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

    [05.28.09]
    - Brandon Van Slyke

  •  Production

    When an idea for a game has finally gotten the green light, it's time to begin developing it into a full release title. But where do you begin?

    Just as construction companies don't start erecting a building by randomly pounding nails into a board, game developers don't begin working on a game without a solid foundation or plan. All those prior months of preproduction now show their worth as the team begins to build the game to spec based on the design document.

    That being said, when making video games, no matter how preplanned and thought-out the preproduction phase seemed to be, things can and will change. Making a game is a largely iterative process with new ideas often implemented on the fly. It's obviously not a free for all, but most studios encourage some form of structured experimentation as long as it can be demonstrated to improve the game.

    Production methodologies. One of the most important aspects of production is keeping track of everything. Being able to maintain visibility among not only the development team, but also the production staff helps keep everyone on the same page and makes it easier to quickly rectify any issues as they crop up. However, issues and dependencies can be difficult to track within a large team. This is where production methodologies come into play. A production methodology is simply the process a development team uses to keep track of, and divide up all the work that needs to be done.

    Building the game. Up to this point we've discussed where the idea comes from and how planning and prototyping the concept are necessary steps to getting the game off the ground. Now it's time to take a look at how the game is built.

    To keep production rolling smoothly and to minimize potential blockers, dependencies must be identified early on. Recognizing which tasks need to be completed before work can commence on another allows developers to properly stagger the workload and production pipeline accordingly. Identifying dependencies also gives the design, art, and engineering teams an opportunity to work independently of one another, effectively maximizing everyone's efficiency.

    To kick things off artists begin by creating and texturing character models that the player will interact with as well as the unique props that populate the game world. These objects include items such as cars, buildings, and oh-so-popular wooden crates. When a character model is complete, it's then passed off to animators, who rig the skeletons and generate all the different animations players see in-game. Because art and asset creation is the most time-consuming part of the process, artists usually must get a head start on all of this while the design and engineering teams lay out the core functionality and data that will drive everything behind the scenes.

    At this point, level designers are busy creating rough passes of each level in the game. This includes tasks like determining spawn points for enemies, deciding where scripted events will occur, plotting out AI pathing nodes, and demonstrating cool ways that geometry can be incorporated into gameplay. Once they have all of that fleshed out, the level designers begin populating their grey-boxed levels with the custom props that have been recently created by the art team.

    On the data and engineering side of things, the team is busy putting everything together. It's here that system designers start hooking up all the animation and FX data so that characters and entities show up in-game. If need be, the designers will sit down with the animators to tweak animation timing to ensure that it matches the specifications outlined during preproduction. It's also a systems designer's responsibility to tune gameplay and balance the values that define everything from the number of hit points the player's avatar starts off with to the amount of damage a point blank area-of-effect radial attack delivers.

    Over in the land of audio, sound designers are kept busy sampling sound effects for different event triggers in-game and acquiring and directing any voiceover talent that is needed for character dialogue or narration. As might be expected, they're also in charge of composing the game's musical tracks and score. Audio is often an overlooked discipline that should not be taken for granted. Their contribution to the game is very important and their work will not only bring the game to life and help set the mood, but can also be used to aid the design.

    Don't break the build! If you have a team of 70 people all working on the same data, how is it that nothing gets deleted, overwritten, and ultimately destroyed? I'll admit it can be a fairly chaotic process. However, there is a solution.

    Development teams utilize version-control software to help ensure that any changes made to the current build, like a variable in code or a value in data, doesn't break what's already there. Version-control software is great because it allows developers to overwrite, redo, and add changes as they see fit. If there is a conflict, it can be resolved by interactively merging each team member's version of the file. The whole system provides developers with constant updates and an impressive amount of visibility, effectively guaranteeing that no work is accidentally lost.

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