The game development industry has been going through a lot of change, and there is more to come. The dramatic growth in indie games and developers — including hits like Minecraft and Bastion — has cleaved the game industry in two. There are larger audiences than ever for smaller, more experimental games like Her Story, and gamers haven’t stopped desiring more polished triple-A experiences like Battlefield 1, but the middle market has largely dissipated. Unfortunately, some habits don’t change – like crunch time. As studios are trying to create the best triple-A experiences they can offer, they are too often pushing their employees to the limit.
Especially for multiplayer games, developers face tremendous pressure to deliver triple-A experiences while simultaneously providing continual content updates in a delivery model known as gaming-as-a-service (GaaS). In many ways, the lines between MMOs and single-player games with multiplayer modes have blurred (like Destiny), and traditional development practices must adapt to the realities of GaaS to avoid the threat of unending crunch time before every update. Additionally, developing for VR/AR/MR introduces a lot of new unpredictability into production, and will probably also drive more innovation with GaaS business models.
Breaking free of old habits
Despite the flexibility offered to developers by the proliferation of digital content delivery platforms like Steam, many remain stuck in the development model of yesteryear, where shipping to store shelves in a timely manner was paramount. In fact, many developers now control their own digital storefronts and sometimes act as their own publishers. This is particularly true of developers embracing a GaaS delivery model. The 2016 episodic Hitman is a great example of transformation from an old model to GaaS. Beyond a simply outdated model, studios that continue to rely on crunch time risk attracting scrutiny and repelling talented workers.
GaaS is quickly forcing game studios to shake their historical emphasis on single release dates in favor of more sustainable development models. For continually updated and improved games, it doesn’t matter if you hit your release date if every subsequent update is delayed and bug-laden. As Nintendo’s legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto once quipped, “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” Rather than focusing on meeting a single deadline at the expense of all else, developers now must retool to continuously deliver quality updates in a timely manner instead.
Integrating teams for better collaboration
Under the traditional development model, it was common (and convenient) for internal teams to remain siloed, interacting only to pass a project from one stage to the next. This allowed developers to easily track the progress of a project and determine whether they were on-schedule. Unfortunately, this approach has several weaknesses – flaws that become exacerbated when attempting to operate within a GaaS framework. Most prominently, traditional development models are terrible vehicles for delivering iterative content based on reactions from the market.
Prioritizing flexible development
Adapting to a continuous delivery model capable of producing triple-A content isn’t a transition studios can expect to make overnight. Even so, there are steps organizations can take to streamline the development process without depending on crunch time:
- Be agile with incremental deliveries to the market: Think about agile as not just a software development process towards shipping a game, but as a way to deliver value to the market. Tracking progress and creating realistic timelines is central to effective game development, yet too many studios still think in binary terms of “done” and “not done” for the whole game. Chop it up. Incremental updates to the market force developers to consider what content must be ready for each update, and shorter timelines allow studios to set more reasonable deadlines. This model needs to be carried back throughout the entire development process; not just post-release.
- Agile marketing, not waterfall marketing: Too frequently, developers face the prospect of months of crunch time due to unrealistic expectations set by marketing, including both deadlines and features. As seen in the recent controversy surrounding No Man’s Sky, overpromising on content within a fixed deadline is a recipe for extreme crunch time at best or a critically panned release. Marketing should set retailer and consumer expectations cautiously. However, this caution can be a great opportunity for finding the right market fit for your game. By running your marketing agile, in an iterative way, you will be able to get reactions and valuable learnings from the market without overpromising. Build it up step by step in tandem with the development of the game.
- Run an agile business, take advantage of player feedback: Hitman was not an instant success but the team managed to use the market reactions, implement their learnings, and iterate to success. Make this a strategy. Empowered by digital distribution mechanisms, studios enjoy access to an audience of early players. Studios should take advantage of the opportunity to beta test updates in a staging environment before rolling them out to their wider user base, avoiding the need for crunch time when bugs appear or something is just simply not entertaining enough.
The key message is that agile is for not only development, but also marketing and the whole business operation. If these parts of the organization are moving out of sync, friction will happen, and crunch will be unavoidable to make up what’s lost. If instead all teams are working in an iterative way aligned with each other, crunch time can be avoided.
As on-demand cloud-based gaming continues to grow, game studios need to modernize their workflow to keep pace with new development demands. Studios can no longer gear their development toward a single point of release, and must instead aim to provide a consistently high level of quality over an extended timeframe. Crunch time was already a hated part of game development culture, and it has no place in the future with gaming-as-a-service.