Part 6: Making Sausage and Law

There’s an old saying about making sausages and laws: You shouldn’t permit the public to see how it’s done, because the process is so disgusting you’d never want the product again.

Add making video games to the list. Video game production is a black box of hair‐pulling, shouting, late nights, heartbreak, planning, and execution. The people in charge of the chaos are the producers. Producers don’t write code, they don’t create art, and they don’t design levels. So, what do they do?

‘The best analogy for producing is it’s kinda like herding cats,’ says producer Frank Simon. There are a lot of cats on Abe’s Exoddus, at least 25 at last count, and that doesn’t include the testers or administrative support people. That’s a lot of creatively on the project. ‘The process by which you get all of that creativity moving towards the same deadline is producing,’ says Frank.

It is a chaotic process. Trying to chart the whole thing will break your brain. The Oddworld production method defies the neat lines and boxes of conventional org charts. Responsibilities shift around, with powers invested in the creative leads to a degree not commonly seen at other companies.

That’s because Oddworld isn’t like most companies, says producer Geri Wilhelm. ‘Most companies set up their projects with teams,’ says Geri. In a conventional organization, each team has little interaction with the other teams. ‘At Oddworld our art team is working on all projects all the time, including PR and marketing. This is one of the main reasons that all imagery from Oddworld is consistent in its style and quality.’

With all those shifting responsibilities, the possibility of something falling through the cracks is dire. ‘Every day the producer sends out a daily report that lists what everyone is working on and when it’s due, if it’s late, if it’s been canceled, whatever,’ says Wilhelm. ‘It allows for everyone on the production staff, including the CEO, to see what everyone is working on.’ It also eliminates the need to constantly rework and redistribute a massive paper schedule to the whole team, preserving both forests and team enthusiasm.

‘The only frustration I have is if I do my job really good no one notices,’ says Wilhelm. The same can be said of video game production as a whole. If the team and the company do their jobs, they become invisible to the fans… who need merely line up at the game store on the appointed day of release, buy the game, take it home, and play it to death. It’s only if the game is late, or full of bugs, or just not fun that most folks even realize there’s someone behind the game putting it all together.

Bug‐free games that are fun to play, delivered on time— it seems simple. Why then do companies so often drop the ball? Why are there so many mediocre games out there— and what happened to innovation, anyway?

Tune in next time for one designer’s opinion.

— Paul O’Connor, Oddworld Inhabitants

NEXT: Barriers to Entry