#61: “The Greenlight Process – Part 2”
Published in 2016/06/16 special issue
Several game companies in the industry utilize a rigid “greenlight process” (especially overseas). The greenlight process is a method of minimizing huge investments when developing an innovative game. Comprehensive development “gates” are set up from start to finish, and a strict inspection takes place at each one. Basically, a product needs to pass through all of the gates before it can be released.
Last time, I talked about how there are many North American and European game developers and publishers that use this system, but there aren’t really any examples of it being used by Japanese developers. I’d like to spend this column and the next one contemplating the reasons why.
I think there may be people who question whether you can create an exceptional game with that kind of development method, because subjective things like ideas, designs, and enjoyability are so important in games. However, I think that this excuse itself is one of the big reasons why it’s hard for Japanese game companies to implement the greenlight process.
Let me use consumer appliances to illustrate my point. For example, say I’ve been assigned to a project team that is setting out to create a new vacuum cleaner that will take the world by storm. I’m most likely not going to succeed by coming up with random ideas, so first, I figure out what a vacuum cleaner would need in order to become a hit.
- A design that doesn’t look out of place in a living room (Cute? Stylish? Modern? Classic?)
- How to execute the most important aspect of a vacuum cleaner: its suction power
- How to easily dispose of the garbage
- The most appropriate price range to sell a vacuum cleaner at (including whether or not to use low cost as a selling point)
- How well you can muffle the noise it generates
- How much you can increase the mobility of the appliance itself (bottom of the appliance, manageability of the suction hose)
Even a layman can come up with the above ideas. As the project leader, I will decide on a course of action for each of these points.
- We will only be targeting young women this time. It will be a cat-shaped vacuum cleaner that meows.
- Contrary to its appearance, I want to focus on its suction power on carpet. (We can’t beat Dys*n in this department)
- It will have built-in AI, and when the garbage storage is full, it will return to its “base” and dispose of the garbage by itself.
- Expensive is OK. We will invest in developing the AI and carpet nozzle (there will be a budget version in the line-up).
- As we are focusing on carpets, I want to use the carpet fibers to muffle the noise as much as possible.
- We are aiming for the best in the world. It will be nimble like a cat.
This will be our project plan. First, I have to present it to the director of the “Home Appliance R&D Branch”. However, words alone don’t give a proposal persuasive power, so I’ll have to pay a marketing company to do market research on how well the described product would be received.
In other words, this is the first “gate” in the greenlight process. The director is the gatekeeper. Since the gatekeeper is a person, I also have to take his personality into account. Does he put emphasis on data or does he prefer designs? You may be wondering: if the end result is a product to be sold, what’s the point in convincing one person? However, a product that cannot even satisfy the director is unlikely to be a hit.
A project like this begins with an extremely small team. Having more people doesn’t mean you’ll get better ideas. Your discussions will be more dynamic, but only because there are more differing opinions, and this only makes it more difficult for everyone to come to a consensus. Even a small team can put out a lot of ideas, so in the end, it’s the leader’s job to decide which ideas to use, explain the reasoning to the team members, and get their approval.
After conquering the first gate, next I have to figure out what order to work on #1-6 in. Many of them can be worked on in parallel, but it’s too risky to pull a lot of people onto the project at once. Also, if the director says, “We’ll be checking whether the carpet nozzle in #4 is feasible at the next gate,” then I’ll have to get the company’s engineering team to work with me to create a prototype and prove that it’s technically feasible.
At this point, if there are already a lot of people on the project team and the next gate is “technological research,” then all of those other people don’t have any work to do. I can’t tell them to work on the next-next gate either, because they only gave me enough budget for the technological research. Funds will only be approved for whatever the next gate requires.
In order to increase the project team size, you need to have a corresponding amount of work for them to do. The issue becomes more prevalent when you gather highly motivated people—even if you’re at a standstill before a gate, they’ll think “I have to do something!” and start creating work to do. Despite their good intentions, this leads to them making decisions without clearing them with the rest of the team, more tentative assumptions, and “practical work” that hasn’t been properly verified.
Regardless of their reasons, humans are stubborn about their own “results.” Even if they only started working off of a tentative decision, once they’ve made progress, they become attached to what they’ve produced. Even though they know that there are several issues with their work since they bypassed proper verifications, they tend to go “I’ve already done this much work, so please let me keep going with it. I promise I’ll fix the problems later!” Of course, there are cases where decisions made this way work out well, but since they’re made in hindsight, it’s not a safe strategy. Also, in the case that you can’t fix the problems later, the issues that resulted from increasing the project team size materialize as a huge time and financial loss.
Here I used a vacuum cleaner to illustrate a small portion of the greenlight process. We also know that even consumer appliances and industrial goods require ideas and inspiration. Looking at it from a different perspective, this means that even with a rigorous greenlight process, there are still many cases where the final product is mediocre instead of a big success.
If that’s the case, then we need to at least raise our batting average or take on many challenges while keeping costs down. This is where I think the greenlight process’ true colours shine, but this methodology just isn’t permeating the Japanese game industry. I’ll talk about this matter next time.
 The “Home Appliance R&D Branch” in this column and its director are fictional. Also, I don’t think a cat-shaped vacuum cleaner is being developed, but if an appliance-maker is reading this and going “That was MY idea!”, I am very sorry.