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

    [05.28.09]
    - Brandon Van Slyke
  •  Working in the game industry is a very popular career choice -- and rightfully so. What other occupation allows you the opportunity to be on the frontline of technology, creating entertainment experiences that people will interact with and enjoy the world over? Not too many, in fact you can probably count them on one hand.

    It's not all fun and games, though. Developing console games is hard work and requires serious persistence and a ton of dedication. The process takes blood, sweat, and a metric ton of Mountain Dew, and is reliant on the skills and expertise of countless professionals whose own passion for games drive them to create fun and rewarding experiences.

    How exactly does a game go from the cavernous depths of a game designer's imagination to the shiny cellophane covered package you find lining store shelves? If you try and imagine it like an assembly line with each station in the chain representing where a core piece of the development process gets integrated, game development is similar in that certain steps must be accomplished before work can begin on the next. From high concept to retail shelf, let's find out how a video game gets made.

    Preproduction

    Preproduction encompasses the planning stages of development and is the time when ideas are expanded upon, designs get fleshed out, prototypes are built, and decisions are made that will affect the project throughout development. It should come as no surprise that preproduction is far and away the most creative phase of a game's lifecycle. A lot of the work done in this initial period is thrown away, but it's necessary waste needed to determine what direction the game will ultimately take. It's during this time that the team really hunkers down and decides on the core elements of the game.

    We often read about games that were rushed into production. It's a common occurrence in this industry, caused by a variety of factors, including the need to release a game the same day as the movie it's based on. Another reason a game might be rushed into production is that the publisher has a limited amount of time before its rights to a certain license expire, or to hit a big holiday sales period. Despite these kinds of circumstances, it's generally understood that all games have some kind of preproduction phase, in one form or another.

    During preproduction, the project's team size is very small and is primarily made up of each discipline's individual leads. The number of people working on a video game project changes during the course of the game's timeline, based on need. The kinds of things that happen during preproduction don't require a full team of programmers, artists, audio engineers, tools creators, and so forth. Successful game companies try to always have a number of projects going at different stages of development, which allows them to reshuffle their employees appropriately. As one project ends, the production phase of the next one is just starting.

    For the first few months of a new project a game designer's time is spent creating flow charts to demonstrate in-game pacing, working on exhaustively detailed rule sets, fleshing out the game's narrative, and comprehensively documenting all the objects, characters, levels, enemies, and NPCs that need to be created for the game. With the majority of their time being spent working on documentation, designers must also find time to meet up with other members of the team who are busy with their own tasks.

    Artists, for instance, spend most of their preproduction time fleshing out character designs, creating concept art for levels, and storyboarding scripted in-game sequences. Because they're ultimately in charge of the look and feel of the game, it's important that they also interact regularly with the game designers and writers to make sure that important design considerations are being factored into their work.

    Programmers will often use their time during preproduction to create tools needed for development, while also documenting all the technical specifications for the project, which will cover both the tools they are creating as well as any issues and problems they foresee with implementation.

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