Archive for March 2015

The Keys to Game Development: What the Best Teams Do (the TL;DR version)

March 30, 2015

The Game Outcomes Project led by Paul Tozour recently published some fascinating work on why games succeed or fail: what practices correlate positively or negatively with successful game development projects? This appeared on his blog in five parts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and on Gamasutra. The results are based on a survey of “roughly 120 questions” sent to game developers in November 2014. There were 771 responses, of which 273 were complete and referred to projects that were completed (i.e., “neither cancelled nor abandoned”).

I encourage you to look at the pages linked above; the results are highly detailed and presented in a readable but quantitative way. On the final page, the team lists their Top 40 reasons why game projects succeed or fail. These are listed in order of correlation with success based on the survey data. As with the overall results, the list is detailed and a bit dizzying, with different practices popping up throughout the list.

To condense this down to more comprehensible chunks, I have gone through their list and grouped similar items together. These appear below. The numbers in brackets at the end of each line refer to the corresponding items on the “Top 40” list. Where possible I have kept these in numerical (and thus correlation) order.

It should be noted that each of these effects is statistically significant: if you follow them, you significantly increase the chance that your game project will be successful (where success is framed in terms of ROI, artistic or critical success, or some other internal goal). Likewise to the degree your project deviates from these, the greater your risk of cancellation or some other form of failure.

Here’s the very short summary-of-the-summary. Great, successful teams:

  • Create and maintain a clear, compelling vision of what they’re doing
  • Work effectively, staying focused and avoiding unnecessary distractions and changes — but without extensive crunching
  • Build cohesive teams that trust and respect each other, hold each other to high standards, but allow for mistakes too
  • Communicate clearly and openly, resolving differences and meeting regularly
  • Treat each team member as an individual — professionally, personally, and financially

So what’s not on this list? Two big things leap out immediately:

  • Having a production methodology is important [#26 on the list], but whether this is Agile, Waterfall, or something else has no effect.
  • Having an experienced team is also important… it doesn’t appear directly on the list, but if it did it’d be down around #36 out of 40 on this list of significant factors.

With that, here’s my condensation and re-grouping of the Game Outcomes Project’s detailed work for What Great Teams Do (numbers in brackets refer to the place on the “Top 40” list of practices correlated with success):

Product Vision

  • The vision is clear and understood by the team, including what will be delivered and what’s expected of them [1]
    • Embodied in specs/design documents, complemented by ongoing design work [36]
  • The vision is compelling: viable, leads to clear action [1]
  • The vision is consistent: cautious about changes or deviations; vision does not drift over time [2]
    • Enlist all stakeholders when changes are necessary [21]
  • The vision is shared: team believes in and is enthusiastic about it [3]

Product Development

  • Focus: understand and act on high-priority tasks driven by the product vision [1]
    • Individuals don’t go off on their own priorities [1, 19]
  • Leaders pro-actively identify and mitigate potential risks [2]
  • Work effectively: remove distractions, avoid extended crunch time [4]
    • Team is trained on and uses their chosen production methodology [26]
    • Ensure that tools work well and allow effective work [29]
  • Estimate task durations frequently and as accurately as possible [16]
    • Team members have the authority to determine their own day-to-day tasks and are involved in determining time allocations for tasks [30]
  • Carefully manage any necessary technology changes during development [31]
  • Determine priorities for each milestone based on the current state of the project [40]


  • Cohesive: the team believes in the game vision, team leaders, and each other
    • Team shares values and sense of mission [1, 8, 14, 17]
      • Team priorities trump individual priorities [19]
      • Foster an atmosphere of helpfulness [35]
    • Team works to minimize turnover [6]
      • But: remove disruptive/disrespectful members swiftly [12, 13]
    • Foster and environment of mutual respect, from management and the team [12]
      • Team members genuinely care about each other as human beings [37]
    • Organized: structure of the team is clearly understood [25]
  • Able to take risks (within the bounds of the product vision and priorities) and learn from mistakes [5]
    • Avoid wasteful design thrashing [9]
    • Celebrate novel ideas even if they don’t work out [10]
    • Discuss failures openly [18]
  • Hold each other to high standards [11, 17]
    • Invite respectful collaboration and review of work [11, 39]
      • Reward those who ask for help or who support others [35]
    • Call each other out when necessary on counterproductive behaviors [17]
    • Ensure individual responsibilities and roles match with their skills [20]
    • Ensure that individuals have opportunities to learn and grow their skills [28]
    • Hold each other accountable for meeting deadlines – but not to the point of eroding team morale [34]


  • Everyone buys into decisions made by the team or team leaders [3]
  • Resolve differences – product or personal – swiftly [7, 12]
  • Frequent feedback on their work [9]
    • Ample praise on a task well done [22]
    • “no surprises management” – don’t hold something back [9]
  • Team is able and willing to speak openly even on difficult subjects [27]
    • Team members feel heard, even if a decision goes against their view [15]
    • Politics are minimized by open, respectful communication [17]
    • Open-door policy and access to senior leadership to raise concerns/offer feedback [23]
  • Clear expectations on tasks and behaviors [24]
  • Team meets regularly to discuss topics of interest, ask questions, identify bottlenecks [33]


  • Use individually tailored financial incentives, not royalties or bonuses tied to Metacritic scores or similar [38]