Game development is not easy
A reader offers a tongue-in-cheek explanation of how video games get made, and marketing execs get paid.
Video games! We all love talking about them, criticising them, defending them, and threatening the very lives of people that make them. Heck, occasionally we even love playing them. But have you ever wondered how they are actually made? No, you say? Well, this has been a bloody waste of several days on my part then. But still, you might as well read on whilst I re-evaluate just what the hell it is I’m doing with my life.
Stage 1 – Life’s a pitch
This is the very genesis of a video game, its conception as it were. This is where a development studio tries to strike a deal with some wealthy publisher to fund their next project. Naturally this process plays out differently depending on the publisher’s whims, but word has it that Bobby Kotick at Activision lays atop a hoard of cash, like some sinister dragon, and will only listen to a pitch if he is first thrown a pig carcass. Generally though, these pitches involve creative developers presenting ideas to soulless corporate ghouls. Passionate pleas are made, but only profit potentials are heard.
Stage 2 – The committee
If a developer is successful with their pitch they aren’t just given free reign to realise their creative vision. Oh no, that would be madness! The publisher organises an internal committee to identify what types of games are selling well and what features need to be shoehorned in to make sure their game appeals to as broad a range of people as possible. So what was initially envisaged by the developer to be a thought-provoking and narrative-driven experience becomes some bloated open world affair so crammed with tedious side missions that it takes 100 mindless hours to complete. ‘Keep them playing, stop them trading’ as the old publisher’s saying goes. Stick in the Batman: Arkham series’ combat, parkour, outposts to liberate, jetpacks, a levelling system, a Zombies mode, and a hideously superfluous and grind-driven multiplayer mode and by golly you’ve got yourself a game. Anyone that suggests a new idea is immediately taken outside to face death by firing squad.
Stage 3 – Development scheduling
Once the developer has a broad outline of the game they are about to make they painstakingly plan the development schedule to the last detail, outlining precisely how long it will take to make a game that fully realises their ambition. The publisher then proceeds to ignore this timescale and insist on a release date in November that also happens to be the in the same week as the next FIFA, Call Of Duty, and Battlefield games.
Stage 4 – The reveal
Teasers, teasers of teasers, pre-teasers of teasers sponsored by Maltesers. Such is the desire to build hype for your game that even announcing its existence to the public has become such a drawn out affair that I would have to write a similar piece just to cover how that works. It’s a wonder why publisher’s even go to such effort considering the reveal is always leaked beforehand. Ratings boards, over-eager retailers, disgruntled employees – unfortunately publishers have more potential leaks than a boat made of Swiss cheese.
Stage 5 – All aboard the hype train!
Now that the game is unveiled its time to really build the hype. Vertical slices are proudly displayed at some expo somewhere, although if anyone in attendance tries to play these demos or tries to peek at the hardware actually running them then their hands are swatted away like a fly. These expos also give the developers a chance to talk at length about their game; spouting buzzwords like ’Levolution’, babbling on vaguely about the ‘innovative’ online features of the game and trying to sincerely assert how supportive the publisher has been. Inside however, they have realised that they have long since sold their souls to the Devil.
Stage 6 – Delay
Presumably countless former Network Rail employees now find themselves in gainful employment in the video games industry, as video game releases have become as repeatedly delayed as the First Great Western service to London Paddington. ‘We need more time to make the game the fans deserve,’ is the usual statement. By which they mean it took a week for the development team to digitally render the protagonist’s beard and it’s just dawned on everyone that creating the rest of the game might take a bit longer than anticipated.
Stage 7 – The crunch
The developer has promised the world, but its three months from launch and they’ve realised their game is nothing but a steaming pile of Aliens: Colonial Marines. Who’d have thunk a game running on military grade PCs and in highly controlled conditions won’t run as well on humble console hardware? Best start stripping down those graphical effects and silky smooth frame rates you’ve been displaying these last few months. Some serious overtime is also going to be needed to get this game ready, so developers say goodbye to their families and social lives and hello to 18 hour working days, anxiety disorders, and the kind of RSI that makes you want to cut off your own hands with a rusty hacksaw.
Stage 8 – QA testing
Once the game is nearing completion the QA team begins its work highlighting bugs and other issues with the game that need to be fixed. These highly detailed reports are promptly filed in a folder marked ‘junk’.
Stage 9 – Pre-order bonus creation
Now this is the kind of creativity sales and marketing execs can really get behind; creating content for the countless pre-order bonus deals with just about every retailer there is. So now you can never truly own all the content for a game, as Batman’s auto-counter underpants are only available when bought through Tesco and Adam Jensen’s stealth camo tiara is an Amazon exclusive. Of course this content is not so much created as locked away on the disc from those consumers that don’t have such blind faith as to pre-purchase a game before they have even read a review.
Stage 10 – Going gold
The game is now completed and it’s time to send the code to some eastern European disc printing factory. But before that there’s time for the publisher to harvest some of the content to be sold as DLC later on. Best ignore that mass of emails in the ‘junk’ folder.
Stage 11 – Just another bug hunt
Well that’s it, the game is ready and its release is mere weeks away. Time to put your feet up and relax, right everyone? ‘Hey’, some work-experience kid says in the background. ‘Has anyone checked all those emails in that ‘junk’ folder?’
Best start skim reading those bug reports and squash as many as you can ready for the inevitable 156GB day one patch.
Stage 12 – Microtransaction details
This is the moment where gamers the world over collectively hold their breath and wait to discover which new and creative ways publishers are going to gouge them through ‘optional’ extras for a game not yet even released. This typically involves making single-player elements of the game a tedious grind-fest, or unbalancing the multiplayer in favour of people with more money than sense. However, last year’s winner of the Microtransaction of the Year award went to Metal Gear Solid V for it’s FOB insurance. We now live in an age where you need to insure digital machineguns against theft. What a time to be alive!
Stage 13 – Release
Now that the game is hitting shop shelves it’s time to relentlessly promote it. What you need is some pre-rendered action-packed advert that is so unrepresentative of gameplay that the Advertising Standards Authority literally insist you include this as a disclaimer. Throw in a voice over so gravelly you could lay a driveway with it, and splice in a few one word superlatives from such reputable publications as Zoo magazine and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed hit. Of course if your game is a niche title that’s going to struggle then don’t market it at all.
Stage 14 – QA testing
Wait wasn’t this stage 8? Oh right yeah this is the part where faithful consumers get a brief career in the games industry, as bug finders for their favourite publishers. Don’t worry about too much about those last gen versions, the games media doesn’t really care about covering them.
Stage 15 – Debug or defraud
The game has now probably released to a curious mixture of critical fanfare and consumer backlash. If only those pesky consumers were happy with the glowing review written by some games journalist that attended an all-expenses paid trip to play the game for a limited time in a highly controlled environment. Unfortunately, in real world conditions the game crashes as often as a bus driven on an icy road by a blind chimp that has yet to even pass his theory test, and has more bugs than the diet of the average I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! contestant. The publisher now has a difficult choice to make, pour resources into fixing those bugs or pour the same resources into creating post-launch content to sell to consumers for an exorbitant fee. To debug or to defraud – that is the question.
Stage 16 – ‘Tis the Season Pass
Odd phrase isn’t it, season pass? Puts you in mind of football tickets. Well, being a gamer these days is much like being a footy fan. Our love and passion for games is continuously exploited by ruthless businessmen who only care about commercialising the art form ever further. Now you get the choice of buying a measly bunch of map packs or mediocre extra missions for the same price you paid for the base game, or waiting for the inevitable Game of the Year re-release which will have everything for half the price. Its lucky for publishers that gamers have as much patience as a five-year-old on Christmas Eve, that has been told Santa is bringing him a jet-powered hoverboard made of sugar.
Stage 17 – Lay-offs
Now that the game is out and the developer is trying to fund its next project it doesn’t need quite so many people on the company payroll. So it’s time to make some ‘difficult decisions’ and ‘realign development resources’ to ‘maximise efficiency’. Which is corporate speak for ‘We don’t want to pay you now, but come back in a few months and we might have something for you.’
Stage 18 – Remaster of disaster
Yeah because it wasn’t the generic plot or formulaic gameplay that held your game back from greatness, it was the lack of pixel density and low frame rate. So now the game is being lovingly remastered for the current generation of console hardware by some third rate developer responsible for such bargain-bin classics as Family Card Games on the Nintendo Wii.
Well there you have it folks, the truth behind the creation of your favourite games. You don’t get this kind of hard-hitting and poorly researched journalism on other sites, do you? Thanks for reading.
By reader Red Barrel Baron
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