very valuable resource to have. It's their job during the preproduction process to outline a production schedule based on time estimates provided by members of the development team. If the game is a sequel to an already existing franchise, the emphasis is on figuring out what additional features are going to be added or changed and whether existing data will be reused or if all assets will be created from scratch.

    To properly plan, a producer starts by creating an in-depth schedule using a program like Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Project. It's here that they break down each individual task and identify the key points in the project, called milestones. Milestones are fixed dates in which the developer must deliver agreed-upon work to the approval of the publisher. There are actually a number of ways producers can go about scheduling a project. One of the more popular methods, and one you will find is being adopted by a lot of professional studios, is called agile development (see "What is Agile Development?" below).

    Prototyping. Once initial planning has been completed, the team begins working on a prototype. A prototype is a rough mock-up of the game that can be played to see if the design mechanics work together when they're actually in motion. Most prototypes use placeholder art, require minimum assets, and are put together in very short periods of time. More often than not, the work done during this phase is tossed out when actual production begins because it's important not to leave any artifacts in the code that may introduce problems later on down the line.

    Because prototyping takes place in the preproduction process and is just a test bed, it is often done in tandem with the initial design phase to quickly try out new mechanics and ideas to see if they'll work in relation to the game as a whole. Once the prototype has been completed, it's often demoed to the publisher to gain their confidence and to get the actual production of the game green lit.

    Once the prototype has been completed and the project has been green lit, the team is able to move on to the next stage of the development process: production. This is when things really begin to heat up, when teams grow, and communication between everyone involved becomes increasingly important.

    What is agile development?

    Agile development is one of the most popular development methodologies used in the game industry, if not the most popular. Agile development is characterized by modularity and a frequent review of the state of the project, hence giving the team "agility" to easily and quickly change direction if something isn't working. At the same time, it provides product owners with the information they need and the ability to see progress as it's being made.

    How it works is that the individual tasks needed to complete any given feature are broken down and assigned to different members of the team who then estimate the amount of time it will take to complete them. Throughout the creation of the game, the team works in "sprints," which usually last anywhere from two to four weeks. During sprints, producers are able to gauge the amount of time a certain feature is taking to implement and can cut or reduce scope as needed.

    Agile in and of itself is a fairly complex system and entire books and articles have been written about the benefits it provides. It's far too large a topic to discuss in this article. If you're interested I highly recommend doing a bit of research on it as you may be introduced to it when you get your first job in the industry.

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