on Feb 7, 2008
So why isn’t this true for videogames? Movies have to cope with larger crews, complex scheduling challenges, and logistics problems in moving the actors, equipment, props, costumes, and crew all over the world. A software developer just needs to get their small group of people into the office every day until the game is done. That’s far simpler, yet they can never reliably predict how long it will take. And when they’re wrong, they’re always guilty of underestimating. Games which don’t come out “late” are usually ones that were allowed to develop “until it’s done”, rather than shooting for a fixed date at the start of a project.
Part of the reason is (and if you’re a longtime reader you probably saw this coming) the constantly evolving world of realtime graphics. Movies sometimes will innovate a little or change technology. New cameras. New special effects. The move to digital. But these advances aren’t very common, are limited in scope, and are probably not rolled out in the middle of a project. In computer games this evolution is constant and effects every part of the production pipeline. Imagine how smooth filming a movie would go if every eighteen months there were all new cameras, all new lights, all new editing tools, all new sound equipment, and new ways of producing special effects. Everyone would be not only struggling to learn to use their own tools, but figuring out how they are affected by the changes everyone else is going through. It would be chaos. And that’s not too different from what game developers seem to be going through.
Exacerbating the problem is that they often do this innovation during development. They are often trying to do production and R&D at the same time. It’s easy to know how long it will take to make something. It’s much harder to know how long it will take to invent something.
But as much as I love to blame problems on the endless process of graphics one-upsmanship, that can’t be the whole reason. Certainly there are games which build on a stable, established platform and end up being delayed anyway.
I keep expecting videogames to grow out of this, but there’s no end in sight. If anything, games are more notoriously and regularly late now than they were in the 90’s. Maybe this isn’t just a problem with videogames. Maybe this sort of thing is just pandemic within the software industry in general.
I don’t really mind that games are delayed – I’m not the sort to pick up games on release day – but I do wonder why it happens so often.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.