Fundamentally F$#ed Up Projects

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My buddy Chris Benjaminsen asked me for a list of the ways in which game projects are fundamentally “f#$ed”. I couldn’t ask for a better prompt for a blog post.

Games are often developed by passionate people. Most game developers didn’t stumble into games – they had a longstanding interest and worked hard to make their way into the field. As a result, they are often “interesting” in addition to being passionate. More on that in a moment.

The natural forces surrounding game projects are chaotic. Games often take a non-linear path during development, meaning it’s hard for managers to determine if the project is “on track” or not. Small changes can make them dramatically more or less viable. Game studios are chronically over-extended and under-funded, adding another level of risk and stress.

Finally, games are demanding technically. They must deliver a high fidelity, responsive experience using meager resources on a wide variety of hardware. They have to adapt to a wide variety of needs from the artistic, design, accessibility, and business parts of the team. And there is never enough time.

How does this translate to projects being fundamentally f#$ed up? Let me share a few source of chaos from my own experience:

  • Battle of the wills. Working on a sequel for a beloved franchise. The upside: everyone on the team was a long time fan, passionate and engaged. The downside: Everyone on the team had their own conflicting ideas on design and implementation. This project didn’t last very long.
  • Lacking key development hardware. I’ve worked on several projects where we were developing software against hardware that didn’t exist yet. To understate the situation: it is very challenging to build a great experience when you are building it on an approximation of final hardware!
  • Burn out. I’ve worked with a surprising number of companies where the founders didn’t work on the core product for long periods of time.
  • Upper management. Game projects mature at varying rates. You have to keep upper management happy and involved so that they want to keep funding it. At the same time, you have to be careful what they see – a series of bad demo sessions can make them defund/deprioritize. In addition, much like almighty Zeus, they have a tendency to see random things from their exalted positions and hurl lightning bolts at the masses.
  • Unstable personalities. They come into work on the first day and everything is fine. The next day, they’re in tears. The day after, they want to fight you. They may not last, but they just might take the project down with them… Or drive away your most talented developers. Or maybe it’s the CEO and you’re gonna have to live with it.
  • Bad processes and continuity. QA processes that can’t catch showstopper bugs. Build systems that have no consistency from build to build. The staff with knowledge of deployment process leaving and being replaced frequently.
  • Fear and loathing. Very often team members will get concerned about something. It could be something serious, or something minor. Maybe a studio head came by and said something, or maybe they saw a detail that isn’t right. Or it could even be a broken process causing them extra work/stress. Often if they aren’t in a lead role they will have a hard time evaluating the significance and/or the steps being taken to deal with it. An important job for every lead is to help fight these fires and keep everyone on an even keel. Often the best thing to do is simply ignore it and move ahead with the plan. But if left unchecked it can destroy morale.
  • Technical debt. Maybe you inherited some code that is of questionable quality or maybe you built it yourself. Maybe some corner cases you swept under the rug are coming out to bite you. Whatever the case, technical debt can accrue very rapidly in a game, and if it’s not managed right it kills forward progress.

Stressed out yet?! As a technical contributor to games, I’ve long viewed my role as one of providing flexibility and stability. This takes two parts. First, there is a continuous and ongoing negotiation with the other elements of the team. Design needs gameplay mechanics. Art wants to execute a certain look. Production has schedule and budget constraints and needs to manage upwards to keep the project funded. The business guys need monetization to work and want all sorts of weird SDKs integrated so they can track their users. Executives are putting their two cents on all sides, introducing random changes. QA is reporting bugs and asking for diagnostic tools.

My job as a technical lead is to take all of these conflicting needs and somehow produce a reasonable series of stable builds of the game suitable for testing and release without anyone going insane. Most of the time this takes the form of communication so everyone can stay calm about where things are going. Sometimes we have to take real technical steps to resolve something, but it’s amazing how often just talking through stuff results in no changes or only a minor change to the course.

The second part of my role is more subtle. I need to tackle the technical elements of the project that will best allow it to weather the inevitable storms. For instance, suppose I think the basic idea of the game is good but the game design is poorly thought out. I may bring it up in a casual way, but rather than getting in a big fight about it, what I’ll do instead is rough out the gameplay such that the flaws in the design can be exposed. Once those issues are visible to the designers, I can focus on building systems that I know will be crucial for the game’s success. That might be a scalable websockets server, or some advanced rendering tech, or some other independent piece that is crucial for the game but not deeply affected by the specifics of the gameplay.

Fundamentally, I am using my technical capabilities and resources to act as an anchor for the project. By getting builds in front of the team and prioritizing effort based on risk/uncertainty, I can help ensure there is visible progress that keeps everyone happy and engaged even in the face of serious systemic badness. And sometimes, when everything is on fire, that’s all you need to find success

Author: Ben Garney

See https://bengarney.com/ and @bengarney for details.