Championship Management

Championship Management

By Ed Fear

August 22nd 2007 at 9:56AM

Managing a next-gen project can feel like trying to tame Godzilla, but there are software solutions and fashionable paradigms that claim to make your life easier...

Managing the development of a game has never been an easy process: how do you schedule the disparate elements so that the game not only gets made on time, but also hits publisher milestones and trade events with enough panache to garner enthusiasm? With the increase of scale that this generation now typifies, the process of development is an even more bloated beast, one that’s harder to reign. Which is where project management software comes in.

With teams larger than ever before, effectively communicating project and status becomes harder, so it’s important that the management solution can help the team feel confident that they’re all on the same page.

“Games are not just made by programmers,” says Dave Robertson, director of European operations at Perforce. “A crucial aspect of supporting bigger teams is to be inclusive of all types of contributors to the team. This has meant the need to add user interfaces and tool integrations to our software for artists, testers, technical writers, managers and publishers.”

Similarly, the high-definition era has ushered an increase in the physical domain too, with high quality texture, normal and parallax maps increasing the size of assets – and therefore the size of the entire project.

“Job number one for our engineers is to constantly improve performance and scalability,” says Robertson. “Clearly, what is routine today would have been extreme a few years ago, so the server must stay just fast enough to meet users’ expectations.”

The other main trend affecting project management is the rise of outsourcing, and the challenges that brings with regards to keeping track of external development progress.

“Outsourcing requires very specific collaborative project and asset sharing resources,” explains Kevin G. Clarke of Softimage, developers of the Alienbrain asset management and source control system. “Current and future versions of Alienbrain provide solutions to both this and the size issue.”

“With outsourcing collaboration becomes tricker and needs more attention,” adds Hansoft’s Patric Palm. “We have functionality that enables outsourcers to be a live part of production but with limited visibility, making it easier to manage the outsourced part and reducing the risk of losing control.”

AGILITY MODIFIER
As projects get bigger and teams similarly inflate, it’s becoming clear to many that traditional ways of managing projects aren’t quite as suitable as they may have once been.

Most troubling is the extra momentum that size gives to a project: the more people that are involved with each feature, and the more things each feature affects, the harder it gets to modify further on down the project.

As such, the traditional ‘waterfall’ approach of exhaustively planning a project at the beginning and then following that plan closely is highly resistant to change – and that’s a problem, says Ed Daly, studio head at Zoë Mode.

“Fun gameplay needs to be discovered and nurtured through a methodology that rejects the fallacy that ‘locking down’ designs is a good thing,” he comments.

What Daly and many others find themselves moving towards are more Agile development paradigms, management methods that emphasise an iterative approach over a large one-time planning phase. One of the first and most popular Agile methods is Scrum, which breaks the development timeline down into a series of smaller ‘sprints’ that each end with a working version of the product.

“The core Agile tenant is Embrace Change,” explains Daly. “At Zoë Mode we applied Scrum to our EyeToy: Play titles following a post-mortem of a previous project in which team communications and decision making suffered from bottlenecks at the top.”

Daly isn’t coy when talking about how moving to Scrum benefited Zoë Mode: “The immediate benefit was an upsurge in team buy-in, but we also felt that Scrum gave more meaningful control for publishers, less risk to deadlines and better fit of effort and outcome.” And most importantly: “More fun games.”

While our contacts were all keen to espouse the benefits of Scrum, none of them claimed it was an easy ride.

“The transition was and remains a difficult process, as the full benefits of Scrum will only flow if all stakeholders and team members are on board,” warns Daly.

The other difficulty that can rise from attempting to adopt Scrum is resistance from those who don’t understand, explains Evolution’s Simon Benson. They adopted Scrum after traditional planning methods failed them in the run towards E3 and used it to help turn MotorStorm around in under two years.

“In my opinion it seems that most resistance to Scrum adoption comes from risk-averse senior management,” he explains.

“I have been on many courses about Scrum and Agile methods and I’ve met a lot of people who were really keen to use Scrum and believed in it, but were not able to convince their bosses to adopt it – I guess giving their team more power sounds scary to some managers.”

“Agile has a lot of weaknesses when it comes to the long term perspective of production,” adds Palm. “We‘ve developed solutions in Hansoft for this without losing the benefits of the core principles of Agile.”

Despite the transition difficulty, Daly would still definitely recommend studios at least take a look at Scrum. “Though it by no means guarantees success, I’d recommend Scrum to other studios - the balance of discipline and rigour with flexibility is a great fit for game development.”

UP CLOSE AND PERSONNEL

A third approach to managing projects is to take a more personal stance and ensure staff are properly coached and mentored – an approach that Evolution took with MotorStorm by bringing in people development expert David Veevers of Reach Business Mentoring.

“Mentoring provides specialist support through the use of techniques to help people to answer the questions that have never been asked,” explains Veevers. “Within your organisation you need to establish champions to provide ongoing support to people working at all levels. This is a great way to create awareness of potential obstacles and is a great platform to shape the organisation going forward.”

Benson concludes with a grounding thought, one that’s important to keep in mind while considering new approaches to management: regardless of how you go about it, the success of a game is still almost entirely dependent on the skill of the team members. “The industry and medium is still about talent regardless of development method. If you have a sub-standard team using Scrum, you’ll get a game on target and to budget – but it’ll still be shit.”