What Magazine Production Can Teach Us About Making Games

I wanted to share another great question I received in response to my latest Gamasutra blog on “Developing To Deadlines” last week.  This question picked up on the inspiration we’d taken from the magazine publishing business for our development process.

Question:

“‘I’d really like to know more about this approach, you’ve convinced me that philosophy/background is very sound, but I have no idea how to actually apply it to our development process.. 🙂

The main issue I have is that magazines are purely content-driven while games have an element of technology/engineering. All you need to complete a magazine is to write (and do layout, etc), which is a known, well-understood process for an established format. 

If your games are purely about executing an already established design, then I can see how you could make this work in a magazine-type way. However, for a non-trivial game design, it’s not clear how to make things work.

For instance, let’s say you’re crazy and you decide to make a game based around the simulation of dynamic locomoting robots. Making characters move and balance in a physics-based world is an active research area in compsci/robotics, so even though we can cheat a bit in gamedev, we still have some hard problems to solve with no known existing solutions. This means that, while we can establish a plan of “try (a), try (b), fallback to (c) if all else fails” it’s very hard to determine exactly how long this plan will take to find a working solution, or whether such a solution even exists!

This is the part I find hard to reconcile with magazines.. magazines aren’t involved in R&D type work, they’re just churning out content. But I would _love_ to be proven wrong since it would make scheduling a lot easier around here :)”

Answer:

“You raise some very astute points here and, again, the answer could fill a blog of its own. However, what I’d say at this point are two things:

a) Denki’s development process places significant emphasis on working with established repertoire. In other words we try not to put games in to production unless the parts we don’t know how to do have already been figured out previously during non-project critical R&D phases. That process we equate to actors learning parts – no one would risk putting a Broadway show together that called for the lead actor to perform acrobatics unless the actor chosen already had acrobatics as part of their repertoire, or had proven their ability to learn acrobatics.

In your specific example about dynamic locomoting robots, I would never expect Denki to work on a project that required to solve this problem unless we’d already created a prototype that gave everyone involved in delivering it the confidence we could achieve it within the tight constraints of a commercial development process. I do appreciate however, that there are many games companies around who wouldn’t think twice about promising to deliver dynamic locomoting robots as part of their next project if it meant it would get it signed; but that’s a whole different issue…

And b) the magazine industry seems very established and certain to our 21st century eyes, but it hasn’t always been so. Type “history of magazine publishing” in to a search engine and you’ll soon discover that what seems a “well-understood process for an established format” was once a dark art of its own – and not all that long ago either. Just this week a colleague told me they’re planning to introduce some sort of video advertisements in to newspapers, and I can just imagine the looks of horror on the print manager’s face as they try to figure out how they can deliver that to schedule!

Magazine production is undeniably simpler, with less variables than the game development process, but from my perspective that just makes it an even better model to take inspiration from. It’s easier to understand the implications of getting any part of it wrong and see what the impact of solutions may be, but I appreciate the parallels aren’t always directly analogous. Great question though – you’ve highlighted that this would be a good topic to explore further in a future blog.”

I find it really inspiring to receive this kind of feedback, as it all helps to refine “The Denki Difference” that little bit more.  So please keep it coming!

Colin.