Project Management: [WoW 8th Anniversary Special] Avoiding Feature Creep While Still Crafting a Great Game

World of Warcraft has been around for eight years now and with a user base of 10 million once again is still going strong. It’s quite the impressive feat when one considers that most MMOGs don’t live longer than 10 years (at least not at full capacity). That in mind, we’ll be focusing this week’s articles on the craft of this colossal game; starting with one of the policies Blizzard Entertainment is said to follow, for all of its games (StarCraft, Diablo, and WoW), when it comes to avoiding the dreaded time killers like “feature creep.” A concept best described as “feature trading,” it’s not certain whether or not this policy is still followed by Blizzard, but it’s still an excellent management concept all the same.

StarCraft - Zerg Creep

Defining the Feature Creep Danger

Feature creep is best defined as something, unplanned, that is added to a game beyond the original scope. It can vary in scale from small sound or visual effects to full-blown game features. That in mind, it isn’t something caused by one single person. Programmers, designers, artists, and even producers are guilty of this from time to time as they feel the addition will improve the game in some way. Nevertheless, and as you may have guessed, that addition does take time, and the “unplanned” aspect of feature creep can quickly cascade into devastating delays. Granted, it is done with the best intentions, and may improve the game overall, but the extra time-cost issue is still present.

Okay, so perhaps you’re wondering why feature creep can be “devastating.” The reason, for those that have yet to experience it, is that it often comes in the form of little things that may only take an hour or less. It doesn’t seem like much, but when managing a team of people, that is an extra hour for one person. What happens if there are several people adding little extras? Additionally, that hour can snowball. An extra hour spent on a feature creep item can mean that a planned item is now an hour behind. This can cause the next scheduled item to fall behind, then the next, and the next, etc. This can quickly grow out of hand where one hour becomes two; two becomes four; four becomes eight, and so on.

Dealing with Feature Creep

Tauren Rune Warrior - Concept ArtThe hardest part about being a project manager, and snuffing out feature creep, is the fact that you have to say “no” to people that have the best intentions for the game. While one of the key elements to being and effective leader is to be able to make tough decisions – and be the “bad guy” – every once and a while, the unfortunate truth is that many project leaders lack the tact to do it well. A good methodology that has been used by Blizzard in the past is a concept best described as “trading.”

Basically, this means that in games like World of Warcraft, nothing is added to the game build without first having something of an equal, or greater, time-cost available to remove (as the removal of features and game elements is the fastest and most effective, if not the most sophisticated, way to save time). It’s a great management tool on a couple of fronts. In the case of direct scheduling, it can mitigate the risks of falling behind schedule, but from a humanistic stand point, it gives the person that suggested a feature a sense of empowerment.

People need to feel important and the fact that you are listening to their ideas gives them a more seeded investment in the game. However, by requesting what can be traded out for their idea, you have put the ball in their court so-to-speak. Essentially, you have listened to their idea, which tells them it has value (and by extension they have value), but you have also added a sort of stipulation. By saying something like, “I like your idea, but what could we remove to allow time to add it?” you have forced them to weigh the value of their contribution against other features currently slated for development. If it is truly amazing, you and the individual ought to be able to determine how to make it possible; or at least find a way to add it in a future patch post-release. However, if it is a weaker suggestion, it is likely that the person suggesting the new feature will realize it’s not worth the time investment, in lieu of existing features, on their own accord. This alleviates some of the worry of the project manager always having to be the bad guy. Granted, this psychology doesn’t always pan out so perfectly, but it works well most of the time.

Mists of Pandaria Illustration IdeasOf course, this only works if you can manage to catch feature creep before it happens. Sadly, there are no magical tricks that can be done to prevent this aside from being proactive. That just means, as the project leader, you need to be frequently checking in with those you are managing in order to watch for any unwarranted additions. That being said, especially watch those you would deem your “best” workers: The ones most enthusiastic about the project. These are the individuals most likely to try and add things to “make the game better” (again, with the best intentions).

Is trading out suggested features the only tool for handling issues of feature creep? No, but it is one of the more effective and the proof is in the product of World of Warcraft itself (or any Blizzard game, for that matter). By swapping in-and-out potential game elements, and putting employees into the decision-making driver’s seat slightly, on what those swaps might be, you create a scenario that allows for great ideas to still flow, weak ideas to be weeded out, and shown that you do care about what others think. All of this combined will help to not only make a better quality game from a scheduling standpoint, but give greater personal investment to its team of creators. It is this passion, and feeling of investment, that can create greater quality than just about anything else.


Posted on November 19, 2012, in Casual Games, Core Games, Crafting, Design, MMO, Project Management, World of Warcraft and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.