Corey is in a little bit of a panic. We’re helping put together the local “Christmas in the Mountains” celebration and Corey volunteered to design a “treasure hunt” game for it. As of last Tuesday, he didn’t have it ready yet.
“So what?” asked someone at the last committee meeting, “Christmas is still three months away!” Well, game developers quickly learn that, in the game industry, Christmas is really in September (or even July or August, but most assuredly NOT in December).
Backwards Teach You to Work, We Shall
All game development projects use a “backwards calendar”. We want people to buy our games for their friends, family, and themselves to use as presents. In the U.S., the biggest Christmas shopping weekend is the one immediately following Thanksgiving – the 4th Thursday in November. This year it’s November 27, which also happens to be Corey’s birthday. That won’t happen again until 2014.
Oh yeah… the backwards calendar. So, games had better be on the shelves by the last weekend in November or they will miss the most important Christmas sale weekend. Before they can go on the shelves, they need to be shipped. Since the game companies want to make a profit, they prefer to ship their games by slow freight, not overnight airmail. So we back up another 2-3 weeks or so to early November.
Before a game can be shipped, it has to be manufactured. This is a complex process that frequently involves multiple vendors – printers, box manufacturers, disk duplicators, and so on. When the first disks come back from the duplicator, they’d better be tested; you’d be surprised how often someone screws up and the disks are unplayable, have the wrong software version, the wrong labels, or some other product launch killing error. When this happens, the only option is to stop the duplication, find the error, fix it, and get the disks duplicated again. Similar problems can happen in the other phases of manufacturing. Anyway, that takes us back to mid-October.
The Quality Assurance (Sisyphean?) Nightmare
Game developers are incredibly brilliant, you know, so they just design their games, create some code, art, and music, and send them out for duplication… NOT! Corey was incredibly proud of the careful effort that went into developing Castle of Dr. Brain and was confident that it would pass through Quality Assurance with very few errors. Then he got the first pass of bug reports, a stack of bugs (one per page) almost 2 inches thick. Chagrined, he mentioned to the QA lead that he thought they’d turned in a clean game. The response was, “You did. Come look at this.” On the top of a filing cabinet in the QA department was a stack of bug reports almost 4 feet high; those were the as-yet unresolved bugs for another Sierra game being developed at the same time. So we need to back up at least another 3-6 weeks for quality assurance and fixing all the problems the expert (and sadistic) game testers find. That’s early to mid September.
So September is a time of euphoria! After anywhere from 6 months to 5 years of work, the game is finally done. QA hasn’t seen the “final” completed version yet, and all is right with the world. Of course, that means that in July and August, everyone on the team was working 60 hours a week to have a prayer of getting all the game features done by September. By September, everyone is exhausted, and the last thing they want to hear is that crunch time has barely begun. Much more work will be required to fix all the glitches, balance issues, and outright errors that the master QA’ers will soon uncover.
For Now It is Christmas Time
Interestingly, Christmas in the Mountains has similar issues. Lori sent publicity releases to travel magazines months ago so that we can be in their November/December calendars. Posters, advertising flyers, and the treasure hunt clues have to be printed and distributed. Merchants have to be contacted to see who wants to participate in the treasure hunt. Clues have to be customized to the participating merchants, so some really fun ones might never be used. We have to train volunteers to give appropriate hints to people who get stuck. And we’ll have to be prepared to handle last-minute emergencies, such as a popular merchant running out of clue sheets or simply losing the whole packet. Even a small game for a few thousand players (or 5 or 6 close friends, for that matter) takes a lot of time, effort, imagination, and preparation to prepare.
Fortunately, we have infinite free time to work on this. It isn’t as though we’re writing a weekly blog, creating an online school for heroes, working on an interactive fiction game, rehearsing carols (another Christmas in September activity), raiding Mount Hyjal and the Black Temple, and trying to pay bills and otherwise run our lives. Oh wait, maybe we are doing all those things! If one of them comes in a little late, please forgive us; at least you’ll know why.
Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Noel, Happy Solstice, Kwanzaa Greetings, and Happy Holidays to you all – It’s Christmas in September!
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- Mind Your P’s (Part Two)
- Fear and Loathing in the Game Development Industry
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