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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Ending Video Game Death Marches - #1 Managing Debt



We’ve all experienced it: A sink stacked high with dirty dishes. You rarely have time or incentive to tackle them. Usually, you’re in a rush to do it before a visitor arrives or when you run out of clean dishes for your next meal.

Eventually, most of us learn that washing the dishes once a day (or at least throwing them in the dishwasher) is a better approach. It takes a little discipline to get into the habit…similar to flossing your teeth every day, but it’s for the better good.

The same principle applies to game development. We often let the crud in our games pile up. We call this crud debt. We often push off paying that debt until it’s an emergency, and that usually leads to crunch, and lots of crunch sucks.



Why Debt contributes to Crunch (getting stuck between a rock and a hard place)
Debt is unfinished work, whether it’s bugs that need fixing, stand-in art, or untuned mechanics. It’s called debt because, like financial debt, it has an interest rate whose payback grows over time. Debt piles up —usually inside some tracking software—where it stays, growing until some point in development, commonly called alpha (the “rock”), when teams dive in to address it. The problem is that alpha is close to a ship/deployment date that is fixed (the “hard place”). Teams quickly discover that there is not enough time to address all that debt, and management decides it’s time to crunch.
It Often Gets Worse 
Ironically, managers usually react to crunch, low quality, and missed deadlines by demanding more detailed task planning. This tends to squeeze out the slack that should be used to address emergent debt. That slack is essential; when was the last time you estimated the amount of work it took to fix a bug that hadn’t been found?

Setting Aside Time to Manage Debt Works, but it’s Not as Easy as You Might Think
It’s easy to see that if you have less debt, there’s less reason to crunch because of it. So what’s so hard about managing debt?
There are two significant reasons that we fail at managing debt. First, it seemly slows down development. Practices like unit testing, creating automated test tools, and making sure new features introduce minimal debt takes extra time upfront, but in the long run, it saves a lot of time. However, it’s often hard to convince a stakeholder that doing the extra work now is a lot less expensive than doing it months from now.
Second, we developers can be lazy. Yes, I said it. Managing debt, such as optimizing polygon usage, replacing stand-in audio, or refactoring code that has gotten “crufty” is a lot less fun than tossing in something new. Like washing your dishes daily, it’s less fun than making them dirty, but it’s a discipline that needs to be built up to avoid the piles in the sink.

Where to Start
Debt is best managed by setting aside time to eliminate levels of it. You can start by establishing an agreed-upon time that’s set aside to address debt. For example:
  • Every day, eliminate any problems that cause the game to crash or otherwise be unplayable.
  • Every Sprint, make sure the game is demo-able to internal stakeholders. This could mean that the frame rate is stable and fast, and players can have fun.
  • Every Release or milestone, make the game worthy of showing the outside world. It could be missing key features, like a marketing demo, but what is there is polished.
How to Master It
  • Build test automation. The Gear Up book describes several useful ways automation can help
  • Metrics. There’s a lot of debate about whether tools that measure code quality, like unit test coverage, help. I feel they do. If you can measure something useful, you can improve it, but beware of the metric becoming the goal.
  • Educate. Try pair programming. For example, hold a “Wednesday Pizza Talk” (Gear Up) to educate developers about practices to reduce debt.
Learn More

Monday, February 10, 2020

Six Signs your Game is in Trouble


We all want to make great games and not suffer making them, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. Below is a list of 6 typical signs that the game you're working on is in trouble.

1. Your bug database is growing out of control
I'm not a fan of bug databases to begin with. They are often rugs to sweep dirt under, and that dirt gets more expensive to clean over time. All that debt has to be paid off, and it's often paid off with crunch and compromise. We should be spending time at the end fine-tuning the experience of the game, not making it barely shippable.

2. You Don't See the Big Picture
Often, especially on large games, individual developers don't understand the game they are working on. It's all in the head of some lead designer, who might even be in a different city. Without a shared vision, moving your game forward becomes like pulling a wagon with a hundred harnessed cats. Chaos ensues.

3. Gantt Charts
Detailed Gantt charts often just serve as project management theater. A complex, graphical chart can often placate a publisher. Not that it's terrible to think about the complexities of work and dependencies, but these artifacts, adopted from manufacturing, aren't well suited for creative work. For one, they don't lend themselves to change very well. The one thing I always look out for are Gantt charts that magically slope downward off in the future when some magical burst of productivity is forecasted, which brings us to the next sign.

4. Wishful Thinking
I'm an optimist, but it usually takes the form of "yes, I'm positive something will go wrong!" Projects should embrace risk. It's more important than task management. Problems do not solve themselves and that reassuring management reserve set aside for problems will probably be gone by the time it's needed. If the game is not fun and on track now, it's unlikely it will suddenly become so "someday."

5. Building Final Content Based on Unproven Technology
This is probably the most expensive one. Technical promises and their schedules are often not worth the electrons used to store them in the project management tool. Even console manufacturers are guilty of this (who remembers the "Emotion Engine"?). If you are creating final, shippable content using budgets (graphics, physics, AI, etc.) that are beyond what your current engine can do, it's a good sign you'll be redoing all that work, in crunch, again.

6. Management "Tells"
As with poker, there are some tells that managers show, which are signs that there is trouble.

  • Mandated crunch. Scheduled crunch often means more is coming. It's panic time.
  • Moving people between projects to speed things up. This always slows things down. You know why.
  • Sudden micromanagement. I'm all for management being engaged daily with developers and communicating more, but when it instantly ramps up, they're worried.

--
This might sound a bit negative, but game teams get into trouble all the time, and this list could be much more extensive. Identifying the signs early on is the first step in solving them.

Well-proven solutions to these problems exist, but they are not easy. They involve changing approaches to how we think of game development and stakeholders. We need to focus on the game first and the project second. That requires courage from leadership and developers.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Solving Large Team Dependencies

Simulated Annealing for a Travelling Salesman


We've all seen it. The larger a game team, the more dependencies between developers and teams emerge to slow development down to a crawl.

The problem of dependencies is a complex one. They are called NP-complete" problems, usually only solved by time-consuming brute force approaches. So forget about an easily managed solution.

The best approach has its analogy in computer science called "simulated annealing," a technique where you start with an approximate solution and add a bit of change from time to time and see if it improves the solution. The GiF above shows simulated annealing as applied to the classic Travelling Salesman Problem. Instead of thinking of cities (groups of dots), and paths between (lines), think of developers(dots), teams(groups) and dependencies (lines). Over time, as teams and individuals within teams experiment with ways to reduce dependencies, you see those inter-team dependencies reduce.

For large teams, those changes are often to team makeup and the formation of the Product Backlog. The goal isn't to eliminate inter-team dependencies, but to move as many as you can within the individual cross-functional teams (Scrum-sized, 5-9 developers). Within those teams, they build accountability and better practices to address debt and reduce the cost of dependencies.

By experimenting with more self-contained teams and organizing the Product Backlog to reflect those teams and to depend on fewer "future integrations" and build development practices, dependencies will slowly diminish over time.

Practices to Try

  • Instead of creating a detailed release plan every few months, just define the major epics and let teams reform around the epics they'll take on and refine the release plan themselves.
  • Identify dependent specialties in the release plan between each team instead of tasking out dependencies. Often this indicates where you don't have enough specialists or where there is an opportunity to cross-train someone and spread some skill.
  • Talk about them in retrospectives. Encourage the team to come up with solutions.
  • Measure inter-team dependencies. If you don't measure it, it's harder to improve it.
  • Find ways to visualize dependencies. Program boards that use strings to identify inter-team dependencies are useful. A board that looks like the one below should horrify anyone.


This is not a good "after" shot IMO

Dependencies on large games are a huge anchor that slows development down in a very opaque way. Your focus should be on those and less on tracking individual effort.