Improving game production

I am closing some tabs.

Way back in… ooo The Escapist doesn’t seem to date their issues… let’s say April or so, Jason Della Rocca wrote an article for The Escapist called Friction Costs. Basically, he argues that immature production practices and poor quality of life are hurting the industry.

Jamie Fristrom, who has managed game development teams, replied on his blog, basically saying that it’s a lot easier to say we need better management practices than it is to implement them. Jason then replied to this on his blog, as one does.

Naturally, I have an opinion on all this. I am not sure if I am going to say something Jamie and Jason didn’t say or imply, but… wait, why am I defending my right to state the obvious? This is a blog!

First of all, the power of producers to change how things are done is limited. I find that a company’s culture is the strongest force affecting how a game is made, and company culture (a fascinating subject) has enormous inertia. Making games is all knowledge work, it is all about thinking, and changing how you think is hard. Changing how 30 or more people think is even harder.

Another way of looking at this is that everyone is responsible for game production methods to some degree. Should a producer force a programming team to use particular programming techniques or methodologies? Can they?

You say you are a lowly artist and you cannot affect your team’s working methods? That is a part of the rules of your organisation – not a given. I can understand people who want to excel in their discipline and not worry about management methods, but for me the path to excelling in my discipline led me to worrying about management methods, because I could see the effect they had on my work. (In the process I changed discipline, but that’s another story.)

Second, the exact choice of methodology is not that important. Shock horror! How dare I imply that XP / Agile / Scrum / CMM is not the best methodology evar to make games?! Or maybe this is not controversial at all. In any case, I strongly believe in this. I once worked for a company that had decided that CMM was the way to go. I worked at a studio that was wild about XP, and at a studio that went through some major efforts to introduce Scrum. It didn’t matter which methodology people thought was going to save then: what mattered was that people were trying to improve (i.e. they didn’t believe things were perfect), and they were actively thinking about how they were working. I think these two factors are much more crucial to success than which methodology you’ve decided on. The plan is nothing, the planning is everything – even if you’re planning how to plan. A third factor to success is one pointed out by Jason:

In that vein, the levers for major change/improvement are often outside the purview of producers. Sure, producers can apply various best practices and make tweaks here and there. But, approving a move to train all staff on PSP/TSP and achieving CMM Level 3 is a major executive level decision – just as one example. In part, that was the point Steve McConnell was trying to make: We can all help make minor process improvements on a personal level, but the big decisions have to be made at the top.

Getting buy-in from the top is crucial – to get that training, and to convince everyone this is important. If you don’t work through the established command structure, even if you are planning to subvert that structure, you’ll have a much harder time.

A little side note on methodologies: all of the ones you hear mentioned, be it Scrum, CMM, RUP, XP – they are all about developing software, not games. Naturally, making games involves developing software, but seeing game development as a subset of software development is a dangerous assumption. Treating all software development, from one-man web apps to 1000 person OS projects, as one nail you can hit with your methodological hammer is already dangerous enough. I do not want to use ‘game development is different’ as an apology for bad management practices – I want to say that you cannot safely assume that software development methodology X can be applied to game development, out of the box. This is something I could write more about – a lot more – but I won’t do it here. But note how most articles on development methodologies for games are written by programmers, or former programmers.

To sum up: there is great scope for raising the level of development practices in the industry (and I think the IGDA could play a role here, and I might have some concrete ideas… hi Jason!). But it is not a good idea to focus on producers as the source of bad development practices.

But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

One tab closed, dozens yet to go…

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