Keeping your game on track

Developing a game is no small endeavour, and tracking its progress is essential. We find out how version management tools can help
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As the lengthy credits of any given game will tell you, most video games are not the product of one mind but the combined efforts of dozens, hundreds or thousands of people.

It might be assumed that each of those people simply serve their role, complete their set tasks and the game magically comes together, but the truth is that someone needs to be tracking each person to ensure development is on schedule.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of version management tools on the market – and the firms behind them say devs might not understand the full benefits of this software.

“A good project management tool should not just be used for planning and tracking, it should be a collaboration platform for the entire development team,” explains Hansoft senior coach Jon Leslie.

“Such a tool allows all team members – whether they are artists, software engineers, audio engineers, animators, and so on – to track their own tasks, enter tasks for others, share documents, provide real-time feedback for feature or asset reviews and so on. This makes the producer’s job that much easier.

“If your team members, studio management and publishers can answer their own questions, they don’t have to constantly ask production how the game is tracking towards completion.”

Luke Household, software engineer at Tactic developer Southpaw Technology, adds: “It’s an incredibly collaborative feat to make a game, and it takes some solid tools to get it done. With so many departments working on so many components simultaneously, software that versions files, tracks task status and automates many of the manual workflow challenges can play a major role in transforming a potentially hectic process into a smooth one.”

However, while there are plenty of tools out there that serve a variety of functions, Perforce’s director of product marketing Mark Warren urges studios to choose which one they use carefully.

“It’s important to keep the tooling as simple as possible and not have multiple tools trying to do similar work,” he says. “So standardise on one version management tool and have all of the elements of the game – code, textures, audio, graphics – in one place. Not only does that improve visibility but makes things a lot easier for managing backups, monitoring and controlling access, and allowing faster and easier builds.”

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Go with the flow

Another advantage of using version management software is that it helps studios prepare for and keep track of any dramatic alterations necessitated by the ever-changing nature of games development. For a start, it enables what Warren refers to as ‘parallel development’.

“If developers have to work serially, they will take longer to complete a task and projects will undoubtedly be delayed,” he says. “Also, being able to quickly and safely roll back a change when something isn’t working correctly is vital. After all, it’s rare that every change is perfect first time.”

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It’s not just the process of development that becomes more efficient. Some studios have found that using such software has streamlined a project so much they have actually cut down costs in the long run.

“Time is money,” says Household. “The idea is that people spend less time figuring out what to do and more time doing what needs to be done. These solutions mean that people don’t have to go looking through emails or getting on the phone to their supervisors to determine what they’ve been tasked with.

“Another way money can be lost is when people end up doing work that has already been done. Without proper communication between all parties involved, inefficiencies can become very common. By bringing the right information to the forefront, project management software significantly reduces this possibility and helps people build on each other’s work instead of wasting their own time.”

But, he stresses, saving time is not just about money: “If an artist can save 30 minutes a day using this software, he or she typically will use that saved time to create one more iteration of a texture or character or scene. Saved time can drive up the quality of the end product.”

Github’s VP of strategy Brian Doll adds: “Additionally, all those discussions and resulting decisions that affect your game are now available to the whole team, ensuring you’re all on the same page.”

Doll says that communication is as crucial to project management as version and progress tracking. Certainly a key function of GitHub, the widely-used online collaboration platform, is that it enables teams from around the world to stay in constant contact.

“The most important thing is to talk to each other,” he says. “Actively participating in the discussions surrounding a project not only helps you ensure everything is on track, but your participation can also positively influence its direction and pace.”

Tracking your team

You might be forgiven for thinking version management tools are primarily aimed at large and triple-A studios, but they can prove to be just as useful for smaller and independent developers.

“Once a team gets to be above 30 members, it’s virtually impossible to organise and track efforts and make
sure everything is moving in the right direction,” Leslie says.

“However, there’s no doubt that smaller studios and indies can also benefit from a project management tool. Even if you’re a team of one, it can be handy to use a tool for creating your game’s backlog and determine what aspects of your game should be worked on first and how.”

Household adds: “In the case of a small company, things tend to be very fast paced, and managers are doing a lot more than just managing. An effective project management software can be the difference between a manager drowning in tedious work and being able to put time into where they are most needed.”

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Regardless of the size of your company, version management is vital if you have contractors or members of your team overseas and in different time zones.

“It’s hard enough for two people sitting next to each other to work on the same code base – it gets harder when you’re on different floors of the same building,” says Warren. “Being on different continents is near impossible unless you have a shared view of all the assets in the game.

“Having that kind of distance also introduces new requirements, especially in terms of performance – if a remote site has slow access, they will use the tool less – this increases risk. Studios should look for tools that are built to support distributed teams and don’t just rely on network connections.”

Ultimately, the biggest advantage of using version software is the ability to improve the quality of your game. By removing many of the problems of large-scale development – or at least making them easier to identify and solve – studios can focus on visions, not versions.

“Managing change in a large software project can be complex,” says Doll. “But in games development, you’re managing change not only with the software, but also with the graphics, animation, video, storyline, and possibly even the underlying physics engine.

“By using version control, companies are able to bring these teams of people together to build software faster. Managing these changes is easier, so teams will often have dozens or hundreds of changes being developed concurrently, improving the game with every step.”

Warren adds that since so many of these tools are available to download and use for free, there’s very little excuse for developers not to use them.

“We encourage our smaller customers to start as they mean to go on,” he says. “After all, they could end up being the next up and coming studio. As an indie or start-up, you probably feel even closer to the game you’re building and have put so much time and effort into, so you owe yourself the comfort of know your work is protected.

“Games development without version management is like jumping out a plane without a parachute. It’ll be fun and fast for a while but eventually it’s really going to hurt.”

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