Pilot projects are often how video game developers first get a taste of what it’s like working with a development partner. It is the first step into possibly a long and fruitful relationship for both sides.
The question then is how should you run a pilot project? Or more importantly, how do you make sure you succeed? Here are some things I’ve learned from my experience as a project manager on how to get pilots right.
1. Set clear goals and expectations.
First, a pilot project will need to be clear what it is testing for. This would ensure both parties understand the desired goal and have discussions, at length if needed, about how to best approach the project. Even an art test for a video game character can be used to test for knowledge regarding certain workflows or tools. In truth, “making the best-looking asset” is not actually a useful goal and outsourcing often means looking for “good and cheap” alternatives. While these seem like valid goals, they are not the best ways to run pilot projects. The goal should always be aligned with solving major production issues that the game developers have; i.e. niche art skills like VFX or Unreal Engine expertise.
2. Clarify, clarify, clarify.
Once the goal is certain, ask all questions and clear up ambiguity with the client. Is the workflow up for change? Is there room for experimentation? Have other methods been considered? Is there any more documentation that might be helpful? And most importantly, when is the final due date? As a development partner, it is in your best interest to find the main issues when getting requests to “make the best-looking asset”. Imagine finding out “make the best-looking asset” but “in proprietary game engine” at the end of the test.
3. Think about the journey.
While the destination is to deliver fantastic results and secure the job, do not neglect how it is like to work with you. When charting your course, make sure that the journey is as carefully thought out and planned for. It is the part where you get to build a relationship with your client and earn their trust which is crucial when moving forward from the pilot. Flying smoothly is as important as landing smoothly, which brings us to the next section.
Both teams could be from completely different parts of the world and this would make communication harder than it already is. However, there are many applications like Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp and Skype that give us direct access to one another. You should take advantage of this. Don’t hesitate to reach out with a quick message or email when there is a need to communicate.
While simply sharing information is easy, it is harder to do so concisely and effectively. Set clear expectations of communication channels and responsibilities; both sides should know who to reach out to for certain matters. At the very least, you will want to link people on multiple levels. The more potential points of communications you have with one another, the less likely things will get bottlenecked with just one person.
5. Simulate full production.
To truly reflect what the long-term partnership will be, the pilot project needs to simulate full production. As you would usually start small, it is important that production pipelines, workflows, tools, and even communication channels have been set up to reflect the project on a larger scale. Any bumps, inefficiencies, and problems encountered here would need to be ironed out before scaling up. Which means you’ll need to be flexible and adapt along the way. Do not be afraid to make changes for the better.
6. Be honest.
As a service provider, it is also very important for you to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. It pays to be upfront with the client and have open discussions about what other skills might be available or otherwise lacking. It might sound like you’re short-selling yourself but when the team is given the time to learn and familiarize with the needed technical skills, it will pay off in the long run. Doing this and acing the pilot project would essentially mean you have a team that’s ready to hit the ground running when real production starts.
Part of being honest is also admitting when you are not a fit with the client. When it comes to business, we tend to be incredibly unaccepting of failures. Whatever the reason may be, it is not a sign of weakness but awareness. Being able to recognize and accepting it will allow you to grow your team for the next pilots. And honestly, it is better to part ways during the pilot rather than during full production when the stakes are much higher.
7. Be prepared to invest more time.
There will be a lot of trial and error typical for teams working together for the first time. As with forms of art, sometimes the end goal moves. When that happens, it is important that you initiate a frank discussion with your client. Whether it be moving the deadline or putting more people (hence more man-hours) on the project. It will not benefit you to just accept it and stick to your initial schedule if it does need more effort and time. You’d be more likely to fail and thus lose the partnership.
8. Present your work well.
Imagine that you’ve cooked up something that tastes amazing. However, it was just a lump of mashed stuff. Does not whet the appetite, does it? Much like that, the result of your work needs to be presented well or all the work you’ve put in will be for naught. Make good renders of your art or compile a well-written report. Have good naming conventions and folder structures. These are small but would show that you really do care about your work.
9. Have a Postmortem.
Regardless of how the pilot project went down, take the time to reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes we get so caught up in steering the project, it’s hard to take a step back while it’s running. From a postmortem, you should identify what is good and should continue, what needs to be changed and improved for the better as well as what is bad and needs to be stopped or changed. Having actionable points here is most important and would help ensure your team grows and that the full production would be much smoother.
Pilot projects are reflective of how the partnership would be. When run effectively with good pre-planning, execution and wrap up, they help nurture and grow fruitful relationships that are long term and ultimately help push the final product. Do it well and it’ll be a win-win situation for everyone involved.