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Why Johnny Can't Ship

Maybe it's a little late for the holiday crunch, but this lil' gem is required reading for all project managers.

William Volk, Blogger

January 1, 1998

15 Min Read

We've all heard stories about interactive titles that shipped late. How late? A few months, a year, two years, four years…

Four years! Yes, it really happens. In fact, it happens all the time. The Wall Street Journal (June 12, 1995) named three major CD-ROM titles that were roughly one year late, and one title, Lucas Arts' The Dig, that had been in production for more than four years. I know of worse examples, including outright cancellations after considerable investment - but, to be kind, I won't mention any names.

These late projects often start with the best intentions. Talented people were hired or assigned to each of the tasks. The title concept was exciting and showed promise. Managers with solid track records were assigned the role of project lead. In some cases technical risk was minimized by using a commercial authoring tool. No matter. They were still late, disappointing, or both.

Our industry has become complacent with this situation. There's a feeling that it can't improve. You can read how impossible it is to deliver products in a timely fashion in any multimedia magazine you choose. To summarize the arguments I've heard:

1. It simply takes 18 months or longer to take a title from concept to master.

Why? Is there something special about 18 months? Is it somehow built into the fabric of space/time?

2. Rewriting a title during production is necessary in order to get it right.

Did Boeing rebuild the 777 a few times to get it right? Do we tear down buildings until we get it right? Are our projects more complicated than building a new aircraft or A large building?

3. It's not possible to design an interactive product completely.

Is there something about interactive multimedia that prevents us from designing it at the same level of detail as any other kind of product?

4. We can't predict how long it will take to program a title. We don't know how long it will take to produce the content. We don't know what technological problems we'll encounter.


What to do, then? The typical management response to the extremely high rate of failure among production teams is akin to the credit sequence in the movie Monty Python's Holy Grail: "The people who sacked the people who sacked the people who did the last sequence have now been sacked." So easy to fix blame. So hard to fix the problem.

The Ghost of Interactive Titles Past

Things haven't always been this way. When I published my first commercial game in 1980, it required the talents of one person: me. Back then, the design, art, programming, testing, and documentation of an interactive product was accomplished by a single person, a lone wolf. A few months or even weeks is all it took.

By 1985 I had an artist working with me and people to play-test the game. Then musicians were added to the mix. Better platforms allowed for higher production quality and more ambitious titles. Soon the staff included videographers, actors, screenwriters, designers, storyboard artists, 3D artists, animators, sound designers, producers, associate producers, programmers, system engineers, caterers, and on and on.

It's hard to remember just how ad hoc the development process was in the early days. Often you would start with a vague idea of the kind of game you wanted, write some graphics code, build some art, and play the game. Then you'd go back and rewrite the code, rework graphics, and replay the game. When staffs were small and localized this iterative process yielded great results. It was fun, to boot.

It is this history of development on the fly that haunts us with incomplete designs, inaccurate schedules, and in-the-bargain-bin products. And as a result, the creative fun of developing interactive development has been replaced by a death march: ship or die. We suffer, our products suffer, and ultimately our profits suffer.

These problems haven't gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. To quote Steven L. Eskenazi, principal at the investment bank of Alex, Brown & Sons, "The problem with this business is that companies lack a disciplined approach to product development. Management allows techie developers to start programming without a finished script. Since this is a branched medium, every time a developer makes even a slight change, it causes a rippling effect on the entire title."

Looking into the Void

There remains the possibility that we can't concoct a complete design for an interactive title. After all, the technology is constantly changing and interactive multimedia as a genre has yet to reach any stable definition that would allow us to build products in a predictable fashion.

This view is expressed rather eloquently by Michael Moon, "Of the many challenges faced by the studio producing interactive works," he says, "three are most pertinent today:

  1. As individuals, we lack a clear understanding of makes a great interactive title. The interactive producer today is like the film director in 1923. We're still inventing cameras and making fundamental discoveries about film and sound.

  2. Interactive multimedia has yet to find its own unique creative and production process. Developing interactive titles combines the complexity of software development, which benefits from small, tightly focused teams, with the complexity of a feature film production, which supports iterative layers of work by numerous highly skilled specialists. The domains of software and film pose very different requirements for managing work. Software demands intensive communication among the core programmers, reflecting the fact that one misplaced bit can cause the entire program to crash. Film emphasizes product over process, requiring good project coordination, traffic management, and resource management.

  3. The market for interactive products is new and relatively immature. Producers in the Hollywood sense understand the delicate interplay between creative expression and bottom-line profitability. They're able to optimize the development of a given product to reflect its intended market. For the most part, multimedia publishers lack this degree of experience and a market in which they can apply it."

Moon makes some excellent points. However, I question the equation of film c. 1923 and multimedia today. Are the principles that underlie interactive presentation still so thoroughly uncodified? Is every title a completely new invention? Are we still making fundamental discoveries about tools and processes?

Let's look at a couple of interactive titles starting with Broderbund's successful Living Books line of CD-ROMs. These interactive children's books present stories in text and animation that can be viewed in a linear or interactive fashion. Broderbund created a Living Books engine that has served as the foundation for the entire product line. Although newer releases feature better animation and interactive design, the basic technology is much the same today as it was when Just Grandma and Me was published in 1992. The differences largely have been creative, and the creative emphasis has made Living Books a reliable purchase for parents.

Take another example, Cyan's breakthrough adventure game Myst. The company's first title, Manhole, presented a magical world of characters and places to explore. This black and white HyperCard title was one of the first ever to use a user interface in which objects in the scene serve as interface elements. If you want to go through a door, you click on the door. If you wanted to talk to Mr. Rabbit, you click on Mr. Rabbit. It sounds simple, but it was an original idea in 1988. Cyan refined this virtual-world concept to include animation with Cosmic Osmo and Spelunx. Myst combined the transparent interface with evocative imagery, inviting interactions, and a great story to produce on of the best-selling CD-ROMs yet.

The road from Manhole to Myst does parallel the progress of technology. Black and white illustrations became color 3D renderings. Music segments became longer, audio quality crisper. Nonetheless, the real advances were in the creative arena. Cyan created a challenging adventure game without using opaque interface elements such as a menu or inventory - no mean feat.

I once got into an argument with a successful game developer at Art Teco 1. It began something like this:

Me: "Would your CD-ROM adventure have been successful if you had published it five years ago for a black and white Macintosh?"

Him: "No."

Me: "It's not art, then."

(Huge argument follows.)

Actually, I think his title would have been fun on a black and white Mac five years ago. I also think he missed the point. Sure, you wouldn't want to ship an adventure game in black and white today. But using the latest technology doesn't guarantee success any more than shooting a film in Panavision wins you an Oscar.

The success of the title in question is a result of the experience of playing it. And what is that experience? It's the interface, puzzles, dialog, story, and - art. By art I mean more than the sounds and pictures. I mean the design of the interactive experience. The artist masters tools, but artistic expression transcends the tools, be they hammer and chisel or parallel processors.

Art is Your Master, Technology Your Servant

Emphasizing art over technology is good not only for reliability, but for the bottom line as well. Broderbund's earnings for the third quarter of 1995 were $7 million, up 96% from the previous year. Revenues increased 40% to $36.1 million. More reveling is that CD-ROM sales in the third quarter of 1995 represented 80% of total revenues, as opposed to 40% during the third quarter of 1994. Broderbund's technologically conservative approach seems to have made sense in the CD-ROM market.

Think of the multimedia titles you know and love. Have we really seen earth shattering changes from year to year? I've been involved in interactive production since 1979. Yes, today's titles are a far cry from the Tandy TRS-80 and Apple II games back then. Yes, we use CD-ROMs, 3D graphics, and digital video. The games themselves, however, are still based on one or more of the interactive experiences of exploration, resource allocation, action, and strategy. Creative authors take advantage of increased technological power primarily to heighten the emotional impact of their creations. In nearly 20 years, most of the evolution has been in interface design.

Which brings us the central point: Technology is the palette that interactive designers use to create experiences for other people. Technology is not a goal. The goal is to create a title that delivers the interactive experience the designer wants. Hopefully it meets the expectations of the intended audience as well.

If we believe this, we can begin to design a production process that delivers titles on time and on budget. Titles that meet our expectations for an interactive experience. Titles designed to take advantage of the expertise of the team members involved. We can begin to create the interactive guild system that will enable us to build titles in a predictable, organized fashion.

Does this mean we should stop innovating and simply build newer versions of designs that have already proven successful? Definitely not. If most PCs are capable of playing back full-motion video, we should take advantage of it. If we have a good realtime 3D engine, by all means let's use it to improve the interactive experience. But let's not forget that the ultimate value of the experiences we create lies in the creative design of our titles.

Really On Time, Really On Budget

So can we get products on time and on budget? For a start, try answering these questions before you dive into your next project.

1. Do I have the technology I need? Can I design a great experience with the stable technology at hand?

If you feel you must advance the state of the art, then treat incorporating new technologies as an ongoing R&D project separate from title production. For the purposes of title design, use the most reliable version of any technology - you can take advantage of advances later in the project, or in the next project.

2. Is the design complete? Do I have a complete list of the production elements required? Do the artists have the information they need to create what the programmers will be expecting?

Complete designs are difficult to create. No one ever saved time by skipping the work involved. All puzzles, hot spots, game elements, and so on need to be spec'ed out. The design must be complete enough that if you handed the project to an competent off-site development group, you would get the product you want.

If there's any question about whether something is going to work, prototype it. Play on paper. Play with simple artwork. Make the mistakes before you finalize you plans. In our industry, there's entirely too much "and then a miracle occurs" between design and implementation. Allocate sufficient time to do a complete job, then freeze the design.

3. How long will it take to create a background, five seconds of animation, a spoken dialog, a 10 second video clip, a 3D model of a room? How much will it cost?

Most of what passes for scheduling and budgeting in our industry is guesswork. Base your time and cost analyses on experience with your creative production teams. Allow for holidays, sick days, and other periods of unproductivity. Expecting two backgrounds per day per artist isn't realistic if your artists are averaging one per day.

4. Do the programming, art, and marketing people think this design is a winner? Do the programmers believe that they can program it?

All parties concerned should participate in the design process. That means programmers, artists, designers, testers, even marketing. The goal is to arrive at a consensus that this design is great.

5. When will the programmers receive media assets? What happens if we need to move the title to a new platform?

Once production starts, generate placeholder artwork (typically rough sketches) as quickly as possible. Then track the work flow carefully to make sure media assets get to the programming staff in a steady stream. Large projects should have a librarian to keep track of assets. Don't neglect to create them in a high-quality format (24 bit graphics, 16 bit audio) for future use in a higher quality environment.

6. Can the team produce video, animation, music, artwork, writing on time?

Professionals cost more, but they get stuff done faster. Consider hiring seasoned veterans for production of assets and dialog.

7. Can we sustain the pace of development?

You're running a marathon, not a sprint. Base your production process and scheduling on a sustainable work week, not on all-nighters that extend into a murky future. A bit of a crunch near the end is typical, but if you find that your programmers have been working 65 hour weeks for the past few months, consider yourself in trouble. Deep trouble.

8. Will we need to change this design?

Changes are to be avoided. If you've done the paper-play and prototypes, you shouldn't have too many surprises. If people want new features, let them know what the costs will be, especially in terms of time. Play-test a prototype of the title (or section) with changes before proceeding.

9. Is the production team being well served by management? That is, how easy is it to purchase a replacement hard disk at 3 pm on a Friday?

Yes, it's important to stick to a budget. Having a properly organized production process will help. However, there is a need to appear, and actually to be, responsive to the demands of the development team. Making it a bureaucratic nightmare to get that hard disk is an adversarial way of enforcing fiscal responsibility. It undermines team spirit. Remember, the big budget buster is the time spent in development beyond the scheduled ship date - not small cash outlays for necessary equipment.

10. What happens if the schedule begins to slip?

A late project is not a moral issue. Keep the team positive and focused. Deal with slippage by obtaining more of whatever you're lacking. Have technical firefighters at the ready. Be prepared to use an outside production house - after all, your design is sufficiently complete to enable competent outside help to create the product you expect.

I've had wonderful experiences over the past year working with a great team of artists, designers, programmers, and other professionals in a well organized creative and production process that emphasizes creative design over technology. It's not perfect, but I can assure you that it works. It seems impossible, I know. But, given the inherent complexity of creating interactive multimedia, it's the only sane way to proceed. I, for one, look forward to a future in which interactive titles shine with obvious, compelling brilliance because the people who make them are master artists who really know how to get the job done.

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