I attended an IGDA meeting this past Thursday where the speaker tried to give estimates on how cheap it is to implement usability features. Her premise was that there’s no excuse why you aren’t implementing these usability features since they are so cheap. I’m not going to talk about that specifically, but how off her estimates were and how dangerous as a manager or producer it is to do these types of estimates without consulting an engineer.

First off, there are different ways to approach a problem. There’s the quick and “hacky” way and then there’s thinking through the problem. The best way is to think about the whole process and make it data driven. If, for example, we were going to implement a system for subtitles in our game. A series of questions you might think of are: how are the subtitles going to be entered by a producer? How are the subtitles going to triggered in-game? Are these subtitles going to need to be localized? Thinking about all these problems and leading towards a data-driven solution, will allow you to create a system which will stand the test of time. If you hack it in, the amount of maintenance you are going to have to do as this feature is used on several games, will be more cost then to implement it “the right way”. Now if you are going to be using the engine once, then hack away. However, in my 13 years in the game industry, I’ve never made a game where the engine was only used once.

Another variable are existing workflows and pipelines. Every studio has different ones and talking about an estimate for one studio doesn’t usually translate to another. Saving the button mappings for a controller is probably different for each engine. Having implemented this system before, it’s not that simple. Another factor is the engine itself. Madden and NCAA’s online play is deterministic. Meaning, the random number seeds are synchronized and only controller input is passed. What happens if you allow users to remap inputs? That now has to be taken into account and that original 3 day estimate you wanted to place on this feature is now double or triple that.

Another factor in this is motivation. I have never had any luck with estimates that were not made by the engineer who is doing the work. I have even had trouble when estimates are done by another engineer. That’s one of the things I like about iterative development. Estimates for the immediate milestone or sprint are done right at the beginning. This gives you a chance to adjust your schedule based on how accurate your original estimates were (velocity) and it gives a chance for the person who is actually doing the work to get their estimate into the mix.

The best way to attack this problem is through better designers who take usability into account when they are designing a feature. If you spent more time educating designers who know how to design these system, then this could be attacked in the design phase a feature. And what ever you do, don’t hand down estimates for an engineer to implement. That can lead to a project management nightmare.

IGDA PechaKucha – Brush with Origin Systems

Last week I spoke at the Orlando IGDA Chapter meeting along with others. The theme was “what the game industry means to you”. I thought this was a good opportunity to tell my Origin story, so to speak (that was a joke). The reason I got into the game industry was my fascination with a game called Ultima and the Austin, Texas based company, Origin Systems. I had many brushes with the company and actually fulfilled a dream to actually work in the same building with them. The presentation is in the PechaKucha format, which is 20 slides that auto-advance every 20 seconds. So, the timing is pretty tricky because you don’t have time to go into too much detail.

First Orlando IGDA Meeting

igda_logo With the development of Madden NFL 11 winding down, I felt it was time to get back to one of my promises to myself: get more active in the game development community. Right when I got back to Orlando, I e-mailed the IGDA Chapter Leader, Dustin Clingman, and found out that there was an active chapter and they met monthly. I signed up to get notifications of when the meetings were, but got caught up in shipping Madden Ultimate Team and then Madden.

Dustin was the speaker for the meeting doing a talk on “Creative Responsibility”, driving yourself and the people who you work around you to do their best and not accepting anything less. I could tell it was a personal subject for Dustin and it was geared more towards veterans of the game industry. The meetings are about 75% students and 25% game industry, which is pretty indicative of the Orlando game community. The questions at the end his talk from the students tended to be more “how can I get better?” or “how can I show people in the industry my creativity?” Unless you’ve shipped a game and worked with a group of people, you probably couldn’t get the gist of what he was talking about. I enjoyed the speech and as a driver of quality in our games, I constantly have to evaluate other people’s work. While Madden and NCAA Football are at the top of our industry, I feel we could always do better and we make compromises in quality when it’s not necessary.

I had a good time overall, meeting a few other people in the game industry and a lot of students trying to break in. I’m looking forward to next month’s meeting.