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Client Management and The 5 Stages of Grief - Video Game Development

COW Library : Business & Career Building : William Dwyer : Client Management and The 5 Stages of Grief - Video Game Development
CreativeCOW presents Client Management and The 5 Stages of Grief - Video Game Development -- Business & Marketing People / Interview

San Rafael, California USA All rights reserved.

As a producer in the video game industry, I'm often asked, "How do you make video games?" After 15 years working on games from the large ("Lord of the Rings") to the tiny (cell phones), I'm convinced that whatever the size, game development follows a process similar to the five stages of grief: a cycle of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

(In rare instances, Hope can be seen trailing in the distance. Sometimes she's only a fleeting shadow. Sometimes you can feel her rush through. )

On one side, there is the Developer. We are the talent: artists, engineers, and designers. On the other side are our clients, the Publisher. They're the guys with the money. So how does a game get started?

Typically, a Publisher secures the rights to a license (think SpongeBob) and says to the eager Developer, "What can you do with this?" Excitement reigns. There's dancing in the streets or, in our case, aisles. Sure, we've got ideas - BIG ideas. After all, we're the TALENT!

Even better, we can eat this week!

The smiles are radiant. We think we're in love. It's going to be great. We're making a game!

This romantic dance constitutes the first, and usually the happiest, phase of the relationship. Everyone is excited; everyone takes pains to make sure they say very positive things about everyone else. There is magic in the air. Anything is possible. There is a sense of universal purpose. "When can we get started?"

This honeymoon lasts only a little longer than it takes to write and deliver the Design Doc, which is the game bible. It is the movie script with all of the notes and storyboards attached. It defines what the game is, what the game play is supposed to be, how many levels there are, how many assets are going to be required to build the game, its features, etc. Within its pages, the game should be so well-described that anyone with a reasonable amount of experience could build the game.

Game Development

In the course of writing the Design Doc, the Developer wants to describe the game in sufficient detail to win the confidence of the Publisher, and yet not paint himself into a corner when a better solution presents itself later. The Publisher, expecting a complete and definitive description of the project, begins to think something is smelly in Denmark.

And then there's the budget. The Publisher's wishes change constantly, but two things are certain: there's no more money and the due date stays the same.

It's very similar to having a house plan drawn up, a schedule agreed to and a budget set. And then the Client wants to put on a second story, a swimming pool and a guest house -without paying you any more, or giving you any more time.

Reality sets in again. It's as if you need to build a new camera for every film you make, and the studio wants to not only be on set, but also fuss with the lighting, the script and everything else you can imagine. The seeds of doubt are sown, and with the delivery of the Design Documents, our five stages begin.


Publisher: "This isn't the game we talked about."
Developer: "This is exactly what we talked about."

After the initial euphoria, things settle down to a snail's crawl. The Developer begins the monumental task of building a team, buying hardware, software, servers, and more. The theoretical spine of the project has to be laid out (project schedule, resource allocation, dependencies, etc.) before the production team can get started building the game.

Even when this has all been put into place, there is still nothing to look at. Months can go by while programmers create the engine that will display images, and make possible the breathtaking animation.

The Publisher does not share the experience of this bewildering, hectic, yet satisfying launch. This leads to horrific consequences. With nothing to do but review increasingly longer and more boring (read: incomprehensible) spreadsheets, our Publisher moves on to projects that have something to show. This delays bonding with YOUR project in a meaningful way. Like two sine waves on opposite wavelengths, Publisher and Developer drift inexorably apart.

During long months of nothing to look at, Publisher anxiety rises at an alarming rate, as evidenced by a string of increasingly vitriolic emails phone calls and meetings. Developer attempts to minimize the problem ("Don't worry, this is normal") only result in more anxiety. Meanwhile, the production team has undergone its own painful metamorphosis from a small, fun design/ concept team to medium-size production team, enduring its own anxiety-driven producer who started as Mr. Nice Guy, and is now the target of everyone's favorite murder fantasy.

This is a defining moment for the team. They suddenly realize what all those meetings ("Blah, blah, blah...if he would just shut up, I could go get my latte") were about. Usually it's a group moment. All the white boards seem to vibrate. The strange symbols that covered them have been replaced with readable ones.

There is a ton of work to do! Sheer panic.

Lord of the Rings Game Scene


As the assets come out of production and go into the game, they are not pretty yet. They are just placeholders, to get a sense of scope: how many assets can we have on screen at once, how tall are they, how are the color palettes working, etc.

This is the first version the Publisher sees, and invariably, they react badly. "This isn't a freaking game! It's a disaster!!" Many angry emails, phone calls, and meetings follow. Usually the Publisher calms down, and everyone agrees that the placeholder assets will be replaced, and never spoken of again.

More months go by. The placeholder assets are replaced with better looking ones, and the game is now starting to look and play like the real thing.

This is both good and bad. This is the point at which the Developer knows that they can finish the game. This is also the point at which the Publisher - who can now finally play the game - will want to change it.

Lord of the Rings Game


The Developer is rarely successful in this stage. While Stage 3 is called "Bargaining," "Browbeating" is probably more accurate.

The Publisher is now fully engaged in the project. The reasons are obvious. Until you can actually play the game, it's incredibly hard to say how it should be different.

This leads to an inevitable conflict: the Developer is ramping down production and trying to minimize changes. He is anxious to move to the next project and be free of this monstrosity - just as the Publisher is starting to become interested.

This is also when the Publisher finds out that the game is not what they had in mind when the project began. Many meetings follow to bring the game back in line with the "original" vision. There are many long faces in the Developer meetings. How do we convert the ugly duckling into the beautiful swan, with the same schedule and the same budget?

The project hits emotional lows on both Publisher and Developer sides. The full realization that this might not be the best game ever made starts to set in. Hope still remains, though, that this is the best game that I will ever make.

It soon becomes apparent that this, too, is an illusion.

The Publisher has called for a flurry of changes, radical and small, while the developer frantically tries to stay ahead of the changes and stay on schedule.


Everybody is depressed by this point. Developers, Publishers, home team, away team, everybody. Nothing is going the way we wanted it to go. The long hours and constant drag have reduced everyone to walking zombies who will be glad to bite your head off and eat it for breakfast.

But from these darkest of days, the sun starts to shine. Day by day, the problems are solved, the game improves and morale is restored.

Each day brings us closer to Beta, when everybody is back in agreement: changes are now considered a bad idea. The only work that remains is removing bugs that crash the game, as attention turns to...

Sponge Bob Game


It has been brutal. You've said things you swore you wouldn't say (again) to each other and to your bosses both internal and external. But now, on the horizon, that final milestone - the Gold Master - is finally within reach. This is the final version of the game, on a specific single disk or archive, now ready for manufacturing or download. With its delivery, and only on its delivery, do we see Acceptance.

It's finally over. No more changes. The game is what it will be. This is the game we designed, got behind, and eventually produced. It is not the game we started out to build. It is the game we finished. It has survived the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," more meetings than anyone could count, and the egos of some of the smartest people on the planet. It's a miracle that anything survives this trial by fire!

With luck and a fair wind, you'll catch a glimpse of Hope in your peripheral vision at the wrap party, after which is the glittering prospect of the next project just over the horizon. Its mystery and promise propel the game makers with its seductive siren call of new discoveries, and the dream of possibly producing something no one else has seen before.

This is what pushes the team through the good times and the bad times: being explorers in new and strange lands, and living to tell about it.

[Ed note: When William mentioned to us that he had a Master's degree in Architecture, we had to hear the rest of the story! Here's what he told us.]

I never imagined I'd be involved in making video games. I'd gone to school, earned a Master's degree, and was 10 years into a career in Architecture.

But fate intervened, and one day I was looking for a job at the San Francisco American Institute of Architects. There, in what seemed to be bright neon letters, was an ad from an independent video game maker named Stormfront, seeking an architect to build 3D baseball stadiums.

This was the dawn of 3D. Almost exactly a year after the six minutes of 3D in Jurassic Park changed the movie industry forever, the revolution was about to hit video games.

I applied immediately, and was only too happy to have a year's work ahead, getting paid to work in 3D. I was immersed. The baseball project ("Tony La Russa III") was soon replaced by "Madden Football;" Madden was replaced with a Star Trek title ("DS9: Harbinger") which segued into two Lego games for preschoolers and kindergartners - making a game for people who are really smart but can't read was incredibly challenging.

Lego led to my last project at Stormfront, "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," based on Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of the J.R.R Tolkien books. I was on the project from inception, leading the art team for two years. The game was a huge project, stretching everyone on the team to their absolute limits and beyond. LOTR remains one of the few successful game adaptations of a movie license.

From Stormfront, I moved on to Pronto Games, where I produced games on a variety of platforms and licenses, from TV plug-and-play Spiderman, to Zorro on the Nintendo Wii.

I'm now an Art Director at Lamplighter Studios, overseeing environment and character artists on internal and external teams.

William DwyerWilliam Dwyer
San Rafael , California USA

"Making games is a great profession, combining math, art, theatre, film, and more," says William, "but it's very demanding, and not for the faint of heart. The best advice I can give for getting started is to be as well-rounded as possible. The industry is brand new and problem-solving skills are incredibly important." You can find William in COW forums for Maya, 3D Studio Max, and After Effects.

Find more great Creative COW Magazine articles by signing up for the complimentary Creative COW Magazine.


so true
by sharif duffus
I nearly went into a coma once when they told me they didn't want a whole level in the game half-way through production, then they wanted it back, later. lol. But i guess once it hits that case and it's in your hands, its all worth it. :}

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