Chapter 3: Matching Methodologies to the Needs

Let’s get it out of the way: most of the time, you can’t do everything perfectly. You can (and should) strive for excellence, but if you put too much focus into keeping the development process stellar, you’ll most likely end up inflating your timelines and budget. From there it’s not that far from canceling your game altogether.

And since there’s no cookbook that would give you all the answers you need right away, the key is learning to be OK with the unknowns and making sure your team stays on track with the vision for the game and the production process.

Different Agile methodologies can help you get there, but first, you need to understand the key elements and philosophy behind them. Only then you’ll be able to choose the right approach to both your team’s needs and the production phase.

Typically, we use scrum format. I would say in general, we tend to add a side of agile development practices. We find that for our teams that are working on live services and products, Scrum can work quite well. Of course, there are other teams that may be more interested in Kanban or Scrumban, but it really is something that we try to coach and develop with the teams themselves rather than putting a top-down way of working on them - Andrew Gomes, Project Manager at Paradox Interactive
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TL;DR

Scrum - for when you need to iterate

Scrum is perfect for pre-production when you explore and test out many different possibilities to decide whether they’re actually good enough to end up in the final game.

To iterate in an effective way, it’s good to work in smaller teams. They’re not only easier to manage, but also encourage experimentation. Your team members will feel safer to speak their minds and contribute to creating the vision for the game along with its key gameplay features.

In order to streamline the roadmapping process, we need to prioritize.

This is kind of like assembling Lego blocks: we first build basic functionalities on top of base tech elements and then iterate on more complex ones.

We usually work in two-week sprints. This cycle is long enough to let us implement long stories and short enough to avoid being disconnected from the release schedule - Alvaro Martin, Studio Technical Director at Wildlife Studios

To make sure you use Scrum effectively and adjust it to your team’s needs and style of work, take a good look at its key elements and get the full understanding of why they’re here in the first place:

Sprint

Adjusting the sprint length lets you iterate more efficiently. Initially, you may want to test out different ideas and solutions and consult each iteration with stakeholders more often. Later on, when you decide on the game’s key features and move on to expand them, sprints can get a little longer, giving your team some more time to polish the assets and introduce necessary tweaks.

The same goes for sprint meetings. Try to adjust their regularity to the project’s phase and your team’s satisfaction. Too many meetings may slow down the progress. With too few, some of the team members can feel in the dark about what needs to be done.

Customized sprint rhythm helps both your team and other stakeholders find the fun, stay on track with the project’s progress, and deal with any potential doubts quicker.

When I first started managing a team of people, my job was to conduct the meetings. So I would do the planning, dailies, and retrospective, and I would keep everyone focused when people started joking too much or getting too much out of the subject (because this usually happens). I would bring people back to the center of the discussion and write things down on Trello cards, helping people estimate the amount of time and effort they thought they would be using - Renata Rapyo, COO and Game Producer at Rogue Snail

Review & Retrospective

Sprint reviews & retros help you keep the project fully transparent and maintain effective communication. It’s when all the team members and stakeholders can talk about what’s been done during the sprint, provide feedback, discuss any problems, and plan the next steps

Supporting roles can help with making sure that sprint reviews lead to fruitful conclusions. Sometimes Business Analysts, Delivery Managers, or Scrum Masters might want to step in to smoothen up the collaboration between developers, designers, and key stakeholders and make each team member feel involved in the project.

When using Scrum in the pre-production phase, try not to spend too much time polishing your assets or features. This way you can eliminate waste.

What we mean by that is that, at this stage, you should focus on creating prototypes instead of final assets. Remember that the content you’re working on may very well fail to stick in line with the overall vision for the game. That’s the very nature of iterating.

Say goodbye to excessive GDDs

Scrum is perfect for pre-production when you explore and test out many different possibilities to decide whether they’re actually good enough to end up in the final game.

To iterate in an effective way, it’s good to work in smaller teams. They’re not only easier to manage, but also encourage experimentation. Your team members will feel safer to speak their minds and contribute to creating the vision for the game along with its key gameplay features.

Kanban - when the production kicks off

Mapping the key features and planning the game production is one thing. Actually seeing the work in action once the project kicks off is a whole different story.

Few plans survive meeting with reality. They usually don’t account for production problems, improvements, and quality tradeoffs, which are required to meet the deadlines set by you or your publisher.

That’s when Kanban comes in. It makes the production flow transparent to everyone involved in creating the game and allows them to identify necessary improvements. After all, it’s people who are closest to the actual work that come up with the best ideas and know exactly what blocks them or makes their tasks harder than they need to be.

Kanban can have a very beneficial impact on your team:

  • Ownership – visualizing the production process on your Kanban board and making it easy to access for everyone involved helps with clarifying who exactly takes ownership over respective work items.
  • Transparency – with Kanban, the whole workflow is easy to see and understand. What’s more, everyone can have a say in planning and modifying the process and doesn’t need to ask anyone about the current state of an asset.
  • Cross-discipline discussions  – once you make the production process easy to see for all the developers, designers, and writers involved in creating a game, they will feel more invested and will be able to discuss production elements outside their field of specialization to improve the overall quality.

Kanban needs the right metrics

Kanban as an optimization tool works only when it’s paired with metrics. Tracking simple things, like the time it takes for an idea to become a gameplay feature, helps with seeking improvements. Improvements that are, you guessed it, measurable. Otherwise, you won’t really know if you’re actually enhancing the production process or not.

According to Clinton Keith, one of the leading voices when it comes to applying different Agile methodologies to game development, what helps with capturing the right metrics is visualizing the value stream. To put it in simpler terms: look at every step of building your game before setting up a Kanban board.

In his GDC talk in 2013, Keith showed what it may look like:

Visualizing the value stream helps with capturing the cycle time. Keith also underlines the importance of taking into account parts of the process where the actual work isn’t done. In the example above, that’s the two “approval” blocks, where your team waits for an asset or a feature to be greenlit and doesn’t actually do much.

Suffice to say, it all adds up to the overall cycle time and can have a significant impact on the process

One of the things, that I do as a Head of Production is talking to people and trying to map out the value stream — a very light version of it because we are not a manufacturing company. Let’s say I have a discussion with the 3D guy, and we talk like equal to equal. During the meeting, we try to define the actual steps needed to move a thing from zero to ship. What emerges from such a discussion, in most cases, is a common conclusion or some reflection they bring up themselves. I can’t actually tell people what’s going to work for them, but when we’re talking about the processes, there is a lot of reflection on these things. And I think helping this way is how we achieve change without authority. We hire people to do the job their better at than we do, but they need the direction and the vision - Ruben Ramirez, Head of Game Production at Tactile Games

Lean - eliminating waste

Lean management philosophy is another approach that improves the productivity of game development teams.

It’s main principle is to maximize value while minimizing waste.

You can always strive to eliminate waste - while strategizing, planning, and producing. But the game production process seems to be needing the biggest attention.

The story of lost time and resources

During game production, waste can appear in various ways:

  • idle time (e.g. time spent on waiting),
  • time spent on activities that are frustrating and could be automated or at least streamlined,
  • rework,
  • problems with communication (too much or too little),
  • too much time spent on strategizing instead of producing,
  • overthinking stuff and problems with decision-making,
  • overproduction, creating unnecessary assets or assets without confirmation of the end requirements,
  • polishing least important features,
  • defects and bugs,
  • mismatching tasks with the skills of a team member.

What aligns all these examples is wasted time and wasted opportunities. And these factors cause unnecessary frustration in game dev teams.

The right mindset at every step of the way

Producer’s role doesn’t end with guidance, task-forcing, and pointing direction. It’s also (and sometimes mainly) about removing the blockers out of the process and focusing on streamlining work. It’s the matter of having a proper mindset - aiming to unceasingly minimize the waste.

Toyota KATA is an approach used in manufacturing. It’s a philosophy that focuses on reducing waste — waste of time, human energy, and resources. To put it in a perspective, I remember this situation, I was working on a project, and one day I was just passing by an artist's desk, and I saw the artist was doing some sort of work in Unity, and she was putting a piece here, and a piece there, and a piece there. And I looked at her and asked — what are you doing? And she said, each time she finished an area in Photoshop and wanted to put it into the game, Unity didn’t really know where everything goes, so it took all the assets and put them in the center of the screen. And she was putting them back, one by one, manually. It was a little mind-blowing for me that we were actually doing that in 2019. But I understand that artist perfectly because you don't know what you don't know, how can you know if you're an artist that there is also a way to actually script that thing. So I talked to a programmer, and he spent less than a day scripting that thing. Now, as a manager or producer, I actually take the time to look at the tools, talk with people, and help them optimize their workflows. And my personal opinion is that people don't complain enough - Ruben Ramirez, Head of Game Production at Tactile Games

Let's say you have some kind of pattern in your work. Like, for example, in the morning you dress up and then take a bus to the office. It's like every day, you know, when the bus is coming, how long it takes, at what time you arrive. So that's the plan. And if it works, well, maybe some people can say that's efficiency, because yeah, it works well. But, sometimes if you want to make some change, you need a bit more creative idea. Because maybe you need to find a new bus, new bus line or like a different way? You just need to question the status quo - Chris Sungmin (홍성민) Hong, Tech Lead, Backend & Tech service at Metacore

When in-house no longer suffices

Over time, the demand to expand and enhance a game rises, as well as the pace players want us to deliver improvements. Expectations of players increase and the development team needs to grow accordingly.

At some point, it may become very difficult to still build and manage an internal team. Many game studios use the help of external development teams then. Producers often decide to do this because it opens the door to use the top talents from around the globe, and to do it quickly.

I think for any AAA game and even some Indies, external partnerships have now become critical. The games are getting so massive and there's so many expectations from gamers; whether it's detail and quality of worlds, overall size, or the amount of content that you have to produce to keep your player base engaged. People typically want more. They want to explore, they want to customize their characters or experience, or even create content themselves. In certain games, if you’re playing for tens or hundred of hours, at one point you start wanting to show off, you want to show your commitment, but just having one cool skin won't do it. You want to keep reinventing yourself. All that becomes very difficult to manage without external partners. I think last I heard, we had crossed into the double digits in terms of external vendors that we work with for just our game. It's a way to be able to handle the sheer amount of content we need to create without having to worry about the insane overhead it would place on us. Yeah, it comes with challenges. But any large AAA game that is steering away from external development at this point, I think, needs to maybe reexamine their approach. Done properly, you have this constant churn of assets coming in from across the globe - basically your game is being developed around the clock during the work week, which I think is awesome - Shawn Price, Lead Producer at EA

The most important thing is we need to focus on the project and what we want to achieve. Even as a big company, we cannot do everything. So in some parts, we need to do some outsourcing. We need to prepare all the plans first, and then try to build a small and strong team to lead the project. Every time I was focused on that at the beginning. And then, if we have a budget and the company allows that then we can extend the team with an external vendor - Chris Sungmin (홍성민) Hong, Tech Lead, Backend & Tech service at Metacore

There's more on the way

We hope that this guide has given you a new perspective on building and leading an effective game development team. That said, we haven’t dealt with all the questions and uncertainties by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s worth repeating that in its essence, building games – just like any piece of innovative and original software – is all about dealing with the unknowns. Sure, the longer you do it, the more you know. But with time you also look for more opportunities to introduce tweaks, improvements, and boosts in order to make the whole process more efficient and less frustrating for everyone involved.

That’s exactly why we created this guide in the first place, and that’s why we don’t want it to end here. We’ll be updating it with new contributions as well as some of our own latest findings and insights.

Expect even more practical tips on:

  • How to narrow down the vision for the game
  • How to improve team communication and continuous learning
  • How to keep backlog under control
  • How to deal with common problems during Scrum/Kanban adoption

If you think we’ve missed something important or want to share your experience with other game producers and leads, feel free to get in touch and help us grow this guide even further.

Until then – keep making great games with great teams and make sure you never stop enjoying it.

Mateusz Radomiński
github
Game Dev Partnerships Specialist
Jan Stulin
github
Editor

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