War Stories: Endless Eight

Not all war stories are fun or amusing. This is a story about one of my forays into development hell. My employer assigned me to a small team that was building a new game out of an existing, though decommissioned, game base. The game had many constraints - minimal budget for new art assets and almost no tribal knowledge from the original team remained. Our essential marching orders were to build a new game out of old parts. The combination of constraints - small team, minimal budget, reusing an old game - essentially dictated some kind of system-based randomization-centric core gameplay in order to create enough content for players to feel they were obtaining sufficient value from the game. 


It’s important to note that I think our creative director was actually quite good at his job - he was very knowledgeable about the original game and thought about everything from a systemic perspective. His ideas and vision for the game were good - I could always understand where he was coming from, what his goals were, and how his new ideas were in service to those goals. Through his leadership, I could see the team carving out gameplay that worked within the heavy constraints while still following the lore of the franchise. If I had the opportunity to work with him again under different circumstances, I would consider it. Despite these strengths, however, the game we delivered ended up being a mess and team morale had fallen off a cliff by the end of the project and much of this was because of our creative director.


The biggest issue wasn’t the quality of the ideas that the creative director had, but the pace at which we were handed our assignments and the obsoleting of old work on a regular basis and we were only a few months away from launch. We lacked a strong producer to push back on our creative director so his ideas were pushed on the rest of the team unchallenged. This tanked morale - it was tremendously difficult for me to feel engaged with my work when I knew that most of the work I was doing would likely be thrown out by the next week because another new design directive would be assigned and a huge amount of existing work would need to be redone. It was fine at first - the ideas made sense and were good and our director’s reasoning was sound, so we did them. But as time rolled on, we became trapped in a vicious cycle - throw out the old stuff, build the new stuff, have our weekly design review meeting and repeat the process. It felt like we were trapped in a time loop, except our ship date kept getting closer. The game finally launched and we were still regularly rebuilding large parts of core gameplay as part of post-launch content updates. 


Normally, I’m fine with this kind of iteration early in the development process - it’s totally normal to try a lot of things with prototypes when you’re in preproduction. That’s what preproduction is for. The problem here wasn’t that we were iterating so much, the problem was that we were still iterating like it was preproduction after the game had already launched. The rapid changes meant that new bugs were constantly being introduced because our systems and content didn’t really last long enough for bugs to be identified and fixed before they were changed again. We were essentially rebuilding the core gameplay each week while trying to build new post-launch content updates and it took a clear toll on the player base. The team really needed stronger leadership to figure out (and stick to) a better solution than “let’s rebuild it again”.


The numbers continuing to worsen and the higher ups eventually decided to pull the plug. The team was disbanded and the game itself was quietly placed into maintenance mode. By the end, most of the dev team had disengaged and were doing only the bare minimum of what was asked of them. I was assigned to another project - this one with a producer who enforced a strong development schedule. After joining that team and seeing the familiar processes in place to make sure that things were done on time and at a reasonable quality level, the phrase running through my head was “It’s nice working with proper villains again.” 

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