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Levelling up: project managing video games

The video game industry is reportedly the biggest entertainment sector in the world, generating more revenue globally than the movie and music industries combined. According to Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report, the industry is set to be worth more than $200bn by 2023.

With the launch of the latest generation of game consoles this winter – Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox X and S Series – and the prospect of people spending more time at home due to the pandemic, the future of gaming appears bright.

But despite the meteoric rise of the gaming industry, it’s only relatively recently that recognised project management approaches have been introduced to the development of new products. Duke Nukem 3D, a genre-defining first-person shooter released in 1996, sold 3.5 million copies. Its developer, 3D Realms, aspired to make the follow-up even more groundbreaking, but by 2009 – 13 years after the previous game – the sequel still hadn’t emerged and the team working on the project were let go due to a lack of funding. The new game, Duke Nukem Forever, was eventually released in 2011 to mediocre reviews. The saga served as a warning to the then-maturing games industry: this is what happens when game developers fixate on perfection.

Today, project management is firmly embedded in the development process of major studios. At Ubisoft Reflections, development follows a phase-gate process, with each phase using a different project methodology.

Bob David, a producer at Ubisoft Reflections, explained: “In the initial pitch phase, we follow the four Fs: fail fast, and find the fun.

“We’ll have a team of around 10 people trying to find a unique selling point to build the rest of the game around, and that involves a lot of prototyping, finding what works and what doesn’t.”

David adds however, that part of the process is also about giving creative developers the time and space they need to come up with fun, innovative ideas.

“If a project was led by a project manager from start to finish, you’d probably get a very safe game that didn’t necessarily drive anything forward in terms of the industry,” he said.

 

The Angry Birds approach

As a creative endeavor, video games can start as a lightbulb moment from just one person. While this might serve up the foundation of a great game, it doesn’t provide a clear endpoint for delivery. For games that go on to become multi-million (or billion)-dollar projects, there may be hundreds of creatives applying their own subjectivity to an as-yet undefined outcome. This is where project management techniques like scrum become invaluable, as they reduce the chance of wasting time and resources on the wrong end-product by bringing feedback into the process sooner.

“The idea is to develop a minimum viable product that can be released sooner, to get feedback faster and respond to changing requirements to meet the players’ needs, and gain return on investment faster too,” says Helen Garcia, scrum master, agile coach and director of Maykit.

In some development studios, this approach is leading to an increasingly iterative style of project management, in which a minimum playable version will remain in a permanently playable state as work progresses. This is the approach taken with hugely successful games like Angry Birds, where new versions and updates are continuously being developed, but the core product is always available.

It’s clear that, just as the visuals and complexity of video games have evolved over the years, so too has the way in which their development is managed. We’ll never know if a more rigorous project management approach could have changed the story of Duke Nukem Forever. What’s certain is that the industry is now much more aware of the need to balance creativity, while keeping the end game in sight.

This article is based on a feature in the new issue of Project, the official journal of Association for Project Management. The full feature contains interviews with Bob David of Ubisoft Reflections, Helen Garcia of Maykit, and Thomas Ruotsalainen of Rovio, the developer behind Angry Birds. It also includes a project management tips from professional game developers.

Members can download the latest digital copy of Project now.

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