Why quality in game development matters
The Grand Theft Auto series is one example of quality-first game development, says Contestabile
I recently heard someone voice the opinion that, for a video game developer or publisher, quality matters chiefly because it results in a positive feedback loop driven by media reviews, word of mouth and players’ interactions through online and social channels, which in turn drives financial success. While this is absolutely true and while the quality of a game is a strong indicator of its performance in terms of sales (hence the almost totemic reliance of the industry on Metacritic scores), I think that may be a myopic way of looking at the matter: in practice, no developer says “we need to focus on quality because it will help us sell more.” Rather, the need to focus on quality comes from a plurality of reasons, all of which are as important as the financial incentives.
Before going through them, though, I think it’s important to define “quality”, and in particular what “quality” means in the context of a video game. It’s an elusive, and certainly subjective, concept, which too often is defined in terms of “high production values,” a measure that might be appropriate to define a certain aspect of quality in a AAA game, but only tells part of the story, and doesn’t apply as effectively to other categories, such as casual games. So, what is “quality”? I can’t pretend to have the definitive answer to that question, but here are some ways to look at it:
“Quality” is consistently making choices that prioritize players’ enjoyment of your game before other considerations, and holding “creating fun” as the development team’s primary goal
“Quality” means having the courage to make decisions that might go against your immediate goals, in the interest of providing players with the best possible experience.
“Quality” results from assembling a team deeply experienced in and proud of their craft, and allowing them to fully express it, while working through the constraints of a realistic game development schedule and budget
“Quality” never results from cutting corners, and can’t be achieved without a very clear vision shared by the whole team, and an agreement on what success looks like
Those are a few ways to look at quality; I know that there are many more, and all of them are debatable to some extent. But, whatever your definition of quality, there are many important reasons to make it the centrepiece of your company culture and of your product development process and philosophy.
If we postulate that quality means creating a product that puts the player’s enjoyment before anything else, aiming for fun as its primary goal, then a successful product will be one that consistently entertains, delights, challenges and rewards. And, sure enough, this is also the key characteristic of entertainment products that are able to maintain their relevance over time, achieving that by understanding very well their target audience and catering to it, setting a consistently high quality bar, then meeting or surpassing it, and eventually becoming evergreen franchises.