Have you ever wondered why big-name games, made by teams filled with industry veterans and coming from well-funded publishers, often can't ship in stable condition?
Keith Fuller shipped 12 AAA titles as a programmer, design manager and producer before starting his own company, Fuller Game Production, and he shared this video from the movie Pentagon Wars that explains exactly what it's like to be a producer at the helm of a big game.
How things go bad
Fuller was nice enough to break down exactly what the process is like.
"Colonel Smith — the producer — is a middle man who doesn't make anyone happy until three presidential terms have gone by. Notice how the only time his commanding officers are happy is at the very beginning and the very end?" Fuller explained. Every request is countered by the gentleman drafting the documents with a reasonable rebuttal, but it doesn't matter. If the people with the money want something, there's very little you can do.
The armored vehicle, our stand-in for the game, was designed and aimed at one specific task, but that goes out the window quickly. The initial vision doesn't really matter in the scheme of things; it's just the first step in a long road of painful compromises.
"Smith’s given an initial plan, tries to execute it, and then is given change after change drawing out the process interminably," Fuller told Polygon.
"Producers get these requests all the time from a client, publisher, or higher-up in the studio. 'Can’t you just…' was a code phrase we used on the floor to indicate another demand made from on high with little regard for the cost of implementation," he continued.
So you're making a real-time strategy game that is designed for short rounds and solid online play? That sounds great! But can't you just make a first-person minigame with a single-player story? The kids love those. No, you can't have more people, money or time. It's just a minigame!
This process becomes trickier when other games are released, especially those that do well. Your vision is important, sure, but what about that other thing making all the money? Why can't we make that money too?
The final product looked almost nothing like the original design
"Imagine if one of the generals had looked at the scale mockup of the Bradley and told Smith, 'Fantastic, but…I hear the Russians have something like this that can fly. Make the Bradley flight-capable,'" Fuller explained.
"This is what happens during development of every big budget game when another big budget game ships."
This sort of thing is more common than you think, and it leads to muddled, unfinished and often buggy releases. It's not a matter of including the kitchen sink; developers are sometimes tasked with adding a hot tub at the last second as the project develops.
Fuller now works to help developers avoid these problems with his own company, and has written about the topic and even helped create tools to help with developer engagement. But that experience was hard-won.
"I worked on a game that had all of these things happen. Creative direction was given from the license holder, budget and time restrictions given by the publisher, personnel constraints given by the studio head," Fuller said. "No regard whatsoever was given to the fact that we were using a renderer designed for short view distances, indoor only, to create an open world sandbox game."
So what happened with the game? "The development spanned two different presidents. The final product looked almost nothing like the original design. We shipped the Bradley depicted in this movie."