Video Game Development with Scrum - dummies

Video Game Development with Scrum

By Mark C. Layton

Many technology companies are already using scrum to great success. For example, the hugely popular and complex area of software development can utilize scrum to great success. You find four basic reasons:

  • Flexibility: With scrum, you start with the basic features and grow the game into more complexity. This happens organically and therefore you’re always developing what’s most important next.

  • Finding the fun: Developers can add the fun in small, iterative doses. Those features that add the most value in terms of fun (a critical element of any game) get added first.

  • Cost savings: Most games fail to break even financially. Scrum’s cost-saving nature is a company saver. Even if funding is cut halfway through (assuming that the minimum playtime is met), you still have the most important 50 percent of the features fully functioning and, if not yet marketable, at the very least reusable.

  • Regular and frequent feedback in at least two forms:

    • Daily from the product owner

    • At each sprint review from the stakeholders (such as publisher and marketing)

    Gaming is all about keeping the customer happy and engaged. Feedback within scrum is incorporated quickly, so the end result is actually what the user wants.

Development stages of video game development

For games, the technical development generally follows three stages, as shown for the general flow of game development.

The historic flow of video game development.
The historic flow of video game development.

Development follows three stages:

  1. Pre-production: This is where artists, directors, and engineers come together to “find the fun.” It’s a prototyping and proof of concept phase to determine whether the game is a good, fun idea before they enter it into production and more money is spent.

    Especially with mobile games, engineers can prototype without any art very quickly. But with any games, teams can validate the idea of the game, define it, develop concept art, ensure funding, and assemble a development team.

  2. Production: The proof of concept gets developed by directors, artists, and engineers.

  3. Post-production: Professional testers hit the “finished” product, beta testers follow, and sales, marketing, and support begin.

As this process implies, publishers typically engage with studios under traditional waterfall contracts and structures, paying the studio only at certain long-term milestones. This often implies that the publisher goes for long periods of time without seeing progress.

Under a scrum model, the game development process looks more like what is shown here. Here you can clearly see the ongoing testing necessary for QA. After each task, whether it be concept art, storyboarding, writing, or prototyping, the task is tested and either moved on or further developed.

The game development process with scrum.
The game development process with scrum.

With scrum, publishers identify and kill the nonfun stuff more quickly and have greater control over quality, because they participate regularly in sprint reviews and pay studios incrementally, in line with the delivery of working game increments.

Short sprints keep a flow of outbound content that attracts and retains consumers. Scrum gets something playable more quickly to such stakeholders as publishers and focus groups. This allows developers to quickly emphasize the fun factor and eliminate sooner the gameplay elements that aren’t entertaining. This can also save wasted art creation costs.

Marketing and video game development

Games have traditionally been sold as retail products. However, as they become increasingly popular, online and digital distribution is shifting the emphasis from retail to digital delivery. A huge need exists to constantly and quickly update and add, and then push out content to a game. It is the difference between surviving or not. The barrier to entry continues to lower as basic game-making tools become easier to use and less expensive than ever, and Apple and Google are convenient and inexpensive platforms to sell through (it only costs about $100 to set up a developer account through which you can release game apps). Speed to market is critical.

Game sales are overwhelmingly seasonal, with over 50 percent of the industry’s revenue coming from the Christmas season alone. This is a major contributing factor to the crunch time that many teams regularly face, because the holiday season imposes a hard deadline.

Scrum’s priority-driven product backlog ensures that the highest-priority “fun” will be delivered with minimized crunch time. This not only makes management happy but also helps reduce employee burnout.

Art in game development

Art is a significant portion of the development work required. Console and PC games require a lot of art and animation assets, adding up to 40 percent or more of the overall cost of a game title. Technical or gameplay issues late in production are costly.

Art, being the most costly, is tempting to outsource overseas more and more. However, trouble with time zones and communications almost always leads to delays, rework, and dissatisfaction in finished product quality.

Scrum allows artists and developers to work on the same team, rather than as silos, with the same goals in sight and real-time communication on what will work and what will not.

Timeboxed delivery (sprints) of art assets keeps everyone on schedule with deadlines that they set as a team and a steady flow of deliverables to market, keeping waste to a minimum.

To optimize collaboration, teams should be onshore and in-house (colocated). Onshore and colocated teams actually keep delay and rework costs down.

Many times, larger game titles require larger development teams than nine people: for instance, 15 or more developers, 10 or more artists, and 30 or more on the QA team.

Wooga, a social game developer, releases a new version of its game on Facebook on the same day of each week, every week. The developers take the weekend to refresh their minds before hitting the next sprint again on Monday. The one-week sprint, although rigorous, forces them to be disciplined in their work and avoid delays due to dependencies with other teams. Although they release on the same day each week, they’ll still release earlier if a feature is ready. Development team members regularly submit new ideas, and those ideas often get prioritized and developed in the next sprint, which adds to team morale and ownership in the product.

Because gaming technology is changing so rapidly, to perform well and succeed in the gaming sphere, nimbleness and speed are paramount.

Ideally, games can’t “ship” with fewer than 10–12 hours of playtime for a single-player game. So while this may be the release goal, after every sprint, publishers can review the working software and provide invaluable feedback.

The definition of “done” may differ between pre-production and production. Be sure to clarify both up front. For instance, a pre-production sprint’s definition of done may include different types and levels of documentation and artwork standards than a production sprint.