The second panel of the second day of Toronto's Future Play 2007 conference was titled "Keeping the Pace with Industry Innovation," and featured MIT Gamelab's Philip Tan, GarageGames' Davey Jackson, John Nordlinger of Microsoft Research, and IGDA's Susan Gold as moderator.
The discussion, aimed at academics, focused on the evolution of industry game practices and its significant changes, including beneficial development practices that have emerged over the past five years.
Phillip Tan introduced the topic of the agile development practices used at MIT to teach software development projects and project management.
“Toyota invented Agile Development Practice in the 80’s," Tan explained. "It intends to build teams that can respond quickly to change, treating people as if they are human beings -- rather than just part of a business practice.”
Tan continued, "It is becoming an increasingly popular way of making games, but it is not a mainstream way of developing games and may never be – but companies such as BioWare do use it. It is not an easy process, but it aims to be a livable process – using agile development, you’e not going to be working for 60 hours a week. One of the main concepts is not to overwork your team.”
He added, “It was designed for expert teams, though, and become cultish – people can become certain the definition is the only way the project can be run, but it does, by it’s definition, need to evolve to fit the team.”
Philip went on to discuss a specific form of agile project development known as Scrum. “It works for about 6-8 people – it’s a really good size for student teams.”
Giving the reason for using this kind of agile project development, Tan explained: “Software will evolve and sh*t will happen – you have no idea what will happen to your game within a month of development. The basic tenets of finding what’s fun – test early and test often – works really well in Scrum. Two-week milestones for testing work well, and allow you to evolve your game quickly.”
Tan pointed out that a key value of Scrum is that everything is prioritized. "You’re forced in Scrum to work out what is the most important thing and do it first," he said. So the team reaches the end of a project with tasks left over, it's probably safe to cut them because they were of least importance.
“To learn how to use Scrum all you really need is a book called Agile Project Management. "You really only need to read the first chapter – well, other than the project manager, who should really read the whole book, but it’s a very easy process to start running.”
Learning To Fail
Davey Jackson from GarageGames got involved at this point, commenting: “Students can get too obsessed with creating their opus as they see it, and one of the nice things about Scrum is it encourages failure – it allows you to find the parts that don’t work and as a team throw them away.”
Jackson continued on the importance of learning to fail: "Being free to fail is very important –in the industry, things can move so fast that a new technology can come along and break your game – or another project can.”
Jackson also had a book recommendation for the attendees -- Paid to Play: An Insider’s Guide To Video Game Careers. "It’s solid gold," he enthused. "It’s basically a job description for every job in the games industry, and has a lot of humor that’s very true. I picked it up and read it in one night, and I was amazed.”
Continued Jackson, "This is the 'just do it' industry. We can talk about methods and methodology, and whether design documents are relevant, but the people who are successful are the people who saw a gap in the industry and just filled it... and there’s more opportunity in this industry than ever before. There are so many outlets for small games, and if you want to make a game? Make it!”
He went on to discuss what hiring was like at GarageGames, and what qualifications were important to them: “We’re not so interested in what you graduated with – or if you’ve even graduated," said Jackson. "We want to see what you produced and how you produced it. Your portfolio is your most important thing – you need to develop that.”
Jackson added, “Other experience is important too. A lot of people think of Q&A as being dead-end – it’s not creative, there’s nothing there, but a lot of people can start there, learn a lot about the industry and work their way up.”
In response to a question from the audience asking about the importance of finishing formal education, Jackson noted, “We do ask students to leave their courses to join us on projects if they’ve come in as interns and they’re great. But if we’re being honest, we will wait until you finish your degree if you’re good enough. Your life in the games industry is only truly roughly five years. After that point, people like to have things like families.”
Jackson described how, when he began work with GarageGames, he realized how quickly industry professionals need to adapt. "You can work on a great idea for ages and the next day it can die because there just aren’t enough resources for it,” he said. "It’s tough, because you want to think that what you’re working on is the important thing, because it’s what your attached to. But you have to disconnect from that and learn to value the work you did but threw away, because it all adds to the value of the company as a learning process.”
He went on to discuss a story he'd heard about new companies who want to work with Nintendo. “Miyamoto at Nintendo would fund these little three-month games at studios, and at the end of the three months would check them out, and talk about what was good and what wasn’t, discuss that and set them another.” The particular company he was talking about went through four developments before they reached the stage where they could work on a full project.
Continued Jackson, “The industry doesn’t traditionally allow that kind of development, though. But there’s a huge amount of opportunity now with smaller games. I mean, Id just announced
a mobile division! That’s a huge difference from what we’d normally expect from them, but it’s an example of the way things have changed.”
Nordlinger stepped up to discuss the importance of good communication and writing skills. "Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is given to every student at Harvard when they arrive, and there’s a reason for that," he began. "This little five dollar book says that vigorous writing is concise. In a development environment, you’re often going to have ideas which are controversial to your peers."
He continued, "I’ve seen so many cases in which engineers didn’t manage to convince their managers to make chances that were critical when their managers vested interests were elsewhere. If anyone’s read Breaking Windows, you’ll have read a story that engineers didn’t manage to convince Microsoft to get involved with the internet! So you need, need to learn to communicate.”