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The Top 10 Things The Game Industry Can Learn from Film Production

What can game developers learn from the film industry, if anything? No, it's not about storytelling -- it's about the very style of production, argues Tess Jones, who has worked as both a film producer and a game producer.

May 1, 2012

26 Min Read

Author: by Tess Jones

[What can game developers learn from the film industry, if anything? No, it's not about storytelling -- it's about the very style of production, argues Tess Jones, who has worked as both a film producer and a game producer.]

Over the years I have mused on the differences and similarities between producing games and films. Both have large, creative crews working towards successful delivery of a visually entertaining product.

When I worked on movie sets, I drove around the city to a different location each day. Once there, I was greeted by a troupe of 200 creative people on the movie set all trying to achieve one vision.

When I worked on games, I was again greeted by 200 creative people all trying to achieve one vision, but instead of using a physical set to stage their dramatic scenes requiring me to cross town, the environments and sets were all contained at the office on their computer screens.

Despite their different work environments, both mediums aim to entertain, creating tension and excitement, making people laugh, cry, or tremble in fear at the edge of their seats.

From there, the similarities seem to end. Producing works in these two fields is drastically different. Films have significantly shorter production periods than games. A detailed schedule is created based on the scenes required in a screenplay. The cast and crew are hired, production begins, and each day they film specific scenes until the entire script is complete. When all scenes have been filmed, the crew is done. This can all be done in as short as a month.

Games have long production periods. New gameplay mechanics present engineering challenges. Players have the ability to stop and walk around in environments, rotating 360 degrees around objects. Unexpected bugs may arise late in production, not to mention the possibility that players will navigate levels in unexpected ways or become frustrated with gameplay elements requires ongoing iteration as testing happens. And finally, games are generally much longer than films, and require a hefty amount of creative content, with "short" games providing a six to eight hour game experience.

Despite these differences, I believe there are techniques from the film industry that can be applied to game production. Film production teams deliver fast because they have to, with location, crew, and cast restrictions tied to a very precise clock. As the market tightens and consumers expect more features from games, we need to find ways to make games faster and cheaper. One place to look is to the well-oiled machine of film production.

Lesson #1: Never Shoot a Movie without an Assistant Director

The cast arrives at 5am for make-up, while the production crew of 200 people gets there at 7. First up is a scene in a downtown office building, which includes a complicated crane shot. A second unit is shooting up the street to fill in the gaps so the whole crew can pack up and be at a second location by 2pm. The second location closes by 6pm -- no ifs, ands, or buts -- and they have to get four shots before the sun goes down, one including 50 extras in the scene. Oh, and by the way, your key actor is late, meaning you have to rearrange your entire shot list and pray to God you get everything complete without having to add another day to the schedule -- and budget.

movies_filmreel_sm.jpgHoly jigsaw puzzle of time management! If you thought your teams were hard to manage, imagine the pressure on the shoulders of a film's Assistant Director. "ADs," as they are known on set, are unionized through the Director's Guild of America.

They are highly skilled in judging all the various elements that will go into a shot and determining how much time it will take. On a film set where money is literally being spent as each minute on the clock ticks by, they keep things running smoothly towards completing each shot on the list.

I've worked on small films without an AD, and the inevitable result is that you find yourself still trying to "get that last shot" at 2am in an apartment in the Bronx, eventually falling asleep with your face plastered onto a piece of pizza. It's not pretty.

People tend to avoid the clock in games. Thinking about time estimates hampers the "cool" and "creative" game dev lifestyle. It's all about iteration, and you can't put a time estimate on that, can you? That's all well and fun during concept phase when your devs are passionate, but when you're exhausted and pushing to Beta... Yup -- you got it. You're stuck with another brutal, middle of the night sleeping pizza face incident. Sleep deprivation -- that is the real obstacle to creativity. What you need is a skilled AD.

What? "I don't need that! My producer does that." Well, yes and no. Some producers are amazing at time management, and others not so much. Producers often also have other elements on their mind: big picture concept, correspondence with marketing, milestone reports, a whole lot of other things that draw their attention away from the nitty-gritty, day to day of making sure elements are "in the can."

Movie sets have both a producer and AD, each managing different responsibilities. What game teams need is a dedicated resource to manage time. A qualified, experienced resource that can eyeball time estimates and build a schedule based on the risks and elements in front of them. Headcount is always tight on game teams, and project managers dedicated to scheduling could be seen as unnecessary overhead. But if you want to shoot a movie in 45 days with no overages and to have a beautiful film in the can, in the movie business, you hire a good AD.

Lesson #2: Films have a Lengthy Script Development Process

If you went to a film studio and asked them to fully fund a movie production crew to explore concepts for a new movie, you would get laughed out of the room. Yet that is exactly what happens in many game studios.

Often there is no other choice. In studios with only one or two small game teams, concepts for games are created as a group effort by the development team. Although outside writers are sometimes brought in to help form the story, the seed of the concept usually comes from a passionate team with a great idea.

In contrast, the concept for a film generally has a lengthy development process before the production ever has anyone on payroll. The concept, characters, setting, and story are all laid out in advance in a 110 to 120 page screenplay. Screenplays are put through a rigorous vetting process known in Hollywood as script development.

Script Development

Here's how script development works. A screenwriter toils away at their keyboard and creates a screenplay, which can take anywhere from two months to seven years. When finished, the screenwriter wipes the sweat from their brow and sends the script to their agent, who in turn sends the script out for professional script coverage.

Hollywood has a legion of professional readers that evaluate scripts for a living. These readers create a four-page report that summarizes the genre, time period, characters, plot, and location. They also rate the script on a pass/fail scale on various different creative elements. They often provide an overall feedback section with their professional opinion of whether a script will fly or bomb at the box office.

This aids executives in evaluating the viability of a concept in the marketplace. Once the agent feels the script is ready to shop around town, they send it to various executives and script development departments that would be a good match.

Let's stop here for a moment. I'd like to note that already, films have a huge leg up on games at this point. You start with thousands of amazing creative ideas that screenwriters have probably put a few years of thought into. Only the best survive and get sent to production houses, not to mention that agents are specifically sending creative ideas to houses they think would be a good fit.

So what happens next? The production house buys the movie and it gets made, right? Not quite yet…

movies_script.jpgIf a production house likes a script, they buy it, but this is no guarantee that it will get made. Often scripts go into "development" to improve the script even further. When a director or actor is attached, they may also have revisions. Again, only the best survive. Some production houses have drawers and drawers of purchased screenplays on deck to be made "someday". Some are never made.

Finally, if the timing, screenplay, and attachments are right, the screenplay will be greenlit for production. Only then is a full crew hired so creative talent can bring the concept to life. Execution is everything. Even good scripts can turn into bad movies with the wrong cast or crew.

But the rate of failure has been greatly reduced by the forethought that went into creating the backbone of the movie during the script development process. Executives have had their say about income margins, marketing has discussed the viability of the concept, and now the movie can finally be cast, shot, edited, and released.

What Lessons Can Game Developers Learn from This?

Imagine a world where games had concept coverage services similar to films. Designers and concept artists could pair together and create proposals to send to production houses, which would in turn get professional game readers to evaluate the market viability of the concept, characters, artwork style, environment mockups, and story. The market would be flooded with creative professionals focusing only on concepts, and only the best game ideas would survive. Not only would this create more diverse and fascinating games, but they would have complete and cohesive concepts from the start, before any production budget is spent.

Perhaps I'm dreaming. A game concepting process similar to that of movies doesn't seem likely given the way the industry currently operates. Game teams pride themselves on their creative abilities, and part of the reason they get so passionate about their work is often because the concepts are their own. When game teams are passionate, that is when great games are made, an equation any good producer knows not to meddle with.

Despite this, there are lessons to be learned from film's extensive script development process. It reminds us that pre-production is by far and away the most important phase of a project. Evaluate and test your concepts at every single phase. Take initiative and create your own concept package before committing and spending time and resources. Your concept package could include key gameplay elements, a back-of-the-box one paragraph write up, a killer name, and artwork concepts for the characters and environment.

Hand it to someone you trust, and get their honest feedback. If you have a budget, put your package through playtesting and usability, with a sample build of gameplay if you have one. There are also market research firms you can hire to test your game concept in the marketplace. All these steps can be done by game companies large and small.

Lesson #3: Story Equals Concept

I hear a lot of talk at game conferences about the ongoing battle of story versus gameplay. In one camp, story is irrelevant because games are about good gameplay. In the opposing view, story is what the modern gamer craves and requires in a new landscape of high-quality console entertainment.

In my humble opinion, this entire argument is flawed. People are missing is that 90 percent of story is concept. Let me say that again. NINETY percent of story IS concept. By "concept" I mean the main character, core conflict, main gameplay elements, main enemies, setting and time period, and environments that make up the premise for your game. Every game has concept, regardless of how much "story" is there. Have you played a hit game lately without an environment? How about one without a one-line description or "hook" that made you want to buy it?

As every good Hollywood screenwriter knows, always, always, always think of the big picture when creating your concept. This is the number one key to making it successfully through the brutal trials and tribulations of script development. If you can't pitch your screenplay in one line to the head executive of insert-your-favorite studio in the elevator, you're dead in the water.

Once you have your concept, you need to carefully consider if it will do well in the marketplace. Will my end consumer think this game is fun? Will they be intrigued by the artwork or premise and want to learn more? Will they tell all their friends about it? If you pitch your one-line idea to 10 random people, do you feel confident as you explain it, or do you find yourself "shying away" from the concept or "explaining it away"? Once you feel confident you can sell the idea, only then is it time to commit to the concept, invest more resources and time, and move on to the next step in the process. Don't rush concept creation; it is the foundation of your house.

Lesson #4: Goldentime (film) versus Crunch (games)

When a film crew member hears the words "Golden Time" they will either shudder or smile. The term refers to the large salary jump crew members earn when hitting the 16th hour of work on a given day. While each crew member has their own contract, many have a clause specifying terms for what happens when working overtime. They may get bumped after 10, 12 or 14 hours of work to increasingly higher hourly rates. At 16 hours, many crew contracts hit paydirt, receiving an entire day's salary for hours 16 through 20, regardless if they work 1 minute or 4 hours.

Crews may be exhausted, but knowing they are getting paid bank perks up the set and sometimes even creates a creative and festive atmosphere. Of course, the producer and director aren't feeling festive, as their production costs skyrocket with each passing hour. At the end of the day, the producers are responsible for overages, and they do everything in their power to avoid them. If a crew goes over, it is the producer that is punished, incentivizing them to do everything they can to effectively manage the work hours of their crew.

In games, compensation isn't quite so cut and dry. If bugs crop up or features aren't turning out as planned, team members can find themselves working "crunch", the industry's pet name for unpaid overtime.

Some teams work small, planned spells of crunch as a way to reach the end of a sprint or boost the quality of their products. Other teams find themselves working unplanned crunch, scrambling to fix bugs or drive up game quality.

Game developers are usually salary and not unionized, so these late hours are compensated only by the hope of a big hit game and profit sharing or a bonus at the end of the year.

I'll leave it up to you to decide which system is better or worse. Crunch is loved by some, hated by others. Film golden time has a similar split. Crunch can drive up quality, or demoralize a team. Golden time can help you get that last shot, but exhaustion may set in for the rest of the week. These are hot-button topics that most professionals in both industries have their own thoughts about.

One thing is clear, however. In the film industry, crew members are mandatorily and openly compensated for their extra effort. If a film goes into overages, it falls squarely on the shoulders of the producer and management, instead of punishing team members for unexpected events. Does this incentivize producers to avoid long hours at all costs? You bet. Does the crew appreciate this and work harder for it? Probably. A savvy producer can assume there will be a certain amount of overages and plan for them. When the time comes, they can reach into that overage budget, maintaining a happy crew even in a difficult crunch period.

Lesson #5: Post-Production is Half the Film

Have you ever watched an action movie on mute? Try popping in Transformers or Spider-Man and turning off the sound. Scenes that usually make your heart pound become emotionally flat. Disinterest sets in as your mind wanders to checking your email or planning your lunch. To create engaging, gripping sequences, sound is an absolute must.

Good film producers know that post-production is literally half the film. Audio, sound effects, pace of editing, and title sequences can make or break how an audience reacts to your product. Post-production in the film world also includes voiceover work, color correction, special effects, and working with film stocks or digital delivery formats to ensure a crisp image on the final screen. Post-production period lengths vary, with some films getting things edited quickly while others can take up to a year or more to perfect.

Game producers also give extra attention and focus to sound and other techniques that fit into the post-production schedule in Hollywood. In a medium requiring moment-to-moment tension and excitement, game developers are keenly aware of the value that post techniques have on their audience.

However, most game schedules that I have seen don't seem to have an official "post-production" period set out at the end of the project. Audio, cinematics, lighting, titles, and special effects are often expected to come online throughout regular production. While many elements can easily come online early, some need to wait for final content before implementation. What results is a crunch period right before major milestones for audio and other team members. Game developers may want to consider laying out extra time at the end of their projects to ensure these key elements can be fully realized.

Lesson #6: Everyone Gets a Script and Script Page Changes Every Single Day

When a film crew member walks on set in the morning, one of the first things they receive are neatly printed script changes. They take these pink, yellow, blue or other colored pages and place them in their binder with the rest of their script pages. The new pages contain added lines, cut scenes, or location changes. Every crew member has a script fully printed out, and they add these new pages into their script. They always know exactly what is being shot for the day and what needs to be done.

In game production, teams often use game design documents, but in general the process of creating content often less top-down and more organic. Leads of various departments may be working off hit lists, and also creating content and story as they go along. The game designer probably has a game design document, but with sheer volume of gameplay usually contained in a product, this is difficult to keep up to date. Things move fast in game design and GDDs get out of date quickly. Designers iterate on the game constantly, making improvements by the hour and minute. On larger games, you may have 10 or 20 designers all making changes on their levels simultaneously.

Am I advocating that game teams adopt printed script bibles for all team members? Maybe. While printing out pages seems archaic and a waste of paper, it's funny how easy it is to dismiss emails or avoid reading digital GDD updates, especially when changes are rolling in every day and you have a bug list a mile long. Having a physical "game bible" may be an interesting experiment to try.

Or, perhaps the game itself is the script bible. The best way to stay up to date on what changes are rolling in from the team is to actually play the game. Try running through one level each morning with your team to see what changes are in, as well as to discuss upcoming tasks that will be coming online in the next few weeks.

The key take-away here is determining whether your team members are always up to date. Being in the loop will make for a more cohesive vision, with team members that stay on track and contribute to that vision.

Lesson #7: Great and Plentiful Food Motivates

It's amazing how much food can motivate employees, especially good food. Not only does it make employees feel like they are being taken care of, reducing their stress and increasing goodwill, but it also draws people together for conversation. When employees eat together, they begin sharing information, sparking new ideas, or remembering to take action on particular tasks.

Film crews have this one all figured out. Movie sets are fully catered, often with an on-site food truck cooking meals to order. All meals and snacks are free to crew members, with catering showing as a regular line item in any standard production budget.

With crews working around the clock, often at remote locations, having food on set is a must. Lunchtime is at the same time for all crew members, and after lunch is served, crew members promptly go back to work.

Understandably, game production doesn't work in the same way. Developers are not on set. They are in the same office every day, and can bring food from home or go out to lunch at nearby eateries. In general, food for developers is looked at as a luxury or special occasion, and not as a mandatory part of what is provided to employees.

Game producers often provide food during crunch periods or at the end of a milestone. Some companies have food cafeterias set up as a way to offer convenience and community. This may be as close as the game industry will get to the luxurious meals provided to the creative talent on film crews. I'd like to challenge that, and say that if you want to generate happy creatives in your own game production office, food is a key tool in your toolbox.

When you start thinking of your developers as a team of creative resources instead of as a legion of office workers, this starts to make more sense. Creativity flows more naturally when stress is reduced. Having food on-site means one less thing to worry about during the day, gives developers a clear lunchtime to take a break, encourages community and makes them feel taken care of.

movies_salad.jpgThere is one caveat with food, however, that can actually end up making your teams less productive in the long run. Providing unhealthy snacks, soda, coffee, pizza, and heavy foods is not going to help your cause. In the long run these drag energy down, providing quick fixes but later resulting in an energy slump. Some of these foods can even lead to weight gain and health problems if consumed long-term.

Try to focus on providing high-protein foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes, and stay away from sugar or caffeine-loaded products.

Lesson #8: Have One Clear Creative Director

Film directors have absolute power on set. The film director assembles a crew of creative leads that greatly influences the film's final product including a cinematographer, production designer, and casting director. But if there is a question on set, the director always has final say. They are the primary vision holder, harnessing the creativity of many into a final, cohesive product.

Game designers play a similar role with their teams, but there are things that can interfere with their ability to fully be in control. Game crews often pride themselves on their team approach, and the culture tends to lean towards a more collaborative mentality when it comes to the game vision. Another obstacle to having one clear director is that game designers often find themselves playing dual roles and writing the dialogue, designing levels, and doing other tasks that interfere with their ability to walk the floor and provide creative leadership.

If the game designer isn't leading the creative vision, who is? Some companies have engineering, art, or other department leads in positions that wield more power than others. Upper management could be holding the reins, or a marketing division could be making demands.

A publisher may have an acting producer with an invested interest in the final product, and actively push their design ideas onto the team. Many companies take a team creative control approach, sometimes creating great products with an open-door culture, but other times allowing for unclear roles and negative feelings when creative ideas aren't used. Each company has unique politics, history, and teams that form the power structure for creative control.

In the filmmaking world, there may be an actor with clout, a producer with money, or a revered cinematographer that use their power to control things on set. Yet the role of director is so clearly laid out and respected that the film crew's daily production pipeline is not usually affected. There may be squabbling at the top, but the crew takes their orders from the director. This reduces team member politics and streamlines the production pipeline. Film crews have figured out that it is much easier to coordinate a creative vision made by 200 people if there is one person to answer to. In time, game production teams may figure this out as well.

Everyone has heard the horror stories of prima donna film directors demanding full control on their movies, and I'm not suggesting that game designers swing to this extreme side of the pendulum of control-crazy leadership.

That said, I think everyone on game teams can learn something from the clear hierarchy laid out consistently on film sets time and again. Establish roles on the team and make sure your team is aware of these roles. Producers and directors should walk the floor twice a day and be open to answering any questions that team members have, keeping an eye out for creative elements that may be off track. Free up your day for office hours and remove yourself from tasks that can be done by others.

And that brings us to…

Lesson #9: Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

Stop micromanaging and hand some of your work to others! What would happen on a film set if the director spent all their time making script page changes on their computer and photocopying them for the crew? They wouldn't have had time to rehearse their actors, answer questions about the creative direction for set construction, or approve camera angles from the cinematographer. The director on a film does just that -- directs -- ensuring everyone is on the same page.

Game producers should encourage their leads to delegate as much as possible. Create clear role definitions and stick to those. Check in often about where people are spending most of their time, and troubleshoot ways to get tasks off their plate that prevent them from higher priorities. Above all, always keep deadlines and priorities in mind. If your milestone requires X, Y, and Z, let other items go.

Lesson #10: You Can't Fix the Story in the Cutting Room

In film production, there is a time when the movie reaches a point of no return. Unless your budget has deep pockets to allow for massive reshoots, what you shoot is what you get. If the original screenplay and concept were flawed, there is no great way to fix them.

If you watch films closely, you can see editing tricks employed to try and fix story issues. A constant soundtrack over scenes may try to mask emotional flatness. Quick editing and bold, large titles may try to add intrigue to scenes that would be otherwise tedious to watch. Scenes can be constructed from outtakes, and lines added in voiceover.

Things can definitely be doctored during editing, but there is only so much an editor can do to fix a broken movie.

Games are unique because developers can change content through the entire length of production. Scenes aren't locked in stone, animations can be changed, and environments can be reworked. Missions can even be reordered. On one hand, this means that game content can be improved through the very end of a production schedule. On the other hand, this could give a game team a free pass to procrastinate story decisions that should come early in production, or to make changes mid-stream that throw the project off schedule.

Abandoning ideas that aren't working is key to success. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is what you want to avoid. Stick to your original vision, and you'll turn out the product you first set out to make. If you do this and stay on track, you will get it out the door quickly and have time to spare to make another new, improved project that you know will be "so much better than this one".

Avoid letting your team's perfectionist side take over, and focus on shipping the game that is in front of you, putting everything you have into making it as good as it can be. This can be difficult for game developers, who trend toward perfectionist tendencies. Feature creep has a way of lengthening schedules, which in some cases could be likened to a film editor trying to mask a scene that isn't working with loud music.

Sometimes new game features really can make the difference in shipping an excellent game, and mid-story changes are what end up making a product shine. The trick is to find a happy trade-off between running with what you've got versus allowing directional changes that may hike up quality.


How do we utilize these ideas to make higher quality games faster, cheaper? Let's review!

  • Pre-Production:

    • Develop solid game concepts before production crews are brought in

    • Vet concepts in a similar way to the film script development process

  • Production:

    • Hire a skilled time management specialist

    • Keep crews productive by planning and paying for overtime and providing meals

    • Ensure team members are consistently in the loop for game changes and vision

    • Define team roles and have one clear creative director

    • Delegate tasks off leadership to allow them to focus on moving the rest of the team forward

    • Balance improvements and high quality with sticking to the original product vision

  • Post-Production

    • Make sure post-production time is planned in your budget

    • Use post-production to its fullest capacity, acknowledging that it is half the game

Now, what about the list of fascinating tidbits that film producers could learn from game devs? We'll save that for another article.

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