How do you coordinate and enable collaboration between hundreds of game developers in different teams all over the world? And what phases does a game production go through before launch and once it’s live?
In this article, adapted from a speech at PMI Sweden Chapter Congress in March 2020, Art Producer Johan Oldbring digs deeper into project management in the games industry and at Ubisoft and Massive.
Usually when I tell people outside of the games industry what I do for a living, I get the question “so, you just play games all day?”.
Photo: Johan at PMI Sweden Chapter Congress in March 2020
I am a gamer and driven by an interest in the medium like many others who work with video games. It’s a rather young industry and for us old timers, testing was a common way to get our foot in the door.
I’ve worked with video game development since 2001, and I’ve been with Massive since the beginning of my career. During that time, I’ve worked on eight games and expansions, the latest one being Warlords of New York.
Photo: Johan at Massive’s office, 2008
I’ve worked with video game development since 2001, and I’ve been with Massive since the beginning of my career.
I started my career as a game tester and became manager of the team. After that, I moved into project management and have had different roles within programming, UI, backend, and live services. The last three years I’ve been in charge of the teams working on art asset production for Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, which at peak production had hundreds of artists in six different countries.
As you might understand, a project like The Division 2 is huge. So how do we handle these big productions from a project management point of view?
To start, it’s important to understand the structure of our projects. We have different teams with developers of the same discipline, managed by a lead who in most cases is a senior developer themselves.
Back when Massive was a smaller company, projects would consist of a couple of teams with a Project Manager to lead development, but as the complexity of our games grew, so did the amount of specialized developers and teams.
Today, a project like The Division 2 looks something like this:
For The Division 2, we also worked together with eight other Ubisoft studios in six different countries. As you might imagine, our credit list is as long as a Marvel movie, and as lead studio, Massive has the overall responsibility for the production.
For The Division 2, we also worked together with eight other Ubisoft studios in six different countries. As you might imagine, our credit list is as long as a Marvel movie.
We also use different methodologies depending on the type of feature we are working on. Looking at this trailer as an example of this, the player character is made up from several different parts, from the hair to the shoes. Creating these different parts is a rather straight-forward process where the teams involved work in a straight timeline one after another.
A gameplay feature, like the one seen in the videoclip below, on the other hand, can be developed in a more iterative way with members of different teams working together in a cell or a strike team. The teams then create a prototype, which is continuously tested and improved to ensure it’s both fun and balanced. The actual art assets, together with sound and other key ingredients, are created by other teams in parallel.
A scene like the one seen below combines the work from several teams. Prop and Level Art create and place 3D objects, Character Art and Animation create the characters and make them move, Level Design decide the layout and script the events, Texture Artists create graffiti and signs, lights are placed by Lightning Artists, and the Audio Team creates music, effects, and ambience. Everything is made possible by the Tech Team, which creates the engine the game runs on, and the Tools Team who programs the toolbox other the other teams use.
As you might imagine, developing a game together with hundreds of people in different locations all over the world has its own set of challenges. That’s why it’s vital that we constantly communicate and coordinate to ensure we are all working towards the same goal. To help with this, we have layers of middle management in the form of Associate Producers and Project Coordinators. We act as a bridge between all teams and help facilitate and drive the development.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to being a producer in the games industry is that the core of our work is a product that needs to be entertaining and engaging. In an industry where technology is constantly evolving, customers are high-demanding, and the market is very competitive, it can be challenging to specify products years in advance, which means we need to be highly flexible and agile.
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to being a producer in the games industry is that the core of our work is a product that needs to be entertaining and engaging.
The core creative process is driven by our Directors, who each have one main area of creative responsibility. But, as many of the developers are gamers and highly creative people themselves, reviews and ideas can come from anywhere, and it’s up to the managers to make sure that there’s a balance between improvements, schedule, and people’s happiness.
As mentioned before, the main purpose of a game is to be entertaining, but the definition of entertaining obviously varies depending on the intention of the game. Should it be a fast-paced action shooting game? A scary adventure game? A family-oriented platformer? Tetris?
(Side note: Massive has actually dabbled in mobile game development and created Tetris for the classic Ericsson phone T28 in 1999!)
It’s important to remember that we never make games for ourselves. We make them for our players. In many ways, games as a medium could be compared to movies, but with the one big difference that it’s not a directed experience – the player is often the one in the director’s chair. That’s why it’s vital for us to know our audience and to understand how they define “entertaining”.
For this we utilize market research and analytics to look at trends and metrics from other games. We also play our game a lot ourselves during development, as it’s important to understand the big picture and the parts that other teams are working on. But most importantly, we invite external people to our studio for user testing in our Games Lab.
Photo: Playtesting in the Games Lab at Massive
We also play our game a lot ourselves during development […] But most importantly, we invite external people to our studio for user testing in our Games Lab.
In the Games Lab, researchers monitor and follow the players over several days to see how they react to our game, and if they understand it and find it entertaining. Towards the end of a project, we also conduct large-scale playtests to test the game in a live environment and collect feedback from our target audience.
Finding the fabric of what makes a game unique and memorable isn’t always easy. On the surface, many games might seem very similar for someone who doesn’t play much, but avid gamers can often quickly tell what kind of experiences they like – and dislike. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this fabric is, as it’s the sum of several parts, like setting, story, controls, and gameplay. By playing the game ourselves and conducting the tests mentioned above, we can make sure that we are on the right track.
So, is it even possible to plan a big project in an environment where the creative process is so important, and goals can change rapidly?
Different studios work in different ways, but at Massive, we use a process we call Feature Sign Off, FSO. The directors write creative briefs in the form of user stories, which are then written as an FSO where all details and dependencies are outlined.
Representatives from each team involved then gather for an actual sign off, and after that, the feature goes into production. The collection of FSOs becomes our “Game Design Bible”, which gives us Producers a scope to plan from.
In general, a game project at Ubisoft goes through four phases:
The Conception phase is where the general plan for the project is made together with broad decisions like genre, world design, and basic story elements.
In Pre-production, the technical foundations are put in place, and the first playable parts are tested to ensure the project is on the right track in terms of engine and tools.
In the Production phase, the teams are fully staffed, and the game is eventually finished. But before it’s finished, the game must pass two major milestones during this phase: Alpha and Beta. Alpha means that the game must be playable from start to finish to allow for proper testing. Beta means that everything should be done, which adds precious time for polishing and bug fixes before the game is launched
After the game is released, we move into an Operation phase to provide continuous support and produce additional content.
During these phases, we work in so called Production Builds, which consist of two to three week long Sprints, with a planning phase at the start and review phase in the end. Production Builds allow us to keep track of the scope and makes sure there is time for reviews and iteration.
With such a dynamic environment comes challenges we need to handle as leaders. With our attention to detail and focus on quality comes a necessity for allowing and embracing failure. Fostering a mindset of making changes and daring to fail can be a great tool for innovation.
Another challenge we face is change management. Projects can change during development, delays might happen, and at the end of the day, our primary goal is to deliver a high-quality product on time and within budget. This means that we have to handle expectations and reactions when it comes to features that might have to be removed for any reason – it’s not always easy to cut or remove something you might have spent a lot of time on.
[…] we have to handle expectations and reactions when it comes to features that might have to be removed for any reason – it’s not always easy to cut or remove something you might have spent a lot of time on.
We also need to plan smart to avoid overtime, which has historically been almost guaranteed in many development studios due to the complex nature of games. There is always something to improve on and bugs to fix, but the complexity means that even the smallest of things could be risky, so it’s important to decide when to stop.
The industry has matured a lot in the recent years, and it’s very important for us to provide a good work-life balance. Talent should be nurtured – not drained, and our goal is that all employees should stay for at least 10 years.
It’s very important for us to provide a good work-life balance. Talent should be nurtured – not drained, and our goal is that all employees should stay for at least 10 years.
I also hold the personal belief that to create something fun, you need to have fun while creating it. And in the end, it’s up to us leaders to make sure our developers have everything they need to do what they do best.
So, do I play games all day? Well, it’s unfortunately not the only thing I do. But we have a lot of fun and playing games is an important ingredient, so I can’t really complain!