Why It’s So Hard to Make a Video Game
For most of their lifespan, video games look like grey boxes and compromises.
Illustration by Tom Humberstone
It doesn't have to be hard to make a video game. It doesn't have to take years of labor, months of overtime and a team of hundreds to make a dot on a screen move and jump towards a goal. But stacked against games like Rockstar's expansive Grand Theft Auto V and new technologies like virtual reality, that's what it usually takes to remain cutting edge, and to make something that'll keep your publishers and players happy.
I've been around video games my whole life, but professionally for about seven years. That's sometimes involved being ushered into AC-chilled rooms with only a waft of heat from rows of PCs pumping life into early demos of what would, hopefully, become the next big selling titles. From the press side, I've seen what it looks like when a developer is nervous about a demo, hoping I don't try to open that one door that crashes the whole thing, because early demos are exactly that: early. Or when a public relations representative scurries over during my interview to tell me that they're "not talking about that right now," because video game messaging has become such a delicate balancing act. They don't want a rickety early demo marring the entire image of their game.
But these have only been brief glimpses into the trials behind working in game development. Everyone is vaguely aware of those trials. People nod their heads along in apparent understanding of how "difficult" making a game is, usually tacked onto a criticizing comment of a game as if to say, "Yes, this was hard to make, but I expected more." Occasionally those expectations are reasonable. But how much do any of us who don't work in that field truly know what developers "could" have done or "should" have changed?
The structure in place that limits how developers talk about their game certainly inhibits that understanding.
In order to get behind that facade, I ditched the rose-tinted glasses handed to me through the years I've previewed and reviewed video games and asked developers across varying roles what it's actually like to make video games, and why it's so hard.
"The challenge of making a game is sometimes like trying to build a house blindfolded," said Ryan Benno, environment artist at Insomniac Games—whose artwork you've also seen in Telltale's Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us series, as well as Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare—to me over email. "You can plan out where the walls will be, what the rooms will be like, how to make it stable and functional, but until you are actually in the space you don't actually know."
After speaking with eight different developers, this analogy seems the simplest way to describe what a years-long project involving multiple departments working on separate pieces over a particular period of time with a particular budget and constrained by particular tools, looks like. There might be one team working on one house, but everyone has their individual priorities. Someone's working on the overall foundation while someone else is designing the shape of specific rooms. As the rooms change, the foundation has to adapt to maintain the weight of them. Artists come in and decorate, features like electricity are added and tweaked, and someone's designing the music that plays in every room. Creatives come in and work diligently on their disciplines while a producer makes sure everything still fits together, everyone's hitting their deadlines, and no one is slowing down. That's a best-case scenario, but the process of building that house—the process of making a game—does not always go according to plan.
"If you're trying to do something new that means you're inherently unable to estimate it accurately." - Samantha Kalman
In the pre-production phase, developers have to figure out what ideas work best at the lowest risk to the overall project. A lot of this pre-production work often ends up being guesswork.
"There are things that you just don't know until you get it done," Bruce Straley, co-director at Naughty Dog, told me over the phone. Straley, an artist and designer known for his work on Uncharted 2, The Last of Us, and Uncharted 4, was telling me about the importance of developing with a mind toward the vision, or core experience of the game. "There are these lessons that we learn in production. Even in demos that we've done. It's all playable but there are certain mechanics that we haven't fully fleshed out. I don't know how this is going to work in the grand scheme of things. The equations might not add up as far as what's fun or what's not or what's engaging. I do my best."The evolution of the jeep sequence in Uncharted 4. Video courtesy of Naughty Dog.
Samantha Kalman, indie developer and founder of Timbre Interactive, told me something similar. "There are always known unknowns and unknown unknowns. You can really only estimate with 100% confidence your ability to do a thing you've already done," Kalman said. "If you're trying to do something new that means you're inherently unable to estimate it accurately."
Development starts with a pitch—an internal presentation drafted on PowerPoint, let's say. But ideas and execution are vastly different things, and the process of prototyping those ideas out can reveal better directions or ideas for developers to pursue. "You can't tell how your game is playing until you've built a lot of it out," Alex Chrisman, director of production at Certain Affinity—known for their multiplayer work on several popular first-person shooters like Halo—told me. "Pre-visualization is very hard. You have lots of important parts, and very often you'll find that that doesn't come together until the very end of the project." His co-worker, producer Ryan Treadwell, describes this process as "trying to understand the vision of your own game." Developers need to do this blue-sky thinking while dealing with very material problems. Some features might break; others might take too much time to get right and have to be deprioritized for the sake of the project.
The basics are also figured out in pre-production when the technology and engine that developers are working with gets tested, and its workable range is established. This is where developers get an idea of what they can push—polygon count, textures, animation loads, etc. This phase, where developers can create scrapable prototypes is the appropriate time to get experimental, Antoine Thisdale, game designer at Eidos Montreal told me.
But developers are creative people, and sometimes the process of experimentation can lead the game in the wrong direction. "It's very easy for people to lose track of the experience, of what your game is supposed to convey," Thisdale told me over the phone. "People tend to forget very quickly what needs to be nailed first. My job as a game designer is to nail the experience. I need my three Cs. I need my controls, I need my cameras, I need my character, my locomotion—all that stuff. I need to feel that my character is doing what it's supposed to be doing." Those basic game design tenants might seem unromantic, but they're essential to navigating the rest of the experience of the game. And while levels are dictated by carefully plotted-out paths and adorned with decorative art, a developer whose responsibility it is to create these still has to keep an eye out to ensure that the core experience remains intact as the game expands.
Otherwise you run into situations Thisdale certainly has experience with, like when a modeler he was working with went well over the polygon limit designing detailed world assets, like dumpsters. "They were so heavy in polygons that it was costing us an actual frame per second, which in a game world is super expensive," Thisdale said. "Experience will tell you how many polygons for each subject, how much texture, can I put a UV filter, can I put bump mapping, is there going to be direct and dynamic lighting on it, should I put bezels on it." These seemingly minor technical details, though visually impressive, add a lot of weight onto the game's performance. It's a delicate balance, and sometimes pretty sacrifices have to be made for the benefit of the overall experience.
Video game development, as Kalman told me, isn't linear. It's "often two steps forward, one step back," she said. She experienced this firsthand in developing Sentris, her first commercial game, an independently-created music game with puzzle elements. (You can watch a timelapse of Sentris development here.)
"I found myself revisiting, refactoring and maintaining code that I had at one point just assumed would be done. This kind of thing happens a lot where it's like 'Oh this will be easy, I'll write this new script in Unity... oh, well, that has these dependencies and how does this affect my order of execution and what's the performance impact of this.' That happens on an almost daily basis."
The game that you see in its final, presentable form, or even the game that you see in snapshots during E3 or any trailer that's released, is not the game that developers work with for the years that development takes. Instead, developers load up small maps, levels, or testing grounds and play through individual experiences to make sure they're playing right. "We spend all our time in a grey box," Thisdale told me. "The game usually takes way too long to load so we just load whatever gym we have, which is usually an empty room with a light in the middle and a box on the side and then you do whatever you need to be doing." This can be running, shooting, or even testing visual effects like rain or smoke. "That's what we do. That's the game we play," Thisdale said. "The game I just released—[referencing the latest Deus Ex game, Mankind Divided]—this is the state I saw it in for four years."
That's what video game development looks like: grey boxes and compromises. It's a balancing act between trying to create something new and exciting and making sure you have the time and budget to get even a fraction of your best ideas out there. "It's not just an obsession—it's trying to transmit something from inside of us as creators and manifest it using a team of programmers, artists, musicians, all the different departments that make up video game development. That's a challenge," Naughty Dog's Straley told me. "With video games, trying to hang on to the vision, the tone, the experience that you're trying to reach—that vision inside is already a blessing as a creator. Somehow trying to extrapolate [it] that's the joy and the difficulty of any creative endeavor."
Video games are not, or rather cannot be wholly the product of eccentric, innovative ideas. There are technological limitations and responsibilities to the overall project that have to be factored in, and that informs the entire development process. This means accepting the limitations you're working with, which is hard for any creative to do. "We're more ashamed of what is left in than anyone else," Insomniac Games' Benno told me. "We want to make something we're all proud of."
Magical Boxes Running On Smoke
The creative decisions that developers make aren't always transparent, and the reasoning behind them less so. Take jumping, for instance. Simple enough, right? We've been able to jump in video games since the dawn of video games. If Mario can jump, why can't any modern-day hero? But something as seemingly simple as jumping requires active work to be done to ensure that a character can do so. And then there's the trickle-down effect of work that must follow because of that creative decision to include a jumping mechanic. The camera has to be tweaked to ensure jumping doesn't conflict with it. Levels have to be adapted to make use of jumping, or to ensure players don't get stuck somewhere they shouldn't be able to go. Now we're talking multiple people on a project who have to take jumping into consideration in their work, when maybe, ultimately, they'd prefer to focus their priority on a cover system that might better reflect the intended player experience they're designing for.
Straley worked on The Last Of Us, a game without a jump button. "The code written just to get a character to show up on screen is astounding. And the code that's written to read animation data and figure out all the skinning and weighting on a character to animate them properly—all of this without actually translating them through space is already months of work for somebody," he explained. "This is all during the process of deciding if you're even going to have the character jump, what the consequences of having jump are, how they jump, what that choice will mean for designers, their layouts, and the effect on artists, all the while remembering your top goal is to try to make the player feel engaged."
"Games are these really little magical boxes that run on smoke. The less visible stuff is holding the game up just as much as all that other stuff." - Nina Freeman
The same level of thought went into another seemingly-simple, well-known and well-used mechanic: cover. Straley considered and reconsidered how to best incorporate a cover system in 2013's The Last of Us . "I would play the game for a couple of months and everybody got used to cover and I'd start rethinking. I'd think, 'No, because of Ellie [a character who accompanies the protagonist throughout the game], because of this analogue space, because of crouch, because of all this stuff, I don't want this other button to make the controls cumbersome," he said. "I had to apologize profusely and tell [the programmer] I don't know what I'm doing, and he has to trust me that one of these times I'm going to make the right decision, and I'm going to stick with it, and he's not going to have to reinvent the wheel as far as how we're going to do the cover button." In the end, The Last of Us basically did reinvent the wheel. They went for a crouch button that incorporated a sort of "soft" cover system when Joel (the game's protagonist) nears a low wall or object.
These are just two examples of months of work that appears like magic on the screen. In most video games, press 'A' and you jump instantly. Press 'B' and you're crouching. But behind the curtain it's a lot messier than that. "There's this layer of invisible things that are making your experience really good that also took a ton of work," Nina Freeman, level designer at indie studio Fullbright, told me over the phone. "That less visible work has just as much value as any of the presentation polish of a game or any of the really tight-feeling mechanics that are really visceral and that you know are there. Games are these really little magical boxes that run on smoke. The less visible stuff is holding the game up just as much as all that other stuff."
It's easy to appreciate character art, or the music, or the story. It's even easy to appreciate cool animations. But no one really lauds the work done on the save load system, or collision detection. Except for Freeman, of course: "The fact that you can save a Tomb Raider game and all the animals are in the same exact position as when you quit the game, that takes a bunch of work. It's a feature." These features may not be as fancy or as groundbreaking, but at the end of the day, they aren't just switches that are flipped on—they're the result of work. And that work is often the subject of intense scrutiny.
All of these features take time to nail properly. As the work evolves, those features are impacted by each other's math. Happily, that's sometimes to the game's benefit. Thisdale recounted one such story that took place during Mankind Divided's production. For some reason, all of a sudden, protagonist Adam Jensen just seemed to move a little smoother in free look. "Before the change, I was really annoyed at a little latency in the controls and was trying to get rid of it. Then someday it magically disappeared," he told me. "I went completely mad trying to figure out what I'd changed in that version. It was a very tiny thing—we eventually figured out that it was related to the way the code was managing the framerate. I can't really explain the details, but there was something affecting the latency and refresh rate and, with that fixed, the controls felt much, much smoother.
That little change made it a completely different experience. And from that point on for a year we looked at it and watched it like a hawk." Subtle changes in game development can represent as drastic changes in the overall experience. There's nuance to the tiny details and seemingly random numbers. And even just tracing those changes back to where they occurred takes time. "That day I went home at 10 at night," Thisdale told me. "We were five of us at the office, completely mad, running around looking at numbers and all the data from the build logs. We were completely mesmerized by that thing. You hang on to these little things that are completely magical."
Creativity On A Schedule
Returning to the building-a-house analogy, imagine a contract manager whose financial responsibility is to see a project through—that's the role a game's producer plays. Other people lay the bricks, but the producer makes sure the team has enough bricks to lay. Those producers either represent or answer to a parent company, publisher or investor who, in agreeing to fund the project, decided part of the agreement would be contingent on seeing early developments on the vision of the house. "Most big companies have investors," Thisdale told me. "They're [publicly traded companies]. EA, Ubisoft have stock. These people invest, they need a return. They say, my quarterly, my yearly, I need a return." They control the money and, sometimes, resources are meted out on the basis of predetermined milestones, like greenlight pitch meetings or a demonstration of an early prototype. As long as a studio keeps hitting those internal deadlines, they'll get the money they need to continue work on their project.
As milestone deadlines approach, the main priority is no longer the house itself. Everyone pauses on main development and scurries over to create sketches and mini models of the house to appease the people holding the money. Some of this is guesswork—certain features haven't been locked down, art direction could change, etc. The developers might not know exactly how they want the windows to open and where the light switches will be, but they make some creative guesses to get a model out the door because they have to.
Deadlines themselves—whether attached to milestones or internal production schedules—are also determined based on educated guesswork. Artists say it might take them about three weeks to nail the environmental art pieces requested, which would theoretically line up with a deadline designers suggested would work for submitting the concepts of what those environments would entail. But then, for any number of reasons (including potentially creative pushback from the publisher during a check-in meeting), the designers are delayed and someone will have to crunch to catch everyone else back up to the schedule. All of a sudden, deadlines that started as suggestions turn into solid dates. Those strict deadlines, especially if they're tied to milestones, end up dictating how developers move forward with content decisions, a creative director at a publisher-funded studio who wished to remain anonymous told me over the phone. "There's always constant pressure to not do the thing that you need to do in video games, which is iterate. The unfortunate, sad truth is that iteration time (or time for people to find the right idea) doesn't sound good to money people and it doesn't look good on a spreadsheet." That means an idea that could have formed given even just one extra week gets passed over because it didn't fit into the schedule.
Some publishers operate with a much more hands-off approach when managing their developers, of course. Depending on the relationship, a publisher could fully entrust the studio to create the game they know they can make, instead of having constant check-in meetings where someone with a business mind is telling a creative what to build. Still, some studios have their entire workflow micromanaged.
Though marketing needs—in the form of trailers, demos, betas—often mean even more constraints on a development's timeline, firm scheduling is also beneficial to the studio. Without any deadlines, most artists wouldn't be prepared to give their babies up to the public for criticism. There will always be something to improve upon or something else to add. "The reality is, left to our own devices, we as developers would never ship a game because there's always something else to iterate on, or new ideas, or more polish to make the game better," Straley told me. "It's always going to be never finished, just shipped."
Art Is Never Finished, Only Abandoned
Arguably the biggest milestone (and one that many companies, regardless of structure, share) is the first real, public demonstration of a game—polished, ready-to-be-played-live experiences for the purpose of showcasing the game to millions of viewers at the big dog-and-pony shows like E3, held in LA every year in June. At these conferences, not only does a studio have to impress publishers and investors, but they have to impress the public, too.
This can mean taking time out from the production schedule to focus on creating a "vertical slice" of their game—essentially a brief demonstration of the game—meant to represent the whole game "pie." Developers take a level or map or section of the game, polish it to the extent that they can with beautiful art and music, and share it with the public as their latest snapshot of progress.
"You don't even have your whole game pinned down, you don't even know all your mechanics yet," Straley told me. "And you're having to pin down something and make it playable publicly, live on a stage, and you're basically saying to the public, 'This is the way it's gonna play, this is the way it's going to look, and this is the experience you can expect from us eight months from now.' It's extraordinarily unwieldy for production."
"Everyone is building their own fantasy of what the product needs to be, has to be, wants to be. But you forget about what the product is." - Antoine Thisdale
The best a trailer or demo can do is show you current progress and projections as to what a final product might look like. Even if a vertical slice is a fully built-out level, that doesn't mean developers won't go back and incorporate changes they may have discovered after a trailer/demo went public. In many ways, change and iteration are the cornerstone of video game development. Anything from the style of a character's hair to the way a core feature performs can change throughout a game's development.
Rather than viewing these demos or trailers as suggestions of what development and the vision for a game is currently looking like, viewers frequently take them as promises. Because of the hype machine nature that is modern marketing, promising trailers and demos form an audience's expectations. And should anything change because of necessity or creative decision-making, a final product that does not effectively represent an early vertical slice seems like a failure, or a broken promise.
"Everyone is building their own fantasy of what the product needs to be, has to be, wants to be," Thisdale told me. "But you forget about what the product is." It's difficult to create an accurate depiction of what a game will look like further down the line, because developers don't exactly know what that is until they've created it. "Things change," Thisdale said. "Animations change. Our character, Adam Jensen, changed his animation like four times. If I showed you something three years ago to today, it would be completely different. It's not the same model, it's not the same face, not the same suit, not the same textures, not the same anything."
On the flipside, structure is what forces developers into making decisions. Though bemoaning the sometimes-unreasonable nature of the expectations of deadlines, some of the developers I spoke to felt like it also helps the process. "There are always 50 more questions that come up while trying to solve a problem or pin down a mechanic," Straley said. "There are hundreds of possible art styles or pipeline decisions. It's easy to think the priority is to go down every dead end road trying to come up with the most optimal, 'perfect' solution." Having an E3 deadline means having to nail down those decisions instead of pondering on the 50 alternatives a team of creatives can undoubtedly come up with.
E3 product demos also let the team members themselves see their game with full art, animations, and music, for what could very well be for the first time. This gives the team a chance to peer into the possible future of their game, and give them insight into what's working and what isn't. "Up to that point, the game's vision is scattered in a hundred people's heads," Straley told me. "Deadlines help us unify the vision.
It's not just inspiring to see your creation coming together, though, it's also an opportunity to relish in that feeling in public. So much of a game's development is publically answered with a simple "we're not discussing that yet." E3 and shippables that involve trailer deadlines and beta releases are a developers's chance to show off what's been occupying their time for the last three years. It's a chance for them to finally discuss it.
Video games won't be the perfect, twenty-dimensional vision imagined in a creative person's head. There are realistic limitations to what can be translated from that imagination into a playable experience, dependent on the limitations of technology, and the structure of video game development. And yet we've still had many opportunities to play games that were representations of a studio's best ideas, however cut and culled they may have been.
"Sometimes unfinished works are better," Straley mused on the phone with me. "The joy in creating art, any art, is that it's a snapshot of a temporal time-space and psychology. Where were you on that day when you painted that picture? You captured a certain amount of light, an essence of yourself went into it, did I use bold strokes or did I get very detailed? These choices that we all make as creators are why art is so special. I can look at two different artists and see two completely different takes on a moment in time. That is the abandonment. That's the beauty of the abandonment."
There were so many angles I could have taken in this article. I first set out to write about this idea I had about the nature of video game development several months ago. I interviewed 10 developers with a certain narrative direction in mind. What's left of that piece that's still sitting in my documents is over five thousand abandoned words. This piece is the result of a fresh start and eight developer interviews. Like developing a video game, it took me a lot longer than I originally estimated, and it went through its own series of changes. And even after that, I had dozens of ideas to work with—so many theories and reasons as to why video game development is so hard—but only so many words I could expect readers to want to invest in. That meant compromising, and deciding which stories were the absolute best to tell, that I could tell with the resources at my disposal. And that really is any creative process. Our ideas will likely always be bigger in our heads than on paper, or on a screen.
Follow Tina Amini on Twitter.