There are four main overall stages of the game development process that are broken into sub-stages that vary between project to project. The four main stages are: Pre-Production, Production, Release and Post-Release.
Note: It is important to note before we continue that every studio and every project has their own unique milestones and processes when it comes to the production of video-games. Whilst we will cover the “average” here, please note that your mileage may differ depending on who and what you’re working on!
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the average game development pipeline to understand what happens when and how your favourite games are put together.
The Pre-Production phase is often thought of to be “the calm before the storm” but this isn’t exactly true in the case of video-game development; Pre-production can be a very hectic time many games never make it outside of and some even find themselves back into this stage of production.
Note: Pre-Production usually starts with a small team that ramps up in size as the project either gets funding / greenlight (if that is required) or as the project heads towards Production.
It is not uncommon for a game to constantly head back into pre-production and end up dying a very slow and painful death. There is the odd occasion where a game that constantly ends up back in pre-production manages to break the cycle and release but whilst this is the exception rather than the rule - games that do manage to escape the curse of constantly entering pre-production are usually not well received upon release.
A lot happens in Pre-Production and this can vary massively based upon many different factors; Some studios will have to pitch their project to either the higher ups or investors whereas others don’t have to take pitching into account and can focus on putting their teams and infrastructure together.
Because of the massive variance in the pre-production sub-stages, we’ll touch on different possible scenarios that can happen during Pre-Production to help flesh out your understanding of what can happen during this stage of the pipeline but as previously warned, each project and studio works differently - some do all of what is listed below and some only do a handful.
Usually found at the very start of pre-production, the concept sub-phase is where the goals of the project are established and the rough idea of what the game will become formulates. The Game Design Document (and usually the Technical Design Document) is started here (but will continue to be edited even well into Production).
The Game Design Document is a constantly evolving document that acts as the living bible for a game project. If you have any questions about the design of the project or what the end goal is; the Game Design Document should be the document you look at.
These documents may start small and manageable but as a game is fleshed out, you can easily expect them to head into the hundreds by the time the game is finished with Production.
During this concept phase, this is usually when concept art is generated for the project to help visualize the project and the goals of said project. Concept Art is especially important if the project requires funding or if it needs to be pitched internally for a greenlight.
Once a game concept has been drafted up; the usually small team goes to work on putting together a prototype.
This prototype is a small slice of the game idea that usually doesn’t end up looking much like the final product at all but is used to test if the mechanics and overall game idea is fun to play and/or reaches the intended goals of the concept.
If a prototype is well received and ticks the criteria needed, it is usually used as the compass to guide the rest of the game’s development.
The core benefits of prototyping isn’t just proving if a game and the mechanics are fun or meet required criteria; it is also tangible proof behind an idea that can be used to sway investors / decision makers into giving the required support to push a game into production.
During the prototyping phase, there are usually a handful of prototypes made (or one is edited) as the “fat” of the core game ideas are trimmed away to help refine the project direction - for some projects, only 1-3 prototypes are created with the “best one” picked and elements of the others incorporated into that winning prototype.
In other projects, there can be upwards of hundreds of prototypes put together until it is agreed to move forward with a specific one (or a special prototype is generated as an amalgamation of many of the different ones).
The timeframe of this phase can vary massively because of the reasons listed above. Some studios can knock out a perfectly serviceable (to their needs) prototype in a few weeks where some might spend a year or even more on their prototype phase to ensure their goals and mechanics are sufficiently met.
Funding / Greenlight
Once the appropriate materials have been collected (Pitch document, prototype, concept art .etc) - this is usually the point where the studio seeks funding and/or the greenlight to continue into production.
This period can take a long time; especially if dealing with external situations such as for funding. This is normally why some studios have multiple projects active at once - to ensure people aren’t waiting around whilst this phase is in effect.
It is not uncommon for funding or greenlights to not be awarded. When this happens, a project is faced with two choices; either head back to square one and redesign the title to be more marketable to the target or ditch the project altogether and start another - losing the development time spent to this point.
This is usually the last step in pre-production before the move into full production. If a project survives this last gauntlet, production begins.
We have previously discussed the fact that a project can end up back in Pre-Production. It is more often than not projects that rely on greenlights / funding that end up in such a situation.
This is another phase that varies wildly between studios and projects. There is no set in stone step-by-step guide for Production that is adopted throughout the industry (a common trend for almost everything game development related).
Below are the most common stages of production you’ll likely find. Even if most studios use a similar process as to what is listed; their expectations for the steps can also be radically different.
At any point during production, it is possible for a title to be pushed back into pre-production (usually from a loss of direction, unclear goals or the main funder / decision maker of the project has lost faith in the direction the project is going). This usually occours at the Vertical Slice stage but in some rare cases can happen even up to a week or two before “going gold”.
Certain milestones (such as Pre-Alpha, Alpha and Beta) sometimes have multiple stages (such as Alpha 1, Alpha 3) but this is usually a reaction to what is happening on the project as opposed to something planned ahead of time.
This is where the title is turned from prototype and hypothetical idea into something playable. Whilst the game might not be playable end-to-end, the game can be technically played and what the player can do roughly resembles the intention of the project and its goals.
The idea behind vertical slice is that it is a chunk of the game that is representative of the overall experience. The game won’t be polished at this point and may not fully align visually and control-wise with the final product but this slice should have the “vibe” of what the game is aiming for.
It is usually at this point that the game is presented again to the decision makers / funders of the project to decide if they are happy with the direction of the title or if changes need to be made before the rest of development takes place.
After this point, you’d expect the majority of the workforce to be on the project now.
Pre-Alpha is a sub-phase collection of other sub-phases. First Playable and Vertical Slice live usually live within the “Pre-Alpha” phase, which collects all of the sub-phases prior to Alpha. Everything that comes before Alpha can be deemed “Pre-Alpha”.
Pre-Alpha is sometimes used these days to gauge early interest from external people (mainly for multiplayer games).
Game is playable from start to finish but most content and maybe some features are missing. The game is tested regularly internally from this point.
Historically, this sub-phase was used to signify “feature complete” but this has been less and less accurate as the amount of features required for games has grown and their complexity has grown too.
Game is almost content complete and is ready to play from start to finish. People external (External QA, Beta Testers .etc) start testing the game for bugs. Polish phase begins from here in preparation for Certification.
In modern days, more and more companies have been using the BETA phase as a public demo for their title (especially multiplayer titles).
Content Lock / Audio Lock / Code Lock
These locks tend to happen around BETA (Sometimes before but usually after). A lock is where the content in general (Content / Audio / Code) is to no longer be edited, bar for fixing bugs or any problems that are found on the road to Certification / going gold.
A good way to see Content/Audio/Code Locks is to think of it as time to stop adding things and time to start fixing what already exists.
It is at this point studios start rolling some people off the current project and onto other duties.
Gold / Ready for Certification / Release Candidate
At this point the sole focus is passing Certification.
Certification is the process of submitting the code for review to platform holders (Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft .etc) who have strict guidelines in place that all games need to adhere to. The game is rigorously tested by the platform holder and it is very rare to pass Certification the first time around.
Due to the importance and difficulty of juggling Certification changes and deadlines, it is very unusual to see a studio do anything else at this point but prepare for certification and deal with any issues that arise.
Some showstopping bugs can be worked on during this time but there usually is not time to do so due to the focus on passing Certification.
In certain places, “Going Gold” is replaced with the term “Release Candidate” (or RC), usually when there is no platform certification to go through. Release Candidate is similar to a “Gold Master” and means a build that is stable enough and content complete, ready for release if so desired.
Post-Certification / Gold
This is a step that has grown massively in use at studios within recent years. At this stage between “Going Gold” and release, important bugs usually get fixed and packaged up for a “Day One” patch.
Some studios use this time to spin up work for the post-release DLC plans, depending on the size and complexity of the planned post-launch content.
Launch / Post-Release
In the past this major phase would have been the end of the project (and the start of a next one) but as with Post-Certification, this phase is now usually used for bug fixes and DLC.
This phase is usually dealt with by a fraction of the team size of the base game so that the majority of the team can be moved onto the next project.