Game studios have been having a hard time meeting game release schedules even before COVID-19 came along and reshuffled the deck. While software development delays have been around as long as software itself, it does seem like there is a worrying trend of increase in recent years. It’s 2020, technology is better and far stronger than ever, yet the growing demand for more complex graphics, features, online experience and so on exceeds the power that technology can offer to speed up production.
Take NASCAR racecars, for example. Much like the game development team, a NASCAR works under immense pressure to hit the finish line, and has to continuously balance between speed and quality, which are the crux of the issue at hand. I’ll get back to NASCAR later on, but just keep this example in mind.
At Incredibuild, we work with the largest gaming studios in the world, helping them release games on time. In this article, I want to share some of our experience with the main speed bumps, and provide an insight into the one bump our secret recipe can help dismantle.
Speed bump #1: Polish (I know, you’re kind of sick of that word)
The Gamasutra article The Art Of Game Polish: Developers Speak dives deep into the heart of this issue. As expected, the interpretation of polish is quite broad, varying from maintaining consistency of experience (“Polish is when everything comes together in a cohesive whole.” – BioWare’s Mark Darrah, executive producer of the Dragon Age franchise as quoted on Gamasutra), to closing all those little details that make a big impact. Whether ‘polish’ means fine–tuning small details, tackling bigger ones or fixing bugs (yep, bugs), it is clear that polish is THE explanation most gaming studios choose for that disappointing delay in release dates. I know, everything can be considered as polish, which is, I guess, the reason why everybody is using this term.
Speed bump #2: Feature creep
Once the scope of the project changes, everything changes, with the release date being one of the first. You start with your expected game and end up with a whole different game packed with features you didn’t anticipate. This is a known problem in the gaming industry, recognized by Adrian Wright, founder of Max Gaming Technologies, as quoted in the book End-to-End Game Development: Creating Independent Serious Games and Simulations from Start to Finish: “Feature creep is a big problem in software development and can be the number one reason for delayed deadlines.“ Well, maybe number two, after polish that is.
Speed bump #3: The never-ending race laps
In the article Why Video Games Are Delayed So Often, Blizzard production director Rob Foote, who also worked on Diablo III, is quoted saying: “The quality of the game should be dictating what you’re doing, not a date you agreed to 15 months before.” So true, and unfortunately, so not on schedule.
It’s not just that game developers are perfectionists, although they truly are. It’s also that iterations in gaming are very time consuming. The more complex the game, the more time iterations consume, as described in the book Agile Game Development with Scrum: “The complexity of a game, asset database, build environment, and pipeline grows over time. While this happens, iteration times tend to grow – there is more code to execute, and more assets in the database to sort through. Integrations are rapid at the start of a project but grow unacceptable over time. Before you know it, half your day is spent waiting for compiles, exports, baking, or game loads.”
Speed bump #4: Hours-long pit stops
Getting back to the NASCAR example. Where 900 hp cars are speeding at 200 miles per hour (320 kph), even a 16–second pit stop to refuel or replace a tire is carefully considered. What I mean to say is that every small delay counts. And boy, does it count.
Let’s just say (for the sake of argument) that production is well planned, the producer is keeping everyone on their toes to minimize feature creep, and you’ve got the top artists, designers and developers in the game industry on the planet. So you have the perfect car and driver, but mind the gap because here comes the pit stop! Shader compilation, lightmap baking, rendering, and code building often take long hours to process, even on a super-powered server farm.
Not only do these long process times halt the studio and slow down production, but they also take a huge toll on the ability to run as many iterations as needed to get to the quality and feature richness that the game requires. Having very lengthy pit stops means that the team won’t stop very often, perhaps wait for the night process or the weekend batch. If the results are not perfect, oh well, we have to bite the bullet.
While at NASCAR the goal is simply to hit the finish line first, in our world it’s not that simple. We want to cross the finish line with the most astonishing graphics, cross-platform compatibility and feature richness that will get the game to the AAA list.
Adding more pitstops is possible
These lengthy iteration cycles can’t be avoided. In fact, we want more of them in order to release a truly amazing game. But we sure want to keep them much lighter so we can run many more iterations and still win the race. Incredibuild’s acceleration technology, which has been in use by most major AAA studios for over than 10 years and counting, helps teams, artists and developers, to reduce these lengthy processes by an order of magnitude, turning hours-long shading compilation to run in minutes, in turn making your pitstop as short as it can ever be, to win the race with a AAA hit.
If you want to read further about accelerating your game development, you are welcome to download this guide.