The 10 Million Euro Gift

As I posted last Friday, I very much enjoyed the reports of Phil Harrison’s keynote at Unite 08 last week.  He touched topics close to my heart – problems and idiosyncrasies I’ve discussed with both industry and non-industry professionals over the past few years.  Here’s a snip:

“Here is my EUR 10 million gift to this room – all of the mistakes I have made in software development have been based around one problem and one problem alone, which is accelerating through this pipeline without successfully and properly satisfying the requirements of each of the stages – and typically it involves going from concept to production in one jump. That”s pretty much the definition of why projects fail – because you don’t know what you’re building, you don’t know how you’re going to build it, you don’t know who you’re building it for, but you’ve got 60 people working on it and they’ve (sic) all running in different directions – that’s how most games fail. This is the mantra – you want to fail early, to kill those poor ideas, but you also want to do it repeatedly and quickly so that you will eventually find those great ideas, but you want to do it as cheaply as you can so you save money.”

We could probably stop there. Good words, good words indeed. I was out for lunch with a couple of movie people earlier this year and we were talking around these very points. For people outside of our industry, particularly those involved in businesses that use a significant number of freelance or contract workers such as the movie industry, the way we sometimes operate is antithetical to logic and good sense: Large teams in concept and pre-production; parallel R&D and product development; narrative that only comes online mid-way through full production. As an industry our history is littered with stories like this. My friends were describing what Hollywood calls the development process – the process of taking an idea, creating a narrative and script, improving and refining the concept, attracting a Director and/or Actor and then getting a Studio interested to the point where a deal is signed and real money is spent. Broadly speaking in Hollywood, for every 100 ideas, for every 100 scripts that go through the development process, only 1 or 2 ever get made into a film. That’s a very different world to games where I imagine the ratio is nearer 10:1, maybe higher. And it’s worth noting that during this process they’re spending very little – the time of a handful of people reviewing and reworking the script. Once the film is in pre-production they take on as few contractors as possible – just the key hires required to prepare all elements for the production shoot – unit heads, location supervisors, the Director of Photography, stunt co-ordinators etc.  It”s still a significant number of people, but nothing compared to the crew that”s going to come on during Production, when everything that can be planned, will have been planned, to keep shoot time down and therefore budget to an absolute minimum. If you want to get a feel for how tightly the studios can run the finances of a film project I strongly recommend you watch Terry Gilliam’s Lost in La Mancha. Hilarious and sad in equal measure. As an industry we”ve been making moves in this direction for many years now. Anecdotally I know that most studios now follow the Ideation, Concept, Pre-production, Production, Post-production model (the phase names may differ but the logic is basically the same) scaling teams as the games move through the green-light gates. It”s not always perfect but the drive is correct. The next big prize, however, lies in not only keeping team sizes to an absolute minimum in Ideation, Concept, and then growing during Pre-Production, not only in exclusively applying that large team for a short period of time during Production, but in understanding more about the game and concept before ‘real-world’ coding or asset creation starts in earnest.  The studios that have embraced outsourcing, or manage a central art pool that works across multiple projects, are starting to circle this prize for sure. But by understanding better what it is we’re making before we enter Production, by using all the communication and conceptualisation tools we now have at our disposal – paper prototyping; Google Sketchup; rapid prototyping; animatics; wiki games design methodologies supported by exceptional communication standards; concept art; storyboarding; flash; Unity; Unreal and so on, and so forth, we will start to explore the strengths and weaknesses of our concepts and resolve those strengths and weaknesses more effectively than we have in the past. When Production starts, being able to communicate that vision to the wider code, art, animation, level design, scripting, audio, and production teams, in a diverse and engaging way through a full prototype that’s had its flaws ironed out, and a suite of engaging communication tools, will reduce uncertainty and risk in the most expensive phase of all. This is an outcome well worth working towards.

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