Game process: what are Pre-production and Production?

What is Pre-Production in games development? What is Production? What’s the difference?

I’ve just written a (draft) post that requires you to know those things well before it makes sense, and I started off by including a grossly over-simplified idiot’s-guide to these things. Then I looked back and saw it had become as long as the main post itself, and I didn’t want to cut it because it explains a lot of my (possibly wrong) assumptions. So, here it is. The other post – the one I really wanted to write, will be along shortly :).

Traditional process

Splits into 3 sections. I’m talking about all games here, not MMOs in particular (MMO’s add some extra stages, like “post-launch” and “beta” which have a LOT more special meaning that many mainstream game developers realise, but those are mostly handled by extra dev-teams, so that the main development process is still almost the same as with normal games)

Concept: Summary

Someone has an idea for a game, often a lead game designer, but also often NOT a designer (incidentally, it’s often an Exec Producer, since they will be the one who has to recruit the entire team, drive the project, and ensure it’s a profitable success). They get together some basic sketch of the game design, maybe only a few pages, plus some artwork to show what it might look like – look-and-feel stuff – and any other materials that help to explain the idea.

Concept: Output

They write a Powerpoint presentation, basically nothing more than that.

Concept: Gate to next stage

You “pitch” this to the publisher; if they give concept approval, and some money (or just free resource for an internal studio), the project goes ahead.

Pre-Production: Summary

A small team of people is assembled. For a simple flash-only casual game this could in fact be literally one person, or two people. For a AAA first person shooter, it’s likely to be around 5-10 people, an equal mix of artists, designers, and programmers.

Time-out for a moment here: a big point of variation exists here. On many projects / with many publishers, the artists produce most of the concept art in the Concept stage. On others, they produce most of it in the Pre-Production stag. Concept art doesn’t require ANY tools, engine, or game design – mostly it just comes out of the artist’s own fertile imagination. It’s usually “inspired by” the basic concept that the vision holder explained to them. Often, the vision holder and/or design team uses the concept art to help them refine their own ideas of what the game is going to be. It’s a highly mutually-supportive process. Doesn’t have to be, of course – depends how clear and how precise the original vision is.

Another time-out: some companies regularly have the programmers produce a working demo at the end of pre-production. IMHO, this is the first running leap along the slippery slope to destroying the developer: any working demo that’s held up as “illustrative” of the final game constitutes the majority chunk of development risk and spending for the entire game project. A publisher who asks for a demo at the end of pre-prod is being very wise – they’re asking for the majority of all the development risk to be removed before they fund the main game. But they’re also being incredibly greedy, and incredibly stupid – the demo either will have very little to do with the final game, or else it will push the developer towards going out of business, because there’s no way they can pay enough staff to get a demo done on the tiny budget that a publisher will unlock for pre-production. Publishers typically justify this with “it’s only pre-production; you don’t need much money”.

OTOH, many publishers have been operating massive pre-productions, which means that they can get that risk-stuff taken care of without being greedy/stupid. Pre-production periods lasting *multiple years* are happening a lot in the MMO industry these days. I did a double-take when I first saw that, but no-one else seems to be batting an eyelid at it. So, I’m not bashing all publishers here, just pointing out that it’s quite widespread to be naive about what’s reasonable, and that there’s a lot of bad contracts out there.

Pre-Production: Output

Enough of a game-design, enough of an art-direction, enough of a technical specification, enough of a project schedule / GANTT chart … that the leads (design, art, and code) and the Producer feel confident to state “yes, we can make this, for that much money, and it’s going to be a GOOD game”.

Pre-Production: Gate to next stage

Publisher listens to the arguments from the leads + publisher, either written or oral (usually a mixture of the two), then examines the evidence (should be plenty by this point, either as artwork, or as a series of small demos of different technologies, or demos of small aspects of gameplay, or as formal game-design documents detailing how the game will work), and a bunch of highly experienced and highly-paid senior people make a judgement call on whether this game is really going to work, whether it will be worth it, how much money it will make, how it fits into their ongoing sales plans as a publisher, and whether this development team can actually deliver on their promises. If they like it, they release the majority of the development budget and the game is “green lit” to go ahead in “full production”.

Production: Summary

Well, now the leads and the Producer go ahead and make the game they said they were going to.

Do you see a problem?

Has anyone yet written a predictive measure of “fun”, or worked out how you can “plan” for a game to be fun before you’ve actually written it and *played* it? Not really (though there are many good attempts out there…).

So, who is Pre Production for, and who is Production for anyway? I reckon the former is for the Developers, and the latter is for the Publishers. Certainly, it’s always the Publisher who makes the final call on whether a game moves into Production or not – although obviously the developer has to make a judgement call on when they think they are ready to submit themselves to that judgement. In practice, external dev teams often run out of pre-production budget and so the decision is forced upon them to a certain extent, whereas internal teams can – if they’re politically skilled enough – carry on coasting for quite a while longer.