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Game Development: Project Lifecycle

In this section we are aiming to give you an overview of the many different processes involved in game development. As the games industry has evolved over the last 30 years the systems and job roles involved have become more and more complicated. If you are looking at getting into a career in games or just interested in how the whole process works this is the best place to start. For more information on specific job roles or application advice please see our Job Roles and Getting the Job sections.

Sample Development Lifecycle

Diagram: Sample Development Lifecycle

Pretty much all game projects follow this pattern. First comes the basic design, which might be original or might be tied to a licence ('the game of the film'). This happens while negotiating with the publishers on the budget (what it will cost to make), the schedule (how long it will take) and any specifically required features. At this stage there will only be a few people on the team, mostly senior Game Designers and Artists.

Once the contract has been signed, the game design is carefully planned. Just as importantly, attention is paid to the game engine and tools used by the Artists, Animators and Designers so that the workflow is as fast and smooth as possible. If there are any new elements in the game (perhaps it's on a new platform, or a genre that this team has not worked with before), prototypes will be built so the developers won't get any nasty surprises during production.

Every month or six weeks, a version of the game is sent to the publisher so they can see what progress has been made; these are called milestones, and the contract will specify what is being delivered at each stage. To begin with, this will be the design documents, but as the project moves forward the milestones will consist of builds of the game that will be more complete as time goes by.

Planning is very important so that as the team moves into full production and more people come onto the project, everyone knows exactly what they're doing, and in what order. This helps to prevent bottlenecks, which are a constant threat due to the huge number of assets - models, textures, animations, sound effects, music, lighting, etc. - which need to be created and then combined to make the game.

Companies have different definitions of the Alpha and Beta milestones, but what they usually mean is that at Alpha the game is playable although not complete. There may still be placeholder art (for example, unfinished textures or models) and the audio may not be all there, but someone can play the game all the way through to the end.

By Beta, all assets are in the game and it is complete, but there are still errors (bugs) to find and fix, and tweaks to be made so that everything looks and sounds as polished as possible. Bug-testing and gameplay testing typically start at Alpha and continue through until finally the Gold master is sent off to be duplicated and distributed to the shops.

As the game becomes more complete and the focus shifts towards the bug-fixing and polishing, the team begins to get smaller again. Most of the Artists, Animators and Designers will move onto other projects, although the programmers typically see the project through right to the end.