I had a long drive yesterday during which I had plenty of time to ponder what causes game development projects to finish poorly – or not finish at all. According to the infamous CHAOS study of the Standish group, this happens around 83% of the time. These numbers are applied broadly to many types of projects, not just games, but given the complex and chaotic nature of game development it’s pretty safe to say that games aren’t likely to beat the odds any more often than other types of endeavors. If games are more likely than not to finish late, over budget, or not at all, why does that trend continue, especially with projects that have higher-end budgets?
My first thought was that fear drives the decision making when you deal with a budget upwards of tens of millions of US dollars. There’s so much at stake that people higher up the corporate chain (and therefore further removed from informed game project management) are the ones determining dates and milestone strategies. Those directors are more afraid of something new and different (You want what? What’s a Scrum? Just give us another greenlight build in 4 weeks.) and therefore aren’t willing to do anything that might yield worse results.
Maybe it’s just that “We’ve always done it this way, so this is the way we’ll always do it.” I’ve been told this myself in the past. I can’t help but think that the people who think this way are unaware of the fact that most of their projects are failing in one way or another. The faulty logic of such people doesn’t seem to encompass the bad parts of history, otherwise you’d think the last thing they’d do is what they’ve always done.
This is the most excusable of the possible causes of project failure – the leadership doesn’t know any other way to make a game. You write a big document that details everything in the game, then you try to build it, then you encounter lots of challenges, then you miss your dates, then you ship two quarters late. Repeat with next project. I’ve heard many people pass this off as an outcome of being in such an immature industry, which I suppose holds some water. However, in an age where I can learn in 90 seconds how to make hand-made corn tortillas via Twitter, I can’t help but think a lack of knowledge can only persist if you don’t want to learn.
I’ll allow that there are probably a few more major causes behind Project Failure. We’ll lump them along with Fear, Stubborness, and Ignorance into the category of Challenges. That generates the next big question: how do we overcome the Challenges of repeatedly, successfully creating large game projects successfully? There are all sorts of small picture suggestions you can make about methods and tools, but I think the bigger issues involve changing mindsets. When you’re talking about decision makers who are farther removed from the problems and can’t be reasonably expected to understand solutions, getting them to be willing to do something new or different is more of a psychological question – or a sociological question – than anything else. When this topic arises in most game developer circles it’s couched in the framework of The Man being evil. Or The Suits just don’t “get it”. It’s usually an Us vs. Them mentality that results eventually in shrugging of shoulders and resignation and woeful acceptance and another failed project. Personally, I’m no longer particularly interested in the shrugging and the resignation and the woeful, and I’m definitely not interested in more failure, so I’m asking the general populace: how do we fix it?