E3's Sneak Peeks conference session is an annual forum for developers of upcoming games to discuss their production process. It's a chance for other developers to learn from those experiences and for nontechnical attendees to hear about what goes into a AAA game.
This year's session featured three speakers. Ray Muzyka, joint CEO of BioWare, spoke first, presenting the upcoming RPG Jade Empire. He was followed by Yannis Mallat, producer for Ubisoft's Prince of Persia 2, and the program was wrapped by Gabe Newell, cofounder of Valve Software, presenting scenes from Half-Life 2.
There's no magic formula. All three of the presenters report doing usability testing--including filming gameplay sessions--to evaluate player response, but that was the only common point. However, their comments did provide insight into each of their priorities, and how each of them approaches game development.
Ray Muzyka opened the session with a Jade Empire demonstration. The game is an RPG featuring real-time combat, and Muzyka noted that it was specifically designed to appeal to both RPG fans and fans of action adventure games.
Discussing the design process, Muzyka noted that extremely high retention is a key to BioWare's ability to produce quality games: The company loses just 3 percent of its employees per year. As a result, skills and knowledge are kept in the company and increase from game to game. Muzyka also cited the company's six-stage production process as a key factor in producing high-quality games. The six stages: ideation (concept brainstorming and refining), design, prototyping, implementation, QA (typically with at least 100 testers), and the postrelease review, during which BioWare staff discuss the development process and the final results and try to think of ways to improve the process for the next game.
Next up was Ubisoft's Yannis Mallat. He explained that the first Prince of Persia was popular due to its short learning curve, which gave it broad appeal, and its good level design. But when he evaluated the game after it shipped, he saw some problems: "repetitive combat and low replay value." The sequel addresses these problems while adding "more depth in story, graphics, time manipulations, and fighting system."
Ubisoft has 900 employees in its Montreal office, and Mallat said it would go over 1,000 in the near future. Asked if the studio's size could hamper innovation, he admitted, "Yes, that's a danger." But Ubisoft has a solution: By breaking its studios into small teams, it's possible for "each team to work like a small developer."
Prince of Persia 2 will launch about a year after the first game--a remarkably short development cycle. Asked about Ubisoft's secret for finishing the game so quickly, Mallat confessed that the sequel had actually been in development for more than a year. They took a chance and started work before the first game had shipped.
Finally, Gabe Newell took the mic for a short speech. He pointed out that satisfying the fans was a key task for Valve. To that end, Valve pays careful attention to criticism both from fans and media and tries to design toward those needs. Using Steam, the company also tracks data like popular maps and where players die in a given level. If too many players all die in the same spot, it may indicate a badly designed level.
Newell was openly unhappy about Half-Life 2's launch delays but explained it like this: "There are three factors in a project: resources, time, and functionality/quality. You can constrain one or two, but not all of them. We've made time the thing that's most unconstrained." Of course, thanks to Half-Life's stunning success, Valve can afford to take its time--a different situation than most developers are in.