What Production Milestones might you see in development?
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Hi everyone! How's it going?
Today I'm back with another frequently asked question, which is basically 'How is a project structured from start to finish' and that ties in neatly with what production milestones you might see in development.
As I always say, well, it depends on the game, the team size, and what the company prefers, but I wanted to lay some foundations and explain what you might commonly see. I've included a GIF for each of them which is THE MOST IMPORTANT of all the things haha.
Production on a project is usually broken down into a few different phases, and nearly all projects will go through this, even if it happens more organically and they aren't named.
Pre-Production is a period of time at the very start of the project where a very small group of experienced developers will work together to develop the core concept of the game. If it's a very small team or solo developer, this might include everyone/just the solo dev will do this in their own time. There are a hundred different ways to solidify an idea for a game, but normally during this phase a few different documents/processes will occur (in no particular order here) for example,
- Game Pillars may be established
- Art Direction may be established
- Narrative overview will be written
- Feature List will be determined
- Early market research and forecasting will be conducted
- An early prototype/vertical slice will be created
- A high level budget and timeline will be created
- Competitor Analysis will be conducted
- Fundraising will happen (hopefully)
(If people want a run down of what each of these are, maybe I can explain them in another post?)
At this point, most things are fluid and subject to change at this early point in the project, but they become more solid towards the end of the pre-production phase and at the start of the production phase. Some companies may do all or none of these things, it can come down to personal preference and how risky the project is, whether or not it is a sequel and all sorts of other things. Everyone will have their own philosophies on what is best - you can use your knowledge and experience after a while to help guide what might be appropriate.
Okay so, you have a wonderfully clear vision for your game, you have proven it works in a prototype, and someone has been nice enough to give you some money to make it (or you are rich I mean, that's a thing.) Great! At this stage, most projects enter the Production Phase which is where the main bulk of actual game development takes place. I'm gonna explain the milestones associated with this later, but basically the 'Production Phase' is usually from the end of Pre-Production until the BETA milestone.
This is often called different things - bug fixing, polish, etc. etc. but I like 'closing' because it kind of encompasses everything that is involved in the final stages of a project e.g closing bugs, polishing critical areas of the game, balancing, optimisation etc. This is usually the period of time between BETA and LAUNCH. Not gonna lie, this is also usually the most stressful part of the project where everyone is trying to cram random shit into the game and it makes production and QA wanna sob. But it is your job to manage those changes and make sure everything launches as planned. This is also the point, if you are submitting a console game, that the game will be submitted to 1st Parties. That is a whole other world of pain that I can't really talk about because of NDAs but anyone who has been through it knows.
Gone are the days when you could launch your game and say goodbye to it forever. Now we have the wonderful world of Post-Launch! This includes anything that occurs after the initial game launch, such as patches, content updates, paid DLC and other stuff like that. Within the post-launch phase you will probably go through the same cycles of Pre-Prod, Prod & Closing again with certain types of DLC content, but I wanted to include Post-Launch as a phase since it is frequently referenced in plans.
Okay so we get what phases there are, but within those phases are usually milestones which are set on specific days. I'm mainly going to talk about the ones you see during the Production Phase but there may be more elsewhere. There are usually more than this for big games but again each company does their own thing so I don't wanna mislead you. Also sometimes people will spend their time arguing over the definitions of Alpha and Beta, whatever floats ya boat like, but as long as the definitions of what you are trying to achieve is clear to the team, that's the most important thing about all of this.
This is usually the earliest playable build in the development process - it's usually not a full game, in fact it'll be a demonstration of one or two core mechanics, usually doesn't include any kinda of art (it's usually a whitebox) and exists to demonstrate the feel of the mechanics you are testing. Usually iteration is rapid and planning is loose at this point.
The term 'demo' is sometimes used interchangeably with the prototype or vertical slice, I've only really separated them because you might hear about them individually. However I often find the 'demo' is somewhere between the Prototype and Vertical Slice - it's a small chunk of the game that's in a playable state, but it might have representative artwork instead of whitebox.
The Vertical Slice is a common practice in AAA but less so in indie. AAA IP's require a great deal of investment so the Vertical Slice is necessary for a approval at the highest level of the company. A Vertical Slice is a chunk of the game that has been taken to (basically) final quality and is representative of the final product. There may be features missing but everything will look finished and polished. Vertical Slices fell out of favour for a bit but they made a come back, especially as gamers seem to prefer seeing actual gameplay instead of fancy pre-rendered trailers.
Alpha usually means that everything in the game is present but the flow of the game, the art, the UI, the audio and such can be placeholder and not final. I think Alpha is a good milestone to check game pacing and evaluate the minute to minute gameplay, it's not really a place to fully finalise the aesthetic yet. There are some things I'm not 100% sure about for example, what does Alpha look like for a game that's purely narrative based like a visual novel or something so if you have answers to that then leave 'em below!
Beta usually means that everything in the game is present and intended to be final, but of course some key things are still to be done for example; optimisation, bug fixing, balancing, polishing based on playstest feedback etc. A quite note on bug fixing; it doesn't necessarily all come at the end of the game. The bulk of it usually does, but usually when implementing features games will be fixing bugs along the way as the intent is normally that the game is always in some kind of playable state.
So, both Code Lock and Data Lock don't always exist, in fact it seems to be me more uncommon than common but I actually think it's a good idea so thought it might be worth mentioning. Data Lock usually means that the art in the game can no longer be touched unless there is a critical, game breaking bug. I've never seen Code Lock come before Data Lock because this milestone usually exists to give the programming team some breathing room - they get time to fix art related bugs that require programming assistance without a barrage of new bugs because artists are tweaking things at the same time. Also, sometimes you get to a point in development where fiddling with minor bugs can end up causing major bugs, so this is meant to be a cut off point where only critical bugs are addressed.
Like the Data Lock, this is an opportunity to cut off development at a certain point so only critical bugs are fixed which enables the game to stabilise. For big games there is sometimes an actual process for this e.g actual check-ins are locked unless there is a critical bug ticket for it.
Gold (commonly called Candidate Master) is basically the 'yo the game is 100% done and ready to be submitted' milestone. More often than not, you'll have multiple Release Candidates (builds that could be final builds but often QA find something game-breaking at the 11th hour and you have to fix it and make another one haha.) The last one that you actually submit to Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo/Steam etc. is called the 'Candidate Master' or 'Gold Master.'
I think this is pretty self-explanatory. I could write a bunch of stuff about how launch dates are actually determined but I shall save that for another day!
So yeah! I think that covers most of the potential milestones and phases you might find in a standard game development cycle, but if there is more I haven't thought of or your company does something completely different I'd love to know because I'm curious!
Thanks for reading <3