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  • Scope: Maintaining Focus

    - Levon Demurchyan
  •  I think the best way to explain the true essence of focus is to quote Steve Jobs:

    "When you think about focus, you think it's about saying YES.... No. It's about saying NO..."

    -Steve Jobs, WWDC ‘97

    It's very important to understand this in abstract terms, philosophically, as it may become easier to understand the pattern and the flow of processes that channel through this issue.

    Being able to focus is actually one of the most challenging things to do because there are a lot of temptations along the way to lose focus. Failing to focus and follow the plan by adding new features is called Scope Creep and is one of the most dreaded things that can happen during the development cycle. Nearly every studio in the world does this or has done it at some point one way or another.

    This process is very destructive for the following reasons:

    1. Adding new features and/or content to the same roadmap puts the project in jeopardy.

    2. Complex projects have extremely complex dependencies that are even more difficult to calculate. Adding a feature may have a domino effect and destabilize the game, and in pretty much every case it does.

    3. More features mean longer hours, eventually leading to crunch.

    4. Budget inflation or loss of quality standards.

    5. Demoralizes the team.

    6. Loss of Team Velocity

    7. Product/Game Vision may be lost.

    8. Missed Deadlines - Missed Projects

    Who cares?

    So how exactly is it destructive? How does the scope change contribute to these problems?

    Team velocity is a very subtle and tricky subject. This is the speed by which you/your team executes the plan or any part of the plan. This is the first priority metric that helps you assess if you follow the plan. It's how many tasks do you successfully execute per period of time, for example, a week, or a day. So, what's so tricky about it? Everybody knows of its existence, few know of its importance, and even fewer know how it's not the best indicator and advisor. Because no task is like any other.

    Also, the change of scope is invisible in this sense. Team Velocity is at its best when the team follows a plan without any or next to no changes to the plan/environment. Whenever the team knows what's next beforehand - they can execute the task better, and if it's a part of a recurring process, and not a unique task, even better. Any kind of disruption during the development is very destructive and temporarily impairs the team. This "plan" is a product of vision. Whenever the team knows what's next, they are always able to prepare and take the hit.

    Crunch - The dreaded situation, when all team endeavors escalate to a point where it's impossible to sustain a work/life balance. Scope Creep inevitably generates Crunch. Besides the obvious reasons that we cover in this article, It's also because on a tactical level there is much more work that has to be done as a product of scope change than is projected on a strategic level, by a mile, to say the least. It involves immense amounts of work that the team blatantly agrees to do. Crunch is devastating, as not only everyone deserves to rest, but everyone needs rest. Ultimately undermining all the creative potential of the team crunch is one of the worst things that can happen.

    Team Morale is another important thing and is very fragile. Poor management can devastate even the most enthusiastic, creative, opportunistic, and competent teams in the world. Scope Creep means unpredicted change with a high chance of jeopardizing the plan and directly contributes to morale drops. There are many psychological reasons for that, but the most important is that people don't like to be on a rocky trip while being blindfolded. Another one is that people want to have a competent leader who knows what he's doing. This is why transparency and communication is also important. Any kind of unpredicted change most probably involves scrapping major chunks of the team's work, and that is also a very negative experience, although it happens very often, for other reasons too.

    Uncalculated Dependencies: Whenever you add or change something to a semi-developed system, you have to be very careful with what happens to the rest of your work, as you might break all hell loose by changing a system that is interwoven with other elements/systems for a short-term or ill-calculated change. This is something that is inevitable when you set out to change something in a complex system, but the degree of it is what matters.

    Budget Inflation is a direct product of labor mismanagement; Uncalculated Dependencies impact some parts of your product that have been already developed, and now they have to be redone, sometimes taking much more time than it took initially, as navigating in a complex system is extremely difficult, something software engineers know extremely well. A more trivial example is when you increase the scope of the product, assuming that it is possible to execute in the same budget as initially calculated, which is, of course, an ill-informed assumption, to say the least.

    Product/Game Vision is, in my opinion, the root of the problem which feeds itself when mishandled. If you have a clear vision of what you are going to do, then you also have a clear vision of how you are going to do it, in most cases. Whenever the vision is not firm or clear enough, that's when everything starts to go downwards. You start to add things to compensate and end up undermining the game vision even more as you continue the same way down the road. This triggers a chain reaction which is the reason we explore this topic.

    Missed Deadlines are missed projects. A project is a temporary endeavor, in order to generate a product or meet a goal in a set time period. Whenever this time period starts to slip away, the project slips away too. Scope Creep triggers a chain reaction that leads to this, and in most cases gets you into a loop, a vortex of endless delays, reschedules, re-budgeting, etc., to a point where it consumes all resources and shuts down.


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