Computer Game Development (an overview)

Computer & video game development companies (developers) create the games that customers will eventually play. The majority of developers are independent companies although a large number of publishers also have in-house development teams, or own equity in external developers.

Developers employ (or contract) Programmers, Artists, Musicians, Sound Engineers, Designers, Producers and administrative staff to work on the development of the games. The companies can vary in size from a lone programmer up to a 250 strong company, with a number of separate teams, each developing their own title. The structure of the company will vary depending on the formats they develop for, the types of products and of course their financial resources.

There are three three main product types; licenses, conversions and original (as described in Publishing overview). However, many developers choose to specialise either in original games or in licenses/conversions. The former is considered to be more risky but more rewarding creatively; while the latter two are considered to be less creative but more rewarding financially. In addition the formats they choose (or are allowed) to work on will affect the company structure. Companies developing big budget original titles for the PC often require larger development teams (often between ten and twenty staff). At the other end of the scale are the companies focusing on developing for the Game Boy & Neo-Geo handheld games machines, where one programmer and one artist (with additional help from a musician/sound engineer) is the norm.

The development process.
Design – The creation of a game starts with the design. A small design team will be assembled to work on the design for a product. The team is made up of programmers, artists, sound engineers and designers. Together they create a design document for the game, which describes all it features in detail. The document covers not only a description of the game play but also the visual style (with examples) audio style and discussions on how the programming will be approached.

This design will be reviewed a number of times by the design team as well as by other interested parties. After a month or two the design should be at the first draft stage and is ready for presentation to whoever is responsible for approving products for development. Subject to approval the team will again review the product and begin to plan the next stage of development.

Research – The team need to identify areas of development that may cause problems and undertake research to decide how certain tasks will be accomplished, what formats the graphics will be created in and the layout/structure that the code and its associated data will take. Example code will be developed to test assumptions and various formats of graphics and sound will be tested. Further work on the design will also continue as the tools needed by the team to construct the game (map editors, graphics processing utilities etc.) are also defined.

At the end of the research phase (probably another two months) the various items of prototype code/art/sound will be reviewed. The design will be amended to take into account the results of the research and then the work will be discarded in preparation for the real development work.

Armed with the full design the team will expand to its full size and create task lists for the team members. These will then be reviewed in order to create a development schedule. These two documents, along with the design, will be reviewed and updated as the development process proceeds.

Based upon the research from the previous phase the team will start developing the computer code that will drive the game (often referred to as an engine), the tools that will be used to assemble it; plus the art, sound and music that will be needed. The aim is to develop a working prototype of the product, which will (hopefully) show that the design concepts for the product are sound. Once the project has reached the stage of a working prototype (usually after much hard work) testing can begin. This runs in parallel with the rest of the development and each new feature that is implemented is tested to ensure correct functionality.

With the engine development phase nearing completion the project moves into the implementation phase. The various assets must be assembled to create the complete game. Testing and game play adjustment continue throughout this phase and from now on emphasis shifts away from creativity and towards productivity. By this point decisions should have been made and all concepts tested. Inclusion of new, previously unplanned features is to be strongly discouraged, unless the quality of the game is unacceptable and remedial action is required to improve it.

Alpha/Beta testing.
An alpha test version is a version of the prototype with at least one example of every game feature implemented but which may contain place-holder graphics and sound. A beta test version is the completed game, with all game play and assets implemented. In effect it should be a completed game, although it will probably contain a large number of bugs. The testing that has been ongoing since the prototype was developed now goes into high gear.

This extensive testing of the product is usually handled by the publisher’s in-house test department. They will test versions to ensure that the game is free from bugs and functions on all the necessary hardware platforms. They will usually produce written bug reports which will be passed back to the developer. When the errors listen in these report have been corrected a new version will be submitted to the publisher and the cycle will be repeated until the product is deemed to be bug free (or sufficiently so).

During the testing it is important to evaluate the quality of the game play as well as checking for bugs. By using testers who are unfamiliar with the product (as well as focus groups) it is possible to evaluate the difficulty, controls, learning curve and other key game play features.

Submission & mastering.
Those products that are being developed for proprietary consoles (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo etc.) must be submitted to the hardware manufacturer for testing and approval. Once they have passed this second test procedure and are approved by the console manufacturer the product has “gone gold” and is sent to the duplicators for manufacturing. Products developed for the PC do not need the approval of an the hardware manufacturers and are sent for duplication as soon as the publisher’s test procedure is complete.

In addition to the above some titles may need additional approvals prior to being released for duplication. Licensed games (based on films, toys etc.) will usually need to be submitted to the licensor for their approval. It is important to allow sufficient time for this as companies that do not understand the development process and the capabilities of the various gaming hardware may make extensive requests for changes prior to granting their approval.

Page updated – deleted Sega from the paragraph refering to console manufacturers 🙁