Game production is a lengthy process that is referred to as a pipeline, as production does need to be completed in a specific order to ensure that it is efficient and successful at the end of the process. The scale of game production pipelines can look quite different depending on the size of the production and development team and also what platform the game will be on, however, the general stages of game development are broken up into three primary sections with subcategories Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production which we will break down in detail to define the pipeline further.
As the most important stages of game development, Pre-Production is about laying quality foundations for production that allow the game to be developed smoothly. Pre-production is about deciding on key factors in the pipeline process. Generally, Pre-Production begins by addressing things like What the game is about, the audience its aimed at, the market its aimed at, what potential titles would be competitors, where it will be published and when, how it will be sold, how long it will take to develop and importantly what resources and budget will be required to produce the title.
Of all the stages of game development, Pre-Production is the most variable, taking anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, to even a year or so depending on the project scope and scale. Ideally, pre-production generally takes about 20% of the pipeline provided time throughout the stages of the game development process.
During the pre-production process, the development team is also at its smallest that it will be throughout the stages of the game development process and will generally only include a producer, some programmers, and concept artists. Together they’ll begin to create the foundations for the game before bringing on a bigger team for future steps. The Producer in these stages of video game development is one of the most important roles, as they handle all the business-specific elements including the budget responsibilities and marketing strategies (yes, even this early in production)
During Pre-Production the concept artists begin to set the mood for the title by developing sketches and visual aids – they’re responsible for beginning the world-building process, laying the foundation for future production teams later on during production. During this process, the team will produce a Game Design Document, known as a GDD.
A GDD serves almost as a reference manual, a guide to stick to throughout the long process of the stages of video game development to ensure the title stays on track visually and theme-wise. The GDD includes the core values and elements of the game including but not limited to the genre, theme and characters, core mechanics, general gameplay style, world design, and level building elements, all of the art and sketches as well as marketing and monetization strategies.
It is worth noting that the GDD is an evolving document and is entirely dynamic, especially at this stage of development, it is prone to change as the concept naturally grows and develops. The GDD varies drastically depending on studio size too, as smaller studios may focus more on production elements than financial elements.
Once the core outlines and elements are down on paper and a general theme has been achieved by the pre-production team, prototyping begins to take place. An essential part of the 7 stages of game development, prototyping is a chance to test the core mechanics of the game, as whilst the concepts on paper may be interesting, without functioning (and fun!) core mechanics, those concepts are redundant.
Believe it or not, this image is an early prototype of the mechanics for Horizon Zero Dawn
Prototyping is generally done quite fast because it’s important to ensure the core elements function before advancing the idea any further. Generally, placeholder elements are used in this stage as it’s specifically just to test the core mechanics of the future title.
By far the longest stage of the pipeline, and the busiest with the largest team, production can take anywhere from 1 to 4 years and in some cases, depending on scope, even longer! During this part of the pipeline, refinement takes place across all aspects, from the story and characters to the environment and assets. Don’t be fooled by the immediate transition into refinement, testing, and prototyping that took place during the pre-production phase continue to take place as the project progresses, this method ensures that gameplay continues to be functional and desirable.
Production progress can be broken up into several stages and generally looks like this:
- Prototype: Initial test of core mechanics, very bare bones
- First Playable: Incorporates the visual elements with the core mechanics
- Vertical Slice: Essentially a completed sample that can be used for marketing or pitching purposes
- Pre-alpha: The content for the title is mostly complete, however this is where permanent choices are made over core elements
- Alpha: This stage is where the term “Feature Complete” comes from, and this refers to the fact that all the main elements of the game are in place and the product is now playable. It may be missing assets and some FX at this point, but this stage is ready for internal user testing
- Beta: Content, Assets and core functions are completely in place, this stage of the pipeline is purely optimization based
- Gold Master: The Game is finally ready to be published and shipped for the public to enjoy.
The 7 stages of game development (Planning, Pre-production, Production, Testing, Pre-Launch, Launch and Post-production) are essential regardless of studio size and they allow the production team to stay focused and structured throughout the development process.
During production, there are key roles that are paramount to a successful pipeline flow. The Project manager is a role that requires them to oversee deadlines and milestones as well as anticipate potential risks and potential developmental time increases as a result of those risks. They are the communicators of the team and are often the link between developers and executives.
Programmers are the lifeblood of the production process, they turn the concepts provided to them into code and create the actual functioning mechanics of a game title. Their role in the production is massive and to cover their skillset would be extensive however programmers are often software engineers with a strong coding background that have extraordinary patience and professional creativity that makes them complete assets in the pipeline.
A programmer hard at work, creating functioning game mechanics
Game Designers define the creative nature of the title and sit on the fence between writers and artists, often equipped with some programming skills, the production stage of the pipeline requires them to ensure that the game continues to deliver its stories whilst providing unique goals, challenges, and rulesets. Whilst programmers build the mechanics and functions, Game Designers define the parameters in which those functions live and work, for example, they’re responsible for determining the level of difficulty, building environments, and creating obstacles for the player to overcome.
Level designers’ role in the production is simply defined by being responsible for ensuring that the pace and flow of the game are seamless, ensuring the player doesn’t get confused or lost whilst moving through the game world. Larger studios devote entire departments to this role due to the large scale of triple-A games in the modern-day however smaller studios may only have one or two Level designers.
A look under the hood for what level design looks like during production
Whilst structure and environment are important, Game artists are required to flush out all the concepts of the game world and bring previous concept elements to life in three-dimensional space. Game Artists include 3D modelers who build assets, Game Animators who are responsible for character, creature, and general movement, and FX artists who create immersive elements like flowing water or smoke simulations, commonly brought in for weather elements. Generally, FX artists are sought after, as they tend to use Houdini which is an incredibly complex and dynamic software suite.
Lastly among the Game Artists are the pivotal Audio Engineers who breathe life into the game title with the development of realistic sound effects, voice-over work, and stunning soundtracks that are responsible for building immersion and user attention.
Production could not be completed without Quality Assurance (often referred to as QA) and their role is to test functions and levels over and over, push the boundaries of the title and find bugs for the development team to address.
It’s a common misconception that once game development is complete and the game is shipped, that production is over. Once the game is shipped, the work involved actually can become just as extensive. Certain production-based departments reallocate their time to maintenance, bug fixing, and developing patches to improve the overall game experience. Whilst QA finds 90% of bugs for the developers to address and fix, the massive player base of titles will always find bugs missed in that process.
Alongside the ongoing support of a title, it’s common practice, particularly in larger studios for a portion of the production team to begin work on DLC-related content. This generally takes place after a post-mortem (which is essentially a production debrief) that discusses what was a success with the title and what didn’t go to plan, these are essential meetings that ensure that future productions can be more streamlined.
Every single element within the production of the game, from pre-production all the way through to post, are stored and kept to be able to be accessed whenever they’re needed in the future. Companies that produce sequels will regularly refer to previous code and assets as references as this can speed up the production of a title and work as a strong foundation during pre-production (this is a regular occurrence with titles like Call of Duty and annual sporting game titles).
The Reliable Pipeline
Essentially that is the abridged structure of the game development pipeline and whilst it may vary due to production scope and team size, the general flow will be similar across game titles. It is worth noting that during production it’s not unusual for additional roles to come on board such as Combat/Quest Designers and Writers/Interpreters, but this is specific from title to title. The game production, or a game design service pipeline is a smooth and calculated progression that has been created from a considerable amount of trial and error, however, it allows development teams to reliably and regularly develop titles for us to enjoy annually.