Since the first rudimentary video game prototype was created in 1958, the gaming industry has come a long way. Now, people can play anything from car football in rocket league to huge battle royale shooters like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and COD Warzone.
With just how many games that release each year, you would be forgiven for thinking game development is easy. It's not. Depending on the game, who's making it, and the platform it's for, the game development process can be extremely difficult, requiring a lot of time, energy, effort, and of course money, to complete.
But how exactly are video games created? From a mobile game to an arcade game on steam, from triple-A to indie games, most video games will follow similar processes. This process is often called the "pipeline" in the industry, with each step pushing the game further down the pipeline, and closer to completion. This is how video games are made.
And it all starts with an idea, a spark. And so we begin our story, in the pre-production.
How Video Games Are Made: An Overview
Before we start, here is a quick summary of all the steps in video game development:
- First Playable
- Vertical Slice
- Gold Standard
- Post Production
- Technical Support
What is Pre-Production in Video Game Development?
Before all the graphic designers, coders, and a large dev team begins to create the full-fledged game, the plans must be laid out. This is where a game idea is laid out and conceptualized, the most important questions are asked, and a blueprint for creating the game is established.
At this stage, there won't be more than a handful of game developers working on the project, typically having maybe one or two producers, programmers, and often a concept artist on the team (don't worry, we'll cover these roles later!).
Of course, for many indie game designers, it often begins as a lone-wolf passion, as was the case with Notch and Minecraft, which is explored in great detail in the famous 2Playerproduction documentary.
How Do You Decide What Game To Develop?
If a game evolves like Notch's Minecraft did, the questions about a video game development process likely won't come until long after the prototype. But for most indie or triple-A games, questions about the budget, target audience, market reach, monetization, and the timeframe of the development process must all be asked.
If the game has a campaign or clear storyline like Cyperpunk 2077, how does the story progress? How many hours of content should the player expect? (read our article on how to check your playtime in Cyberpunk 2077).
If your game is free to play like Fortnite, how do you monetize it and make money? If there's online play, how will the server hosting work?
Depending on the size of the game, investment, and interest, this part of the game development process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a whole year. Generally, no more than 20% of the video game's total development time should be spent in pre-production, and no more than a year.
Most game ideas won't make it out of this stage, but the for every video game that does, there is still much to be done.
Game Design Document (GDD): The Blueprints
This is where a video game begins in earnest. Established during pre-production, this is the blueprint, the bible, and the all-inclusive instruction manual for the rest of the game development process. The game designers will use this as a reference point in every instance moving forward.
To be an effective GDD, the Game Design Document must include an outline of every aspect of the video game project:
- The general concept of the game
- Gameplay and key game mechanics (such as League of Legend's ranking system or Brawlhalla's ranking system)
- The story, if the game has one
- The genre
- Overall levels and game design
- Art direction and style
- Monetization and market audience
Although the game development process needs to have the Game Design Document established early on in the process, the GDD is not set in stone. Throughout the game development process, the GDD will be updated and amended as new decisions are made, game development software is tested, and any technical or financial restraints become apparent.
Every game developer is different; many larger game developers and companies such as EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Mojang and Sony need constant documentation of their processes so they can manage budgets, and learn from game production to help develop games in the future.
Smaller studios, and of course any lone-wolf game developers in the indie scene may choose to update their Game Design Document less frequently, as they will require less documentation of the process.
Along with providing the framework for game development, a Game Design Document helps keep a project within budget and on time. It is also extremely useful if a developer needs to seek external funding or project approval for financing, as it is a clear project plan that can be shown to potential investors to get them on board, before actually creating the video game.
Let's move on to prototyping.
How does Prototyping work?
Following concept art, the GDD, storyboarding, and every other element of planning, the project manager must move the game development process onwards to the prototyping phase.
This is where a very basic, fundamental version of the game is created to test if the game runs smoothly, and if the very concept itself will work.
The Prototype Process
Here, the game engine, game code, game environment, and other testable prototypes are constructed, moving on from the planning, ideas, and other deep-thinking metaphors used at the start of pre-production.
For most of the game's assets, placeholder assets will be used instead, mostly for any game objects such as guns, walls, level design, and characters. These assets are generally pretty basic shapes and are used to save time, resources, and money while the game testing phase ensures that the game runs smoothly.
These low-quality placeholder assets can be found for free online, or will sometimes be developed in-house to be used across an entire company.
To make sure nothing is overlooked, most game producers and studios will bring in at least one game tester, if not a full testing team to test the game code, game design, and game engine. It's essentially the first step of quality control.
Bear in mind that for all commercial games, the testing phase of the pre-production stage is meant to find core game mechanics, so any bugs, server connection issues (to prevent errors like the VAL Error 19 in Valorant), or performance issues will typically be solved later down the line.
Unfortunately, many games launch with notable bugs or issues. For smaller game developers, especially if creating an arcade game, free tools such as Unity and Blender are ideal for the prototype stage, as they provide hundreds of free placeholder assets to use.
Who Works On Video Game Development?
Before we reach the main stage of video game development, it's important to know what sort of people make up the teams behind your most beloved video game franchises.
Of course, the size of the team will depend on the studio commissioning the video game, but a large studio such as EA or Sony is sure to have most of the roles below working on any one of their video game projects.
Acting essentially as the person in charge, this role is vital for ensuring video game production runs smoothly.
A project manager will be responsible for setting and adjusting deadlines, keeping everyone on track and on time, and facilitating communication between all the different roles and departments. The ones who update the executives of the company and talk to everyone in the team, these guys are the glue that holds video game production together.
Game Developers & Game Programmers
These guys are the beating heart of any game development process. This role is pretty broad and covers a great deal of the actual creation of a video game. It takes a lot of skill to become a game programmer, requiring a strong programming background, a knowledge of numerous programming languages, as well as a flair for creativity to bring the maths of programming to the vibrance of a video game.
When an important video game is in development at a large game dev, it is normal to see over a hundred people work on the video game, and many of these employees will be programmers. Here are just some of the tasks given to a game programmer:
- Building the game engine (or adapting a pre-existing one)
- Creating the game's physics
- Creating the UI (User Interface)
- Scripting events, functions, and interactions within the game
- Creating all game mechanics and logic
- Adding all the realistic sound effects, voiceovers, and music to the game
- Writing code to interface with different platforms
- Identifying and fixing bugs
There are many other jobs for a game programmer, but this list should give you an idea of how much they are needed for the game development process.
The creative leaders, essentially the writers of the game, video game designers are tasked with creating the story and design of the game. Most game designers will also have a basic understanding of programming.
Using the outline of the GDD, the game designers will essentially be the storytellers of the game, even in games that are more multiplayer-focused. Whether computer games are single-player focused such as Diablo or multiplayer games such as Among Us, the game designers are the creative directors of the game story.
Here are just some of the tasks game designers will cover during game development:
- Creating, developing, and fine-tuning dialogue, storylines, and backstory for the game and its characters
- World design, level design and item design such as good Fortnite Skins, nice-looking Rocket League designs or sleek Valorant skins
- Setting difficulty levels
- Determining the flow of gameplay, game rules, and points systems
- Creating game environments, objects, and character design
When a game is being created by a larger game dev, it's extremely common to see each of these tasks given to a specialised individual game designer - e.g. a level designer that will work exclusively on level design or maps (e.g. creating awesome CoD Zombies maps).
Designing the level pathing, features, and implementing video game mechanics, level designers need to adapt to the game they are creating.
For example, a Valorant level designer would need to focus on creating a fun and unique map, that allows for maximum replayability through different paths and usage of agent and weapon combinations.
Meanwhile, an Elden Ring level designer needs to take into account quest, map aesthetics, and integrate the level with the world's unique bosses.
Meanwhile, open-world games will try to fill every area of the map with interesting designs, objects, and interactive elements. If a game takes historical inspiration such as the Assassin's Creed games, the game designers will also need to research that time period in an attempt to recreate the world as accurately as possible.
Once again, this job category contains a wide range of different roles, from the concept artists during the pre-production stage, to the 3D modellers. These guys are the painters of the game, creating high-quality versions of the visual basic prototype game, in order to create the best game imaginable.
These guys are brought in during the pre-production stage to create concept art for the project manager and the first team to judge their ideas. Common in many creative industries such as film and TV, the concept art produced is vital for deciding if a video game prototype is interesting and unique enough to continue onwards with.
Typically, a 2D concept artist is brought in first to sketch out the characters, game, and level aesthetics, however later on in the process you will also find 3D concept artists. A 3D concept artist can usually be found creating example assets for the prototype, showing what the game assets could look like, before creating them all for the full-fledged game.
Following on from the 3D concept art, the 3D modellers are responsible for creating all the models in the game. This includes all the character models, objects, props, weapons, environments, and other game assets.
Upon the foundation of the video game programmers and the game design artists, the 3D modellers build the next vital block in the video game development process, with the assets they create then being animated and textured to complete the product.
In the modern age of video games, it has become normal for larger studios to map real, physical objects to allow their 3D modellers to have the most accurate base model to work with.
This is where the magic happens. Along with good graphics, the animation style is often the most noticed element of a game's artistic development. Either praised for realistic and smooth animation such as in Cyberpunk 2077 or hounded for being glitchy and unrealistic.
Much like 3D modelers, game animators often spend a lot of time studying or motion capturing real-world models of what they'll be animating, all to ensure that a human smile seems natural, and a gun reload looks and feels like the real thing.
In the final touches, FX artists are in charge of all the explosions, fire, liquid, and other special effects you might expect to see in a game. For many of these effects, special physics are required to be added into the game, such as water and fire mechanics.
These elements are often what propel a video game into full immersion, with convincing FX introducing rain and weather, gunshot muzzle flash, and all the little details that bring a game alive.
Although specialised software like Houdini FX or Maya is often used to actually create the special effects, it's important that FX artists are familiar and comfortable working in and transferring work to the industry standard game engines such as Unreal Engine and Unity.
Any high-quality video game is incomplete without a good soundscape. Whether it be the sound of a gun firing, the cries of battle, believable dialogue sequences, or simply the pitter-patter of rain, audio engineers are a vital role in the game development process.
Realistic sound effects can make or break a video game's immersion, so it's important to get it right. For more competitive games, good sound effects and sound design can even be vital for gameplay, allowing players to hear footsteps and know an enemy's approaches. To make sure you're always on top of your game, check out our articles on the best sound settings for Fortnite and best sound settings in Valorant.
Along with all these important team members, a whole host of other important jobs must be completed during the development phase to create the perfect video games.
Any large game developer will also have video game testers, quest designers, combat designers, additional writers, and a marketing team.
All of that is not even mentioning the issue of languages. When large video games such as Call of Duty, Fortnite, and many others come out, they are released in many countries, and each one must have the game tailored to the native language.
Interpreters and translators must also join video game development in order to facilitate this. And if you're looking to change your language settings on a game, check out our articles on how to change your language settings in Minecraft, how to change your language settings in Fortnite , or how to change your language settings in Warzone.
While there are certainly many other smaller roles to play in the game development cycle, these are easily the most important ones for ensuring video games can move from ideas on a document to playable entities.
This is where every skill set listed above is put to use. With the game approved, financing acquired, and a plan in place, full-scale production can begin.
Depending on the size of the game, the main production stage of the game can take anywhere between 1 to 4 years, although many larger games have been known to take much longer (GTA 6...).
In this stage, the full team assembles and everything is created from the ground up and put into place. The story is written and refined, the textures, assets, levels, engine, and game programming are created, developed, and completed within this time frame.
Throughout the production role, each team will be focusing on their own craft, and here it is the project managers that make sure all the departments communicate, stay up-to-date, and complete their sections with every other game element in mind.
Each project manager makes certain that whenever an issue is encountered and changes have to be made, they are done so in keeping with all the other teams working on the game.
What Are The Different Stages of Production?
Although all video games are different in their game development process, there are generally six or seven important production milestones that the project manager will be looking to hit at certain times during game development.
The first stage is of course the prototype stage, which although is technically in the pre-production phase, is an important milestone, with essentially the first, very basic iteration of the game.
Building upon the prototype, this is where the game development team has produced a cohesive, playable game. The project is nowhere near done, but in the first playable a number of placeholder assets will have been replaced with high-quality versions, and some artwork would've been added.
This is where the project manager makes decisions about where to take the game going forward and can see exactly what the finished project might end up looking like.
The vertical slice is a small snippet of the full, final game. This is where the game development team takes a small slice of the full game, often a specific level or mission, and polishes it to completion.
This gives a glimpse of what the full final game will look like, and is often used to show to investors and studio executives.
This is the largest production phase and is where the majority of game development takes place.
While creating assets, artwork, scripts, animations, and everything else needed, the project managers will need to make big decisions, often deciding what content to add or cut along the road.
Upon hitting the "alpha" milestone, the game is completely playable and is "feature complete", meaning all features, mechanics, and game controls are finished.
There may still be some issues, and it is common to have other assets such as textures, artwork, and sound to be incomplete, but the game is now playable from start to finish.
While the rest of the game development team continues to add all the artwork, textures, and other unfinished assets, QA testers will be playing through the game to test the game world, and report any bugs and errors they may encounter.
Very similar to the alpha milestone, by the time teams reach the beta phase, games should have all their assets, from game functions and features to artwork and sound design, completely integrated.
The Beta phase is essentially a testing phase, where the main aim is to repeatedly run through the game and find and fix any bugs, errors, or issues that may be present. This phase is all about optimisation.
Affectionally named the "gold master", this is just a fancy name for the finished game. Everything has been checked, the game is completed, and the studio is ready for it to be released to the public.
Post Production: What Next?
The post production phase, although often overlooked by the public, can be as important as the main production of the game. The first game a studio makes is unlikely to be perfect, and the best way to improve and survive as a video game studio is to learn from your past games.
As (hopefully) sales are pouring in, reviews are raving, and everything is going well, studios and development teams will often hold debriefs or "post mortems" to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the project.
After the release is, of course, the best time to identify all the potential problems or standout achievements of a game, as the public player base serves as one big test group. From reviews and community feedback, a studio can quickly work out what customers will want to see and not see in their next big title.
Increasingly an important aspect of a game's life span, the modern gaming audience has come to expect constant updates and new content, along with the standard bug fixes. While most games will have a small team dedicated to fixing any issues with the game in the initial month or so of release, triple-A studios have come to dedicate more.
Games like GTA V and Rainbow Six Siege have thrived massively off regular new content releases, bringing in new missions, maps, game mechanics, and operators. This greatly extends the life of a game, so much so that both GTA V released in 2013 and Rainbow Six Siege released in 2015 are still some of the most popular games today.
Sometimes released for free, and other content released as buyable DLC, most big-budget games now also allocate teams to produce new content launch (like hot female lol skins), and will often release the game with a clear roadmap of new content either planned or even announced to the public.
From the smallest indie game to the biggest-budget triple-A title, every game follows a long and difficult process, with often hundreds of people dedicating time, energy, and passion to create the games we love to play.