The games industry has come a long way from the days when one studio focused on one game. Now, it is more common to have a studio working on multiple games at the same time. That can be for a few reasons. Where Agile is practiced, teams are often trying lots of things at the same time, quickly. They experiment and only going forward with the most promising ideas. There’s also risk aversion – not betting the farm on one game. Also, the very practical business model of developing the studio’s own game, while doing work for other companies to keep the revenue flowing.
Last but not the least, there is the Gaming-as-a-Service and live games trend. This extends the lifespan of a game. Game studios of today juggle more balls than ever (and for many, these are glass balls, not rubber balls). Even studios with a single-project focus right now may want to change that, if they are lucky enough to be successful and have growth ambitions.
As multi-project game development becomes a fact of life in this industry, what impact does it have?
Creating an identity
We all know that people have a very strong connection to their work in game development. Many feel proud of their contribution and are passionate about their current game. Then they are transferred to another new, unknown project. Maybe it’s one that has the potential to be as cool, but it is not the kind of game with which the employee identifies. Plus, they are being asked to move from one intensive production phase straight into another. This introduces possible risks around motivation, maintaining the passion, and work-life balance for the creative individual.
That is why a lot of studios are focusing on creating more of an identity across all their projects. For example, a strategy that at least one studio is using is to work on multiple games, but all within the same, quite niche area of advanced simulation games. That helps studios to attract and retain the best skills, because people who go to work for them can be confident what to expect.
Another roadblock is around organization. When a company goes from one to multiple projects, they often lack the formal processes needed to support continued efficiency, particularly if they have grown fast. It is easy to lose control and spend resources on activities that are not going to fly from a business perspective. There is a huge difference between 20 people building something on which they are 100% focused, compared to 100+ people working on three different titles. Coordinating effort helps ensure people’s time available is being used efficiently.
In other industries, the answer to that challenge is application of good project management techniques, supported by project managers, or individuals with solid project management expertise. In game development, that responsibility is given to the producers, but the same principle applies. The challenge is that project management skills and experience are sometimes thin on the ground. In a creative environment where companies grow fast and are driven by passion, this is not surprising.
Solving the challenges
The answer? There is not a single one-size-fits-all solution. But based on working with games studios around the world, that have the challenges of multi-project development, here is what I’ve seen work.
A lot of it comes back to good Agile. Rather than formally following the methodology, it is vital to be Agile in spirit and maintain options as long as possible. I can see how the work coming out of Spotify inspires studios. They work with both autonomy and alignment. The goal is to have a high degree of both, making sure that formalization of process does not go too far, but that it provides just enough control to bring the studio identity together.
By continuously keeping that underlying conversation going, it becomes possible to have multiple projects on the go. Founders or owners feel that they do not have to let go of control. At the same time, each project can have a higher degree of creative freedom. If those leaders can see what the teams are doing, and if those teams feel they are being trusted, then that makes for a far better culture.
Also –– and going back to need to create a studio identity –– it is important to maintain the balance between projects. One common struggle is between the company’s own game development, versus work-for-hire (unless of course we are talking about dedicated outsourcing companies). In particular, there are often certain skills that a studio is really good at that tend to become bottlenecks without a thorough analysis of how to load balance.
For instance, a studio might be brilliant at sound design, but does not have enough capacity to use this fully on every project without sacrificing quality. To avoid cannibalizing one project for the sake of another, proper resource planning needs to be applied. That will also help identify where it makes sense to collaborate with other studios. Perhaps it means bringing in extra sound designers for a project, or to acknowledge that while the studio is great at sound, it should rather bring in help in other areas to stay focused.
Technology tools are not a silver bullet, but they can help. For instance, within an Agile context, efficient backlog management can take away a lot of the manual effort and pain of understanding resource requirements. Also, learning to build backlogs-of-backlogs, portfolio road maps, and other cross-project aspects of scaling up is something with which agile planning tools can help.
Multi-project development is an inevitability for most studios, even for those focused on a single title right now. It makes sense to plan for it from the get-go and create the right foundation. Otherwise you could end up hastily introduce one on-the-fly, in a hurry, when juggling several teams, games, and deadlines. Better project management has the potential to help set games studios free to grow. They can be more efficient, follow the original vision, and dreams to keep studio members inspired and sticking with the studio as it grows.