Indie Project Management

“A Brief Discussion on Project Management from an Indie Game Perspective”

By – Jason Blackford

 

Introduction

The importance of project management in indie game studios cannot be overstated.  This article provides a brief high level view of project management.  It also provides some insight into how Fuzion Labs has incorporated the discipline into our indie studio.

 

What is Project Management

Like any discipline there are numerous flavors of project management because there are no silver bullets.  Techniques can be as complex as building a work breakdown structure from which an integrated master plan and master schedule are constructed and earned value management applied [1]; or more simplified techniques like backlogs, stories, and velocities as used in scrum with agile [2][3].   Regardless of the approach the purpose is to be able to direct work to be assigned to team members, measure the efficiency of the work being completed versus work to be done, and to hold team members accountable for getting their work completed in a reasonable amount of time [4].  This all determines the speed and direction of the studio, which should be in the direction of the studio’s goals.

 

Choosing a technique

Often times an indie game studio starts off very small in their infancy, ranging from 1 to 8 team members.  In general this is the result of a few with the passion and discipline to bring their ideas to life, zero funding dollars, and making games with sparse hours.  Of course the objective of any studio is to make money in order to become self-sustaining.  However, as money is made growth occurs.  Managing growth is a challenge for any startup company [5].  As growth occurs, the use of processes to manage resources (people and money) against work to be performed becomes crucial.  Aside from growth there are a few other factors to consider when selecting a project management technique: locality of the team and ability to execute project management techniques, but first, more on growth.

 

Growth is a variable rate and is largely dependent upon the needs of the team which can be easily derived from the teams project portfolio and business plan.  For example, Fuzion Labs has 5 team members each with a unique skillset.  We all share the same goal of making fully immersive 3D games as well as developing education games to be played on mobile devices.  Our goal has defined our project portfolio which currently consists of three projects: Math Invaders, Rose Red, and Project X.   Math Invaders is in the tail-end of it’s production cycle, Rose Red has become the primary focus of the studio with target deadlines for demos fast approaching, and Project X is still in pre-planning. The objectives of our studio are clearly a portfolio consisting of more than one project and efficient production schedules.  On average our time to invest in the game while working full-time jobs and raising families is anywhere between 12hrs to 20hrs a week-  I think our story is the same as most indie studios that are first getting started.  To squeeze every last drop of value from the hours of our lives that we are able to invest in the studio, we incorporated the discipline of project management as one of our studios core functions.

 

In regards to locality of the team you can either have a distributed team or a team that works under the same roof.  For Team Fuzion we have a distributed team with all of our meetings being conducted via the internet.  With respect to project management the issues with working with a distributed team are accountability and opportunities to ask questions and receive guidance on work being executed.

 

The final factor to consider when choosing a technique is ability to execute the selected technique.  Ability is defined as “knowing how to apply a technique” and “having the time to incorporate the technique in day-to-day business operations”.   For Fuzion Labs it often comes down to production time versus planning time.  Both are crucial, but having a small team means taking people off production to work planning which severely impacts product completion.  Often times a small team can survive being all production and zero planning, especially if team members work under the same roof and responsibilities are split among a small number of people.  However, if you are a distributed team or you are experiencing growth, planning becomes very significant and lack of planning becomes very apparent.

 

Fuzion Labs Solution

Our technique is a combination of scrum and agile.  We operate by completing sprints.  A sprint is a small period of time in which production work is completed toward one of the projects in our portfolio[2].  For us a sprint is 3 weeks long.  Before we start any sprint we conduct a sprint planning meeting that lasts about 2 or 3 hours.  During that meeting we create a giant backlog of tasks to be completed and then from it derive a sprint backlog that defines what each of us will be working on for the next 3 weeks.  To ensure folks are working and provide opportunities for discussion, we conduct daily scrums via email three days a week.   We also meet online two days a week.

 

The advantages of this technique are that we are able to conduct focused work for 3 weeks since a clear plan or direction has been defined.  At the end of that 3 week period we are able to review what work has been achieved (our speed which determines when we will reach our goal)  with respect to work planned according to the sprint backlog.  This allows us to assess our work performance and adjust our pace or workloads as needed (speed and direction).

 

Aside from scrum and agile, we also keep meeting agendas for every meeting that is not a production meeting.  During our 3 week sprints we generally don’t have an agenda, instead we focus on giving team members time to work and ask questions about their tasks.  Using agendas helps to keep our planning meetings effective, so we know exactly what we are going to talk about, and what will be delivered by the end of the meeting.  It also serves as a record of decisions that have been made as well as action items that have been tasked out to team members for completion.

 

Overall I think Fuzion Labs has achieved a fair balance of planning and production.  Through the use of a light-weight project management technique, we are able to spend less time planning and more time producing.

 

For Fuzion Labs we realized the importance of planning early on given the three factors of growth, locality, and ability to apply project management.  In my opinion growth is the most important factor.  With respect to growth, we are anticipating hiring new people onto the team once money starts coming in so we can sustain our project portfolio and business operations.  We will need this growth in order to maintain our project portfolio and achieve the quality of games we aim to construct. However in order to manage this growth and ensure new team members are being utilized effectively, we are building strong project management process into the fibers of our company today, so that planning is second nature, and we are ready to launch when the time is right.

 

 

References

[1] http://www.versatilecompany.com/fast-forward-mba-in-project-management.aspx

[2] http://www.crisp.se/bocker-och-produkter/scrum-and-xp-from-the-trenches

[3] http://agilemanifesto.org/

[4] http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB898122743694696000

[5] http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/205644

 

 

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