Given: game development is chaotic and complex. It’s almost totally R&D. It’s almost as hard to predict and schedule as a medical breakthrough. Ideally, you don’t begin making a game without coming to grips with these facts and putting processes in place to cope with them. And by processes I’m not just talking about agile, iterative frameworks for finding the fun. I’m talking about establishing relationships with stakeholders (publisher, investors, board members at parent company, etc.) such that they’re prepared to roll with the tidal surges of development and trust your team to make a great product. In a perfect world you’ve started the project with an engaged product owner on the publisher side who values collaboration over contract negotiations and has read all the same Scrum books you have.
But what if it’s too late for all that?
What if you’ve already started the project, you’re tied into dates and a marketing schedule and a disgruntled board of directors? Even though you had one or two greenlight builds that looked good initially, the tide is now turning in favor of Murphy’s Law. Maybe your environment artist is dealing with crummy tools or your audio lead has no engineering support or you’ve a game programmer who won’t get the animations she needs until next month. You know things are going slower than they should and you’re not likely to hit the next milestone. Worse, you realize the way the team is structured and the decisions are being made, it’s likely that the entire development schedule needs to be seriously revised.
What do you tell the studio head?
Keep in mind, he’s already locked into an arrangement with The Powers That Be, a situation that calls for certain features to appear at certain times or there might not be a payment coming up to cover next month’s paychecks. He’s a man who answers to someone, just like you. What do you tell him? How do you explain that your pipeline is slower than expected and you need more time and more programmers and you have to cut drivable vehicles? Put yourself in his shoes for a moment and imagine what it would take to elicit a positive response to your requests.
Amongst other things, this man’s job is to act as a filter and a buffer between the development team and the people whose money is paying the bills. He’s there to make sure a faceless CFO isn’t determining which audio middleware you use. But to do his job properly, the studio head needs information from the team. And unfortunately for you, he needs the worst kind of information. The kind that is based on fact and takes into account all parties, not just the one guy whose machine takes forever to load the editor. The information your studio head needs has to also be solution-heavy and actionable. It can’t just be a list of problems or deficiencies. Telling him you need more time isn’t enough. Why do you say that? Have you checked with the tech lead to make sure your facts are straight? What will you achieve with extra time that you wouldn’t have with the existing schedule? If you don’t get more time, what will the impact be on the final product? If the studio head were to take your information to the publisher, what would he tell them to get them to agree with you and push out your street date another quarter?
The point here is that you’re not in a silo. You can’t just make your analysis – however thorough it might be – and then toss it over the wall to “management” and complain about your low Metacritic score if “the execs” don’t take the action you think they should. You’re in an ecology. As much as an animator depends on a modeler and a programmer depends on an animator, there are relationships at work that extend beyond just the realm of making the game. Getting the developer fees paid for and nailing the marketing and procuring the digital distribution are all part of the ecology. Just like you can’t unilaterally change the stride length of your character model and expect the riggers and animators and programmers to be happy with it, you can’t just point to difficulties in production and then expect studio management and stakeholders to throw money at you to do what you want.
I’ll preface my next point by stating that I am unequivocally in favor of the folks in the trenches. I started my development career as a junior programmer doing the equivalent of mopping the floors. When the revolution comes I’ll be storming the Bastille with everyone else. That having been said, you’ve got to realize that it’s not enough to just point out problems and then complain about bad management after the game ships. Finding solutions is on everybody, not just the department leads or the producers or the studio head.
When people talk about how hard you have to work to compete in the AAA space, they’re only half right if they’re using that as a defense for requiring more unpaid overtime. Yes, you have to work really hard. But a significant part of the difficulty lies in working together to find a new approach, compromise on simplifying a time-consuming feature, or making painful content cuts. And if you don’t see any of this cooperation happening, it’s on you to realize when you may need to move on. If there’s too much work to do and not enough time or you don’t have the right people, proffer some solutions and look to see that people are trying to fix the situation. If it’s not coming together and you only see your crunch time getting extended, start seriously considering a change. Try to stop the death march, but if you can’t, at least stop marching. If you can’t save the project at least save yourself.
I realize this article drifted around a bit. I apologize. It kind of just evolved as I typed. But I think the initial question, “What Do You Tell the Studio Head?” is still central. My suggestion is that you be prepared to tell him all of the following, if necessary:
Here’s a problem.
Here’s a solution.
I’m prepared to work hard to find a compromise with the best interest of the project in mind.
I don’t see things improving and I’m not willing to endure protracted crunch as a “solution”.
Thank you for the opportunity, here’s my notice.