Video games are a complex and multi-faceted form of entertainment that require significant resources and expertise to develop. That’s why understanding the development timeline is crucial for game developers, publishers, and consumers alike. Doing so can help to manage expectations, budget resources effectively, and plan for future releases.
So, how long does it take to make a video game?
This is a common question for folks starting their game dev journey. But the answer to this can vary widely depending on a number of factors.
In this article, we will explore what these factors are and provide a general overview of the timelines involved in creating a successful game. Let’s get started.
Pre-production refers to the initial phase of video game development. It involves planning, concept creation, and budgeting before the actual development process begins.
Pre-production can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months or even years. The length of this process depends on the scope and complexity of the game you’re trying to make. Plus, the size of your development team is a key factor as well.
Key steps of pre-production
The pre-production phase for most modern games goes through three key steps before the devs can move on to development. These include:
Planning: The first step of pre-production is planning. It involves defining the game's target audience, platform, and core mechanics. Keep in mind that it’s not easy to make a successful game if you don’t know who the game is for, or what unique experiences it’ll offer to the player.
Storyboarding: During storyboarding you set the stage for the tone and general gameplay features of your game. It’s an experimental phase where you brainstorm ideas, match them with each other, and see what sticks.
Concept Art: Once you have a clearer vision of the game’s setting and theme, concept art allows you to bring the vision to reality. It involves creating concepts for the world of your game and its inhabitants. You can also try to visualize how certain key events in your game look and feel.
Budgeting and team assembly
The final major decision during pre-production is allocating your resources. A developer’s time is both limited and expensive, so you need to be smart with it. Ideally, you need a strategy where everyone can contribute to the game’s development without getting bottlenecked.
In game development, "Production" refers to the phase of the development process where the game is actually built, tested, and refined. This is usually the longest step in making a game and can take years upon years to complete. One of the most anticipated games of the previous decade — Cyberpunk 2077 — began production in 2016 and was released at the tail end of 2020.
You can gauge the time your game will in production by understanding the following processes:
Asset creation is about bringing the game’s concepts & rough storyboards to life by creating the final versions of its world, characters, and items. This also includes the non-visual elements of the game like its soundtrack and sound effects.
Programming and implementation
Programming is the process of putting the assets into their place, sort of like individual pieces in your game’s larger puzzle. This is where the “magic” of the game happens and complete game mechanics are implemented as one complete package.
Metaphors aside, programming involves using game engines like Unity or Unreal to create interactions between game assets. If the story demands a door to open at a specific time, it’s the programmer’s job to implement that feature.
Playtesting and iteration
Once a playable version of the game is complete, it’s time to put it through its paces. Professional playtesters and developers themselves go through the game and note down almost every aspect of the game. If something feels off, or a specific feature makes the game less enjoyable, it’s fixed in the next iteration of the game.
The game is finished and you can now experience it from start to end. Congratulations, but the development is not complete yet. Post-production is the final — and arguably the most important — part of developing a game.
But, unlike pre-production and production, the length of post-production is entirely dependent on your decision-making. Here’s why:
Quality assurance testing
Are all the features you promised to the players actually in the game? Does it feel good to play? Does it work without hiccups on the targeted hardware?
You can spend as much time as you want on these and other similar questions to improve the overall quality of your game.
Bug fixing and polishing
Bugs are instant immersion breakers. Yes. an occasional glitch or two can be funny for the player. But too many bugs lead the majority of your player base to stop playing the game, leave negative reviews, or even refund.
So, this step of post-processing is dedicated to polishing your game by catching and removing these bugs.
Finalization and submission
If you feel like the game is as complete as you’d like it to be, it’s time to publish it. Depending on your publishing strategy, just uploading your game on platforms like Steam is all you need. Alternatively, you might have to create physical copies as well, which also takes time and can extend the release window.
Factors Affecting Development Timelines
These are the primary factors that directly impact the development time of your game:
Scale and complexity of the game
A 2D platformer with a linear story or a casino slot game will take less time to develop than an open-world 3D game with branching story paths. This is because the 2D game has fewer assets, simpler art, and fewer interactions to implement, compared to the 3D open-world title.
Size and experience of the development team
While it’s not true in all cases, a larger dev team will result in faster game development. Plus, the experience of the team matters as well.
The Tekken 7 team will be able to make Tekken 8 faster because they have decades of experience in making fighting games. But give the Tekken 8 project to From Software (a studio known for their adventure games) and the development would take drastically longer.
Availability of resources
A talented dev team can create a masterpiece on vacuum tube computers, given enough time. But resources matter if you want to complete the game faster.
For instance, say that you have a generous budget for your game. You can use that money to hire more competent developers or invest in more powerful computers. Money also gives you the option to purchase the latest time-saving technologies like full-body motion tracking.
Unforeseen obstacles and setbacks
Your game’s development can slow down due to factors outside of your control that you could not have predicted. The development of No Man’s Sky, for example, was halted for weeks because of a storm and flooding in the Hello Games studio in Guildford, UK.
To summarize, game development is a long and arduous process with a lot of individual steps. The time it takes to make a game depends on factors like its scope and your dev team, but you can also experience unexpected setbacks.
But, if you want to create a successful game in a reasonable amount of time, you have to plan ahead. Layout a clear development plan and utilizes the resources and manpower at your disposal with care.
Just remember that every journey begins with the first step. If you want to create a game but fear that it’ll take too long, just take that first step. As long as you stay committed, the game will be completed before you know it.