Deadline Dilemma: When to Cut Scope?

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Over at Kotaku, there’s an interesting story about the development of Destiny, the bestselling video game. Created by the same team that made the Halo series an international phenomenon (which helped Microsoft transform its Xbox platform into a viable gaming competitor), Destiny is a sprawling multiplayer adventure in which players travel the galaxy, defeating evil.

It also risked becoming an epic misfire.

Commercial AAA games, like all software, take a very long time to develop, and require the talents of dozens (if not hundreds) of developers and artists working in sync. Managing such projects is equally complicated, especially in larger companies with multiple levels of executives.

After three years of developing the game, the Destiny team finally showed off a highlight reel of their work to senior management, which collectively freaked out. The whole plotline needed a major revamp. “In the coming weeks,” wrote Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, “the development team would devise a totally new plot, overhauling Destiny and painstakingly stitching together the version that’d ultimately ship a year later, in September 2014.”

That Frankenstein’s monster of a release disappointed a number of critics, and gamers took to online forums to complain about everything from bugs to a maddeningly opaque leveling-up system. Bungie tried to stitch the mess with a series of patches and content downloads, but things wouldn’t truly improve until the recent release of “The Taken King,” an expansion pack that essentially doubled as a reboot of the game’s core features.

In the wake of the release, some of Destiny’s engineers (unnamed in the Kotaku article) pointed fingers at management, accusing them of not understanding the game from the outset. Others blamed the game’s engine, including its unwieldy level-building tools.

While most software developers (and managers) likely won’t find themselves confronting a project of Destiny’s scope, the game’s troubled production offers a key lesson:

Plan on Cutting Scope

Despite everybody’s best efforts, projects sometimes threaten to overrun their deadlines. If the deadline is immovable, that means cutting the project’s scope. After spending three years building the “first draft” of Destiny, its creators attempted to reconfigure its feature-set and story over the course of a rushed few weeks. That was clearly too little time.

While a hard deadline made Bungie’s particular situation unavoidable, project managers can design a backup plan well in advance that breaks an app’s features into “essential” and “removable.” That way, if a deadline looms, features can be cut without leaving too much of a mess.

Cutting scope also frees up money and resources for remaining features, meaning the project manager can focus more on shipping a polished (albeit smaller) product. Although some tech pundits have claimed in recent years that the software industry as a whole is too dependent on post-release patches to deal with production issues, the fact remains that many problems or features not addressed pre-release can be handled later. Bungie proved that the hard way.