Avoiding the Death Sentence of Rushing to Production

Read Time: 4 Minutes

Our wise colleague said, “Most game companies fail not because they launch a bad product or people quit, but when they run out of money” (That wise colleague is Joakim Achren - you should follow him).

In our time consulting, we’ve seen multiple studios & projects shut down when they ran out of cash or because the project cost was “so high” that leaders/investors couldn’t stomach continuing with less-than-perfect results.

When we’re talking about success & failure for game studios, burn rate is a vital part of the conversation.

Too many leaders and stakeholders don’t feel like the game is “real” until art assets are produced, or the platform is written. Finally, we’re at the part where we “make stuff!”

It’s understandable. We desperately want to show progress and “prove” we’ve got something. Pretty art and cool tech kill in stakeholder reviews, amirite?

Hot take: Once you go into production, you “turn the hourglass” on your project. It is impossible to go back. What feels like a great way to build momentum and drive toward a working product can quickly become a death sentence if you haven’t already learned many important lessons.

We think about this problem differently, and we’ll break that down for you today.

Don’t let this be you…

It Starts with Bad Assumptions

We’ve heard a lot of misconceptions from the leaders we’ve spoken with, including the following (big ones):

  1. Culture and product alignment can be handled later when the company gets “big.”

  2. Overvaluing things that ‘look good,’ like completed artwork or a demo, and undervaluing things like learning, experimenting, or a consistently working test build.

  3. Building the right team as quickly as possible and getting them to work is the quickest path toward value.

  4. The purpose of Ideation and Pre-production is to build credibility so we can go to production, as opposed to things like differentiators, who our audience is, what our core game loops will be, and how to work together effectively.

What’s consistent about these assumptions? They miscalculate the “cost curve” of a game project.

The Cost Curve is Key

If we buy the idea that game teams fail when they run out of money, we need to take active steps to get as much value as cheaply as possible before we go to production. For example:

Writing things down…
Making prototypes and grey boxes….
Playing other games in your target genre…
Talking to your future audience….
Having a handful of people… 
Talking about culture, product, and vision…

  1. These things are cheap. The earlier you do them, the cheaper they are.

  2. If you believe things like clear culture make your life easier in the future, then the earlier you do them, the more valuable they will be over the total life cycle.

When you are in ideation and pre-production, all decisions are cheap. When you are in production, all decisions are expensive.

Here are a couple of takeaways:

  • Build culture and alignment early: They remind your team what good decisions look like. The better their decisions during production, the cheaper your project is during its MOST expensive phase.

  • Learn a LOT on paper, through prototypes, and from playing games like yours: It will help you make the most critical decisions during production: What NOT to build. You are massively derisking your product for every choice NOT to build something.

  • Create clarity on the problem you’re solving for players (and the map to get there): This is a critical outcome of ideation and pre-production. Your teams should focus on this as an imperative before considering expertise/disciplines.

Much of this is counterintuitive. Understanding the rising “cost curve” through the game development life cycle will reframe things like runway.

So, if you aren’t ready for production NOW, how will you know when you ARE ready?

The Game & Audience Checklist

Everyone needs a clear understanding of the audience, what type of game we’re making, and what the core principles of the design/approach are. Even the most dictatorial management strategy will rely on people making product calls every day (even if it’s as simple as “How do I build this?”)

  • Why will players play our game over our competitors?

  • Who are our players?

  • What does “good gameplay” look like for our game?

  • Why will players play our game more than once?

  • What are the most critical differentiators in our game?

  • What are the critical pieces of our core game loop?

The Org Checklist

The strength of your culture, leadership bench, and core principles will be the most important determining factor in your success. Production-level expenditure is a race against time before you run out of cash. You must be confident that your people can make good decisions even when you’re not there.

Production is more “heads down” and focused on execution than any previous phase. You will be relying more than ever on your studio's ability to make rapid, effective decisions. Learning will still happen, but ideally, it’s “filling in the gaps” instead of massive pivots.

  • Is the culture & attitude of your studio ubiquitous and well-understood?

  • Do you have the right leaders to hold the line on your culture as you rapidly bring in new people?

  • Is there a growth plan, not just for the product but for your people, managers, and leaders?

The Tech Checklist (Techlist?)

Speed in production is dependent on the flexibility and stability of your tech. The more complicated or obtuse your technology is, the harder it is to make pivots during production. Hacked solutions and bugs compound exponentially, leaving you with an unworkable codebase. If you can’t create a stable build, solve that. If you can’t playtest the game daily, solve that too.

  • Have we proven we can maintain a stable build internally?

  • Do we have a build that is playtestable regularly so we can continue to learn?

  • Do we know which platforms our game will/won’t operate on?

  • Do we have a plan to make the product testable & available for relevant regions, platforms, and languages?

  • Do we have a plan to do integration and load testing on a global build?

In Summary…

The pressure to go to production is natural. It’s a deceptive belief that progress isn’t happening unless a physical thing is being built. Learning and deepening your understanding of the audience and product will ALWAYS be the primary currency.

It’s easy to move forward and a hell of a lot harder to move back. Make sure these three things are in proper shape before moving into production.

  1. Your Gameplay Thesis & Audience

  2. Your Culture, Roles, and Basic Org Structure.

  3. Your Technology - specifically the parts that enable iteration and stability.

If you want to dive deeper into the phases of game dev, we did a podcast walking through them: Ideation, pre-production, and production: How to lead during the different phases of game development.

Whenever you’re ready, there are 3 ways we can help you…

—>Courses built by game devs for game devs - check out “Succeeding in Game Production” HERE.

—>Regular deep dives on critical game development topics on the BBG podcast

—>We’ve helped many high-profile game studios save a ton of money & time through building clear vision and leveling up leadership. If you’d like to work with us, please reach out at [email protected].

“You’ve rushed to production too soon: you have 200 people, your burn rate is insane, and you don't know where you're trying to go. So you have taken a situation where you had a lot of time and freedom and turned your project into a ticking time bomb.”

- Aaron Smith

“Your core game loop, the game's design, should lead the charge between [game dev] phases.”

- Benjamin Carcich