Lifecycle of a Video Game: A Game Designer’s Guide

University students stood around a whiteboard looking at scientific formula and having a meeting. Kyoto, Japan. May 2016

Perhaps one of the most obvious things any aspiring game developer must consider is the quality of the game. From graphics to game play, everything must look good and be effortless for the player. Regarding the sound, it must be crisp, neither too far outside the scene or buried within it. Additionally, the playable levels, the overall story line, the marketing copy and promos, all of it should, ideally, be triple-A.


It is fairly common knowledge that to accomplish this level of game quality, the aspiring game designer must understand the development lifecycle of their game. Only by developing the game according to the lifecycle can a game designer address all of the game’s functional and business needs.


However, what might not be so obvious is that a video game lifecycle continues beyond the launch of the game. In fact, although it is not often discussed, the lifecycle continues beyond marketing. The reason the developmental lifecycle of a game should be considered to extend beyond release and marketing is because many aspiring game developers will become indie game developers. As such, they may likely be involved in agile publishing or agile programming in which the game continues development even after it has been perfected, so to speak. In recognizing this, even when a game is back-shelved, even when it gets buried in the discount aisles or under pages of more exciting new releases, it can come back to life as sales begin to surge.


Lifecycle: Step by Step


There are many steps in the video game lifecycle. They include deployment, artwork, engine, sound, prototype, licensing, alpha testing, beta testing, pre-launch, funding, intellectual property, launch and ongoing post-launch development for aspiring indie game developers.


Step #1: Deployment


Once you have the idea in place, the next requirement is to switch gears and start at the end by determining how the project will deploy. As there are so many platforms, this detail is the first on the developmental list because it drives nearly every other aspect of the game’s development.


For instance, haunted houses set in virtual reality are common. However, someone wanting to deploy the experience to PC will have many more resources to work with than someone deploying it to phone-based VR systems like Sony Gear. In terms of 3D models, for instance, one important limitation for phone-based systems is that they can’t handle as many triangles. Triangles represent the complexity of a 3D model’s mesh, too many, and the experience lags. Additionally, the size and resolution of graphic files must be smaller.


PC developers, however, can utilize much more detail, which makes PC-based VR projects much more realistic. Of course, technology is continuously becoming more powerful, but there will always be different constraints for different deployment choices.


Step #2: Artwork


Where a designer gets their graphics is critical to the project. Placeholder graphics can be obtained from a variety of online repositories. Similarly, both Unity and Unreal Engine have online marketplaces where a designer can license sprites, 2D images, and 3D models.


Ultimately, you will want original graphics. As a game designer, you can create it all yourself. However, it may be more feasible to partner with a graphic artist on Additionally, you can start a Meetup and recruit new people interested in game development. The point of this part of the lifecycle is to ensure you are able to either license or obtain original graphics, which can help set your project apart from your competitors.


Step #3: Engine


At this point, the actual engine used to develop the project is inconsequential as any and all concerns regarding the engine should have been addressed during the feasibility study.


Step #4: Sound


Similar to graphics, placeholder sounds can be obtained and used in the development of the prototype. However, it is important to either license sounds to be later used in your game or to develop your own.


Developing your own may be both easier and much cheaper. For instance, a midi keyboard will often come with pre-mixed effects. Additionally, you can obtain a VST plugin and create your own sounds digitally. Finally, simple sound effects can be created via Foley work in which you record yourself using everyday objects to mimic a sound. For example, you can sit back in a creaky chair to mimic the sound of a creaky door. The best part about developing your own sounds is that you avoid all licensing issues and expenses.


Step #5: Prototype


The prototype, or proof of concept, will be a working level that allows complete playability. More importantly, the prototype will be a working model of the project’s key feature or features. For instance, if your project is called F.O.G., which might stand for Fairly Opaque Grounds, the proof of concept would, ideally, include the protagonist searching their way through fog. Props that serve as the prototype might include flashlights or car lights to show how light behaves. Perhaps there would be creatures lurking in the fog. Perhaps these creatures lumber about then lunge out and attack the player. Depending on the fog’s thickness, the protagonist might have little or no time to react. Finally, the protagonist might eventually make it out of the fog and reach the safety point. All the key fog-based features of this hypothetical project would need to be represented in the prototype.


Step #6: Licensing


Unless you build your own models, make your own sound and music, and produce your own artwork, you will eventually run into some sort of licensing requirements. In addition to licensing requirements that have to do with the game components, you should consider the licensing requirements of the game engine you are using to develop your project. Game engines, for instance, typically either require a subscription fee, or they institute a payment plan once your project reaches a certain level of revenue per year. Other types of licensing fees might include voice-overs.


To track the licensing for every component in the project, you should use a licensing checklist that contains copies of each component’s license. Live-action components, such as recorded narration or even motion-capture movements, should accompany a performer’s release, allowing your company to use the actions in your project for commercial purposes.


Step #7: Alpha testing


Alpha testing represents the first draft of a completed project. Developers will test the project in-house, attempting to break the game, so to speak. They will also assess the quality and the coherence of the project. Once they have their data, they will fix the problems and continue to test, re-test, and revise the game until they have a version suitable for outside testing.


Step #8: Beta testing


Beta testing involves the first completed version of the game that allows for third-party testing. These testers will provide a variety of actionable and subjective feedback, which will be considered and / or acted upon.


Step #9: Pre-launch


Pre-launch represents the marketing activity associated with the game’s upcoming launch. Pre-launch might involve distributing the game to online influencers or game reviewers.


Pre-launch might also involve making the game available on a limited basis via conferences or award competitions. In this instance, the conference is also a type of beta testing, designed to allow developers to assess overall reception of the game prior to the final launch. Making the game available at a conference is the best way to enjoy a controlled release in the so-called wild.


Step #10: Funding


Many people think that funding happens at the beginning of the lifecycle, prior to development. However, it can only take place after you have built some sort of following, which means it is probably best undertaken during the marketing part of the launch phase somewhere between prototyping and beta testing.


For instance, after you have built up a reasonable number of players intrigued by your prototype, you can then launch a crowd-sourced funding campaign. You should only expect approximately two percent of your recruited players to offer funding. As a result, you need a group of followers large enough to make the donations from this two percent significant.


Step #11: Intellectual Property


In-house alpha testers should each be bound by a no-compete agreement and a non-disclosure agreement. By the time you beta test the project, you should have the game registered for actual copyright protection. If you do not register your project for copyright protection, you cannot recover damages if someone steals your artwork or other intellectual property.


This issue, while not often discussed, is an unfortunate fact. Your intellectual property might be so-called protected by copyright the moment you create them but you cannot win a lawsuit and receive damages unless that same property is first registered at the Library of Congress as being copyright protected.


Step #12: Launch


The launch is probably the most exciting moment in the development process. Although the launch is typically on a specific day, the idea of launch, as it pertains to the developmental lifecycle, is, ironically, a process that takes place over many months. How well you implement this process will determine how well your game does in the market. For instance, to successfully launch your game, you should engage in a variety of pre-launch releases and marketing activities that include the following:


  • video releases
  • play releases
  • online interviews
  • getting involved in the online gaming community
  • knowing your indie forums, communities, and competitions
  • getting blogs to do a countdown to release day
  • obtaining press coverage, if possible
  • keeping on top of all your social media venues
  • recruiting players and / or beta testers


Step #13: Ongoing post-launch development for aspiring indie game developers


As an aspiring indie developer, you should enter the process of developing games with the mindset that you are a company capable of fine-tuning a game as you receive feedback from players. This type of production is called agile production, and it is the backbone of indie development. Consequently, in a sense, beta testing rarely ends, and development only ends when one’s profit goals are reached or interest in support wanes or becomes unprofitable.


Additionally, the launching of one game should overlap with the production of other games. For instance, as game A goes through its beta testing, game B development should begin.


Of course, when you actually start development of game B depends on your resources. It is important to understand that as an aspiring game developer, you will likely be required to build a library of games if you expect an income that can sustain you.


For instance, in self-publishing, a writer takes on the role of editor, writer, artist, publisher and marketing executive. In spite of all the effort, writing one novel is likely not going to lead to much financial success. In fact, for indie writers to begin earning steady income, studies show the tipping point to be somewhere between six and nine novels, according to Written Word Media. However, in order for writers to achieve higher income, say 100K annually, they must have a library consisting of over 100 novels. When a writer hits these two tipping points, sales begin to take off at their respective levels. Prior to reaching the first tipping point, nothing much happens at all.


Similarly, a video game designer must embrace the development lifecycle of the first game,  while keeping in mind that they will not simply develop one project, make millions, and retire. Instead, they should be prepared to come up with, perhaps, 10 video games before they expect to make a reasonable living as a video game designer. Keep in mind, that as you develop more games, interest in your previous video games will increase.

The Takeaway


Overall, it is important to be methodical in attending to each step in your video game’s development lifecycle. After that, be patient. Regardless of what else you do, keep developing games.

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