Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Life Threatening Production Risk

I’ve been legitimately threatened with death by publishers twice in my career. These weren’t your run-of-the-mill “I’m going to kill you if you miss your milestone date” threats that publisher producers often make. These were Michael Corleone style kiss of death promises from publisher CEOs who probably “know who to call”.

I obviously avoided death but I also learned a few valuable project management lessons.

Many games face a set of constraints:
1. Hard deadlines set by stakeholders
2. A minimum amount of gameplay content that must be produced
3. Only so many people on staff that can build this content

The combination of these constraints isn't ideal, but an agile approach is best for tackling them. These are risks and the definition of a risk is that we don’t fully know the answer up front. The key is to not create a detailed plan that fully answers these unknowns but to execute to solve these risks as early as possible.

The First Lesson Learned
One of these games my life was threatened over was a console launch title. The initial plan was to ship with six cities. Since launch dates are fixed, we considered the production of those cities as the primary risk. So we prioritized creating a prototype city which came as close to “shippable quality” first. The goal was to understand how much it would cost to make cities and a game with at least 20 hours of gameplay.

This experiment told us we couldn’t build six good cities by launch.  We believed we could build three at best.

We were still a year away from the launch, but I still had great fear when I called our publisher to inform them that we couldn’t ship six cities with quality, that could only ship with three “good cities”.  To my surprise, they weren’t upset.  They just wanted assurance that we could still have 20 hours of gameplay.

This was the first lesson:bad news delivered early is not so bad. Not only was it easier for the publisher to absorb, but knowing we had to fit 20 hours of gameplay into three cities guided our designers towards creating more options for gameplay in each city: more shortcuts, more branches, etc. The publisher wasn’t fixated on six cities. Many times these numbers are guesses made early that somehow become written in stone later.

The Second Lesson Learned
Although our first prototype city taught us a lot, it wasn’t enough.  Six months later we had another choice:  we could ship three “crappy” cities or two good ones. Production costs and the difficulty of the actual console hardware became greater than we had assumed, even with a prototype city.  Once again, I had to make the call to publisher, this time a bit less fearful due to the experience from the last such call.

This time the reaction was violently worse.  We were mere months away from shipping.  The publisher had announced to the world that we were shipping with three cities.  They had also gone so far as to film scenes in these cities at great expense. For example, they had paid New York City to shut down Times Square in the middle of the night to film a scene for marketing. To say they were extremely upset is an understatement.  I briefly considered an escape across the nearby Mexican border.

We survived the threat and ultimately shipped a launch title that despite suffering quality impacts from stuffing 10 hours of gameplay into each of those remaining cities, was a hit.

That second lesson can be summed up as “bad news delivered late is less welcomed”.

Summary of What I Learned

  • Execute uncertainty away.  Don’t rely on the written plan solving risk. Building cities early revealed more truth than any design document could have.
  • Keep your options open. Decisions made later are often more informed.  Just don’t make them too late. By keeping the number of cities flexible, we could better balance quality and cost, but the late decision to cut the extra city was very costly.
  • Don’t confuse scope with quality. While six cities “sounds better” on paper than two, it came down to what you did as a player in the cities we shipped. I have no doubt that if we kept production fixed on six cities, the game quality and sales would have greatly suffered.
  • Death threats can be very motivating, but I don't recommend them.