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The Big Question - How do developers prepare for the upcoming autumn development rush?

Posted by: Stig Strand

In the creative yet commercial business of making games, deadlines are inevitable. At this time of year, it’s not unusual for game devs to experience an increase in key milestones as the Christmas release dates get ever closer. As the pressure rises, so does the focus to fully utilize the remaining available time and make a final push to get things done. We spoke to studios to find out their take on how to prepare for the autumn development rush.

Setting expectations

Having amassed over 29 years of industry experience, Development Director at Codemasters Tim Coupe shares some valuable practical advice to begin with solid expectation management:- “Communicate any restrictions on time off as early as possible whilst still protecting a good work-life balance. Be consistent and fair, whilst ensuring you have cover for the critical areas of the team at all times. Ensure the team has a good spread of authority to allow risk decisions to be made early. Cover each other’s back constantly in order to minimise impact on focus against the plan”. 

As with all effective management however, a one-size mandate doesn’t fit all so it’s important to tune in to the unique needs of your team as Coupe describes:- “Preparing and maintaining a team for pressure requires leaders to take an individual approach. Understand your team, be aware of their performance, look to release pressure, provide support and give good communications at all times”. 

Share the load, share the success 

Another great lesson from Coupe when deadlines loom is to avoid an overtly management-lead approach and instead to maintain the open-mindedness to listen to the people around you;- “Develop your plans with team inclusion, don’t just pull something together on your own as your team may spot something that you’ve missed. By getting the team involved, any plans have a greater chance to succeed as they share ownership with you”. This can be easier said than done when time pressure builds toward game-critical milestones, but trusting in the team you’ve built gives you more eyes and hands to get through more work than a stressed-out producer ever could alone. The added bonus is that the sense of ownership this creates provides a deep level of satisfaction and pride once the product is out.  

Daniel Clough, Chief Operating Officer at DIGIT Games Studios in Dublin concurs;- “We invest a lot of time in the pre-production and planning phase and give teams a lot of ownership here. This means by the time we're about to start the work, the team are clear what they need to deliver, and by when. And importantly, they are genuinely bought into it”.

Happy people work best

Clough is extremely familiar with industry deadlines. DIGIT is Ireland’s largest games developer and the creator of free-to-play strategy MMO games. Their first game, Kings of the Realm, has grossed well into the seven figures since launching late 2014. They are now developing a second title launching this year. 
“We don't do official 'crunch'” says Clough. “Our view is that the quality of the work suffers, both during crunch and after. People get tired and don't doing their best work. They neglect family and health, which makes them stressed. It takes them a long time to recover, so you're just stealing time from yourself later down the road. Overall, it's probably a net loss. We prefer to map out a realistic, but stretching schedule - and let people get on with it”.

Eating the elephant bit by bit

Many development projects are months, even years in duration which can be daunting even to the most seasoned professionals. Before release, game dev rarely comes down to a single day of reckoning however, the truth is that even the most complex projects are broken down in to manageable chunks, and not all deadlines have equal weight. A successful game is the result of many milestones and ha continuous investment from the whole team which this helps spread the work and stress-load. “We always have a milestone we're working towards” explains Clough, “Sometimes it's a small release, which is part of a bigger milestone. And sometimes it's delivering the big milestone itself”. With faith in the overall project plan, panic over a rush of deadlines is less likely when built-in to a well-paced schedule.

No to crunch – yes to team push

Inevitably projects hit blockers from time to time, and Clough explains that the ethos at DIGIT is to avoid a knee-jerk reaction when plans don’t go smoothly. 
“One of our teams recently fell significantly behind on a milestone they were working towards. A handful of things hit them at the same time, which set them back. Rather than jump straight to 'crunch' we looked at other ways to address it. We solved the problem by a mix of moving some of the scope to a future milestone and using people from other teams who were ahead of schedule. Of course, the team also pushed hard for a short period to help with the effort - but not to the point where they would be burned out”. 
The reality of games development is that deadline pressures are inevitable, but this is something the studio can embrace together:- “If we have a huge milestone and we want to push to get a maximum outcome there can be a big push from the whole studio, but we're not talking 18 hours a day and people living on pizza. It looks more like an organised push, one, maybe two evenings a week short term. We give notice for it where possible and ensure people are looked after with food and drinks. It’s important to be transparent so we even tell people this at the recruitment stage - we understand how important work / life balance is to people. “

Finding a balance

“They say you can't rush art, but in a production [environment] we all have to rush our work - that's really why we are all under pressure” Adriana Pucciano told us at this year’s Develop Conference in Perfectionism and Plateaus: Finding Balance in a Competitive Industry. Pucciano is currently working as a Lead Animator on the next historical Total War title at Creative Assembly (SEGA) and has made Develop's 30 Under 30 this year. According to Pucciano “Through being a student, an intern, a trainee, a professional, a lead, an indie – we are continuously told about the competitiveness of the industry…. the struggle with ‘impostor syndrome’ is common in the games and art industries”. This describes a concept where individuals are preoccupied by a persistent fear that they are somehow a fraud. From this viewpoint, one counter to the development pressures is to instil confidence and empowerment to people, upholding belief not only in the game’s vision, but also the team’s belief in themselves.

When it comes to the development rush, there is no silver bullet. Success isn’t purely defined in hitting hard deadlines but forms part of a long-term approach to the wellbeing of your most valuable asset – your people. Establishing a great working relationship with the team allows for reasonable levels of give and take when the pressure is on, both for freelancers and permanent employees alike. Pucciano advocates studios enabling a holistic lifestyle approach and ensuring deadlines don’t compromise creative quality:- “..Nutrition, a supportive community, and life balance plays an important role in whether we burn out or stay afloat and creating our best work”.

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