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Art For Art's Sake: Why Your Studio Needs An R&D Team
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Art For Art's Sake: Why Your Studio Needs An R&D Team


October 20, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

By now you might be thinking that this sounds well and good, but you still have serious concerns about the cost. It's true that such R&D does not come cheap, but our experience was first that having a separate team made it easier to attract research grant funding (in our case both from the UK and Europe), and secondly that the benefits of the results far outweighed the initial investment.

Consider the facts: the money you spend on your R&D work goes straight into strategic studio needs rather than one-off production needs; it quickly starts to pay itself back in vastly more efficient and effective workflows. R&D develops a continuing technical edge for your current and future games and gives you stand-out business development tools. But above all else, this is reusable technology that you own -- it is not owned by your publisher.

In addition to the technology itself, you have also increased the skills of many of your most talented developers, who can be now be deployed across the studio to pass their new knowledge onto colleagues.

R&D teams are an ideal training ground for new technical areas which people can then take onto new projects. They develop specialists and leaders who will benefit the company as a whole and in the long term.

Perhaps most importantly, they give people not only new skills, but a new perspective on development. By moving people from game teams to R&D and back again, you can re-enthuse developers who are weary after coming off long projects and bring new recruits swiftly up to speed with your most effective techniques.

Skills leveling and continuing professional development are critically important weapons for the independent development studio.

One of the best things about such a team is that they break things, including assumptions, fixed ideas, and the barriers of team and discipline -- but in a safe environment. By breaking these assumptions / the code / the rigs / the models / the shaders within R&D, they protect development deadlines and, just as importantly, protect morale elsewhere in the company. They can break in all the new tools that your technology team delivers, so that by the time the game teams encounter them, the tools are beta tested and thus significantly improved and enhanced.


The R&D pays off in a released game with the high level goals of large amounts of character customization clearly working, and the system totally owned by the studio.

It is important in all of this to emphasize that such a team really needs clear goals and that these are understood and signed off by senior management. It's easy to envisage how in the absence of these it could all go horribly wrong: without clear goals, R&D work can become a massive sink of time and money, resented by the other developers in the studio who can feel that they are working to support it rather than the other way round.

Directorial support and sign-off are crucial not only to retain strategic focus, but also to prevent members of the team being poached when a game project runs into difficulties.

It is equally important that the goals are driven by strategic need and not by random design whim. It's not enough to say “Wouldn't this be a great thing to have?” You need to focus on the elements that will make you a more valuable studio, will win you more and better work and that will benefit the whole company across teams, genres and platforms.

The examples I am going to discuss below are from just such a development; our character generator was identified as a known need, something our publishers wanted and that our competitors already had, and it needed to be available to all teams, genres, and platforms, which at BGS is a broad church indeed.

The plan was initially agreed by the company directors and was acknowledged to be more of a "fuzzy roadmap" than a perfect schedule, because there were so many unknowns; it was understood that the roadmap would adapt and change, and that the timing would be flexible, but that the goals would remain focused and constant.

Although there are clear reasons to be wary when working to a fuzzy roadmap as opposed to a nailed-down development schedule, we found that there are also clear benefits. It means the team can cope better with the uncertainties and fast-changing plans of frequent iteration. It encourages working in short sprints which benefits a fast turnaround, and stops people becoming too precious about the iterative outcomes.

All of this has knock-on benefits for those working in demo and pitch work as well as on game teams, because it develops people who are agile and think strategically. Finally, and once again, it insulates the development teams from the risky unknowns surrounding new technology.


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