I’m reading a book about game development and production. The book was published before Neverwinter Nights, meaning it is quite old by software development standards.
What strikes me, though, is how little has changed when it comes to project management in the game dev world. We seem to be stuck 20 – 15 years ago.
Agile and agile development has continued to evolve and grow as a project management tool, but the studios I have worked at – most studios, in fact, that I have any in depth or even surface knowledge of – seem to be stuck at even producing a decent backlog.
I know I most certainly do not represent a typical game developer. I am way too structured and organized, but I still find it strange that we as a profession can’t seem to be able to get our shit together and become more efficient at what we do. There always seems to be one excuse or the other.
“Game development is hard”, “we have to iterate until we find the fun”, “the paper design is never 1-1 translated to the design in game”.
Most of these statements are true, of course. Contrary to other software development and the way other companies work however, game development is disorganized from the start, and it doesn’t improve as production chugs along.
I fully believe we have both a knowledge and a cultural problem in game dev. As developers, we are never taught good project hygiene. Creating tasks, tracking tasks, estimating the work we do – these are things very few developers know how to do properly. Even if they are aware, not all producers I’ve worked with know how to produce. To be honest, some of them had no knowledge of production methods at all – myself included. I was hired as a producer because I’m organized. Everything I’ve learned about production, I’ve learned on my own, with the exception of a week long course in project management and getting a Scrum Master certificate.
For me, personally, I always think understanding not only how to do something, but also why something is done is important. Why do we need that data? Why do we have to track our tasks? Why is this important?
I don’t think a person without the understanding of why should be in charge of the how, but due to the nature of game development and how people are promoted, this is often the case. I don’t think producers have high enough expectations on them, and if they do, they don’t have the mandate they need.
In my 23 years in game dev, only a handful of producers I’ve worked with have had the knowledge to organize projects. This is why one of the most common phrases I hear is “let’s bypass production. I don’t know what they’re here for anyway”.
This leads us to the secondary issue of game development and production. Culture.
For a very long time, the culture in games and around games has been quite flippant towards planning and production in general. The culture around game making has been an unfortunate mix of “you can’t predict and design fun”, “this is my game, I’m making it for me, I’m the audience” and “planning hems us in and kills creativity”.
Unfortunately, because game development culture is also or has historically been quite negative towards academia and theory and the theory behind why games work, people who might have actually improved the industry a.k.a. outside influences have been minimal. The culture around game development breeds a mindset that is negative towards structure and planning, because it is believed that structure and planning is detrimental for creativity.
In addition, we hire people from the culture we create. So of course the contempt for theory remains.
I believe mobile games are better at understanding their audience than most triple-A studios. The reason is that they build their games on data, and data driven design. Triple-A studios, in many cases, build their games on what the designers themselves enjoy or the latest popular game fad.
For this industry to move forward and develop, we have to get past this group think culture trap we’re in. Production and planning is not a negative thing. Using data and outside viewpoints on games and the theory of games is not a bad thing. Working with a clearly stated goal won’t threaten the “fun” of a game, nor will the idea of planning beforehand what to do hinder creativity.
As game developers we have to get over ourselves. We’re not special. Our development methods aren’t unique. What they are are stagnant and approximately 15 – 20 years behind the rest of industry.
But I suppose it’s nice being the underdog, the special snowflake, the really passionate hard workers, sacrificing everything to ge that game out there.
It isn’t going to last though. At some point, someone will revolutionize how games are made. My guess it is someone who uses modern and up to date production methods and data driven development and says bye bye to the culture that glorifies lack of frameworks and processes.