Category Archives: Scrum

Design Tutorial – How to write a feature brief

The simple truth of game development is that a finished game will never be all that you imagine it to be. Even the best managed game development processes result in a game that represents 5 to 10 percent of the initial ambition. Ideas are cheap, implementation is expensive and at a certain point games must be shipped. For instance, even if my team’s current game Enhanced Wars is a runaway success and we continuously improve it for the 3 years after launching, it will never be all that we want it to be.

Once upon a time, when I set out to design a game I would start by writing a lengthy document detailing every aspect of the game. Eventually I learned that these documents are largely a waste of effort. No one else would ever read a 75 to 100 page document and most of the initial concepts get changed dramatically in implementation. Nowadays when working on a game, I prescribe a method of managing the design process for all these features that is lightweight and flexible.
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Embrace the Inner A-hole

or, What to do when Scrum Fails?

During a GDC beer break, I had an interesting talk about scrum with a former colleague who works as a scrum master type (your studio may classify him as a development director, producer or project manager depending on culture).  He vented his frustration with his current game team.  Like me, he is a believer in scrum methodology and has seen it catalyze teams into cohesive units that produce powerful results and ship great games.

But, scrum only works when team culture buys in to the philosophy.  My colleague is fighting widespread ambivalence.  He faces ambivalence from studio leaders, who are stretched too thin to deliver their influence and feedback against a timeline, helping create stability.  He faces ambivalence from senior team members, who are content to finish their individual tasks without reinforcing the team-centric mentality.  He faces ambivalence from junior team members, who are not mature enough to have internal motivation driving the completion of committed tasks.  He is fighting an uphill culture battle with no support and he is losing.

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Game Production Hotline

On Sunday, I moderated a panel at the 2012 Flash Games Summit on the life of flash developers.  I was joined by some of my favorite developers: Andrew Sega (Mytheria/Armor Wars), Dan Stradwick (Monsters’ Den) and Sean McGee (Thing Thing Arena/Endless Zombie Rampage).  During the panel, and in discussions throughout the day, feature creep, difficulty finishing games and not knowing when a game was complete were frequent topics.  For instance, Dan has been working on Monsters’ Den Chronicle for 2 years.  The first year was spent working on a hugely ambitious Monsters’ Den Godfall, before he decided to do something of a smaller scope and ship quickly (inspired by Andy Moore’s SteamBirds talk from the previous year’s FGS).  One year later, the third entry in the series plays fantastically and is nearing distribution.

In the past year, when Dan would tweet about feature creep, I replied by asking if he needed me to fly to Australia and use my Producer super powers to help him ship the game.  After a day at FGS, I had a brilliant idea.  I want to set up the official Game Producer Hotline.  For the low, low price of $0.99 you can call and tell me about the mind blowing feature you want to add to your game.  I will listen thoughtfully, ask questions and then say “No.  It’s a great idea but ship without it.”

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I Made a Song with Scrum

When I was 15, I received a free copy of Acid Music Studio while skipping out on Third Eye Blind at an alternative music festival in Chicago.  I spent weekends in the basement with my friends, arranging pre-made loops with delusions of being the next Chemical Brothers.  For my 16th birthday, I convinced my grandmother to buy me a Roland MC-505, leading to hours spent with the Groovebox sequencing bass lines and tweaking filters.  I continued writing music and djing through college, eventually teaming up with Morgan Hendry on a DJ show for USC’s college radio and sporadic live electronic performances.  I had spotty motivation and no great talent at finishing.  Generously, I would say that I spent a lot of time sketching.

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Scrumification of Music – Day 5

Day 5 began with my second trip to Guitar Center of the week.  I picked up a Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 usb audio interface and rushed home to record vocals.  Setup was quick and easy, multiplying my regret at wasting most of the previous day trying to set up my outdated Mbox 2.

I closed the door on my bedroom and slightly embarrassedly began to record the vocal takes for “One of Us”.  Listening to the recording, it is clear that I am out of practice, in my bedroom, singing quietly and completely lacking confidence.  The results are not great, and will not be shared.  But, I accomplished my goal of writing a song with lyrics, which is the important result.  Even though I won’t share the output with you, I was still able to hit my sprint goal.

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Scrumification of Music – Day 4

I attacked day 4 with a renewed energy that quickly evaporated in the angry heat of hardware issues.  My momentum point from the previous train wreck of a day was writing the vocals, so began day 4 attempting to burn down the 3 hours estimated against recording a scratch vocal track.

My first attempt was to get a microphone working with the mic-in jack on my laptop, since this take was solely for arrangement purposes.  I could get audio to record, but could not eliminate heavy bleeding from the output track into the recording.  No matter how low I turned my headphone volume down, I could still hear the click track on the vocal take.

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Scrumification of Music – Day 3

Day 3 was a disaster; completely unproductive, creatively bankrupt and frustrating.  It is an inevitability of creative work.  Despite the setbacks, the day underscored why using the scrum process to write music was a powerful idea.

On day 3, I watched tutorials and then left for a doctor appointment and visit to Guitar Center to pick up some audio gear.  I had been making progress with only Ableton and my laptop so far, but I needed a midi keyboard and audio interface to fulfill the definition of done on my user stories.  In a round trip that took 2.5 hours I did my errands, went to the store, settled on the Akai MPK25 but balked at the audio interface.  The guy at the counter warned me my old Mbox 2 was not going to play nice with Ableton, but I was queasy about spending another $250 on an audio interface when I had an old, but expensive audio interface at home.  I would soon regret not following his guidance.

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Scrumification of Music – Day 2

I began the second day of my scrum experiment by watching more tutorials to learn the basics of Ableton.  After watching enough videos that I felt comfortable feeling my way around the production environment, I began writing drums.  I had not purchased a midi keyboard or audio interface yet, and drums were the best place to start with only a mouse and laptop keyboard for input.

Historically, drums had been my biggest weaknesses when writing music.  During college, I relied entirely on my DJing partner, Morgan Hendry of Beware of Safety if I wanted a respectable drum part for anything I was working on.

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Scrumification of Music – Day 1

I began the first day of my Scrum experiment by writing a one page work brief.  The brief’s purpose is to set a clear intention and give a tool to measure quality of the end product.  Writing a brief is a standard part of my game production process, but is an exercise I had never applied to music.  The brief laid out a concept for the song I wanted to write, as well as an X Statement and a list of requirements. In retrospect, the act of setting a clear, measurable intention was critical.  I never would have finished a song if I had not set out with a goal in mind.

I had recently listened to the Terry Gross interview of Trent Reznor, and was deeply inspired when he said “I’ve always tried to flirt with accessibility… I kind of like the idea of subversively working your way into people’s heads, and then you can say whatever you want.”  As a result, the X Statement for the song, titled One of Us, was “NIN meets Avalanche (Photek) style dubstep”.  I intended to “use pop-song writing formula to filter the ideas of alienation from mainstream society through heavy bass music.”  You can read the full Work Brief here.

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What is Scrum?

Scrum is a project development framework frequently used in software development and specifically game development.  It is an agile development method with a strong focus on visibility, accountability, team dynamics, quick pivots and finishing demoable product.  It has been an essential tool at BioWare San Francisco for managing the breakneck pace of live game development, and has been transformative in my own time serving as a game producer.

There are numerous resources throughout the web that can educate you on the Scrum process.  I found this brief video from Jeff Sutherland that explains the foundation of and basic tenants of Scrum.  This posting explains the various Scrum concepts I reference heavily in the posts related to the Scrumification of Music, as I interpret them.

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