Healthy Tension in Game Development

BY Abigail Rindo
When I try to explain game development to friends, family, colleagues, and clients they are often surprised by the way I describe it. Making games is messy, difficult, stressful… and amazing. With each game created we invent new identities, give visualization and life to interactive verbs, and design and implement intricate systems. This requires teams of individuals with a wide variety of talents and a thirst for knowledge - for we are often solving complex problems or creating things that have never been made before.

How do we take a creative, multi-discipline process and keep it from going completely off the rails? If you’d like I could write extensively about the management of processes such as agile scrum, or the project management tools that we use, but in my opinion these structures are mainly in place to support the teams. One of the more important ways that project management methodologies and tools support teams is by fostering the healthy tensions that keep the project in balance throughout development.

Quality and Innovation vs Time and Resources
This is by far the largest point of tension and often the one we struggle with the most. When building games, there are always new ideas, new features, new characters, new sounds, new, new, new. And when you are making something new, it’s not like building something in a factory. Things go wrong, quite literally, all the time in game development. One new feature might totally break another one. Building a game in a new engine has unforeseen consequences. Writing one new line of dialogue can completely destroy an animation pipeline. And so on.

Quality is a similar component, because the team building the game always wants to make it better. Which is a good thing. It is why we have games that are literally jaw-dropping in scope, have music that makes your eyes well up, or why FPS control schemes are airtight and we get so attached to our characters. Quality and innovation are two key components in making great games.

Unfortunately, there are only so many people and so much time available to build this grand vision. A project can only handle a certain number of “brand new” features or months of polish. So when innovating or setting the bar on quality, we have to balance it with the time and resources available -and sometimes we just have to say “no”. It’s hard, but important. Why is it important? Because it helps prevent crunch (insanely long work hours), and because otherwise, the project would never end. Additionally, sometimes paring down features and innovations can result in a better product, so it is worth having the conversation about cuts.

Discipline vs Discipline
Even at a studio as harmonious as Filament (we really like each other here), there is often conflict about priorities between art, sound, engineering, design, and user experience. This is a good thing! Why? Because it initiates conversations and encourages creative problem solving. Games are made by individuals with highly specialized knowledge, which means that when communication is flowing, the process is collaborative.

Problems arise when the tension between disciplines is so high that it disrupts this communication, causing “silos” of developers that only concentrate on their own tasks. Not only does this diminish team investment in the project, it creates an imbalance between the vital elements of the game, often resulting in visually stunning games that crash constantly or complex systems that the user cannot comprehend or navigate.

Game development is a complex process with many factors in play. I hope this article has given some perspective on just one of the many factors that support teams and ensure a better product. What do you think? Is tension a helpful factor in game dev, or just an annoyance? We would love to hear from you in the comments or via our Twitter feed.