How to Create a Beta-to-Release Production Schedule

Hit your next release date with these simple steps.

Having a specific release date is a double-edged sword. It’s a wonderful promise to your eager fans, but it can also be a source of anxiety if you now have to race against the clock to finish your game. In the beginning, you might only have a vague release window in mind, something like “Fall 2020.” But at some point you’re going to want to set an actual date. How do you find a date that your team can comfortably work towards yet is near enough in the future to still get your fans hyped? You can start by building a production schedule around a series of achievable key milestones.

Whenever I receive a production schedule, the very first things I look for are the beta and gold master milestone dates. The most common mistake I’ve seen is not having enough time allocated between these two milestones, which will inevitably lead to delaying your game (there could undoubtedly be issues with the development schedule that began on day 1, but that’s a different discussion entirely). Even if development has gone smoothly so far, your plans for the period between beta and launch can either make or break your release date. So, let’s start there.

What does it mean that a game has hit beta?

A game hits beta when it is content complete. That means all of the content has been created and implemented, with only bug fixing and polishing work remaining. If you’re making a racing game, for example, a beta build would include all gameplay modes, racetracks, cars, paintjobs, objectives, achievements…everything! If the build is still waiting on localized text or it’s missing a racetrack, it would not qualify as a beta.

Why is this milestone important?

Hitting beta is a pivotal moment in your production schedule because you can now set a more reliable release date without later shooting yourself in the foot. There are far less variables to account for at this stage. For example, it’s much easier to estimate how much time you’ll spend in QA when you know your game is content complete. Once the majority of bugs have been found, you can trust that the bug count will steadily decline over time. That’s opposed to having to factor in a surge in bugs when missing content or game modes are finally implemented.

How do you determine your release date from beta?

First, you’ll want to account for how much time you’ll need for QA and bug fixing. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself a month fully dedicated to bug fixing for every six months the game has been in development. So, if your racing game took 18 months to hit beta, you’ll want to give yourself at least 3 months dedicated to QA and bug fixing. At the end of this period, you will end up with a release candidate, a build that you’re confident is ready to release to the public.

If it took 18 months to get your game to beta, it’s safe to assume it will take around 3 months to get to a release candidate.

So that’s my release date, right?

Ah, the keyword here is “candidate.” Your release candidate will still need to be submitted to platform holders (i.e., Sony, Microsoft, Steam, and/or Nintendo) for certification, which can take more than a week depending on the platform. If you’re dealing with multiple platforms, you’ll want to plan around the one that takes the longest. There is also a very real possibility that you will fail that first submission, so you should ensure that there is enough time for a second submission. This involves more than just doubling the time.

Issues that cause you to fail the first submission might be very sticky. They could include a platform compliance standard that affects multiple gameplay systems in your candidate. You’ll want to give yourself at least two weeks to address these certification issues and properly QA the fixes. If all goes well, your game will reach the second critical milestone: the day your game goes gold (or “gold master”).

Here, we’re assuming the longest certification time will be one week, and we’re giving ourselves four weeks to get through the process.

I’ve heard this term a lot, but does “going gold” mean we’re done?

Once you’ve gone gold, there are still some processes to consider. If your game will have a physical release, you’ll need to account for the time it will take to manufacture the discs and ship them to retailers. Even if your game is a digital-only release, there will be some operational time needed to publish your approved build onto different digital storefronts. What’s important is that all of these processes tend to have fixed timelines with very little surprises. Once you’ve confirmed these operational timelines, you can safely land on a release date.

What we get at the end of this process is a realistic production schedule that is neither too aggressive nor too conservative.

For our example, let’s just say it’s a digital-only game and that it takes two weeks to publish the game to digital storefronts. Taken as a whole, we can safely target a digital-only release date 18 weeks from when our game hits beta.

Cool, but is there any flexibility here?

A basic production schedule like this is only the beginning. This basic schedule gives you the freedom to plan and make informed choices about your release date.

Let’s say that you don’t like the release date dictated by your beta date. Maybe the next big racer is launching on the same day. A valid strategy would be to wait it out and release at a much later time, even if it means you won’t generate sales for a while longer.

You can also attempt to release earlier than your base schedule dictates, not just to get ahead of that next big racer but perhaps because you want to align the release with some major industry event. You can look at your schedule and start exploring different ways that you might accomplish this. Can you turn a second submission build around in one week rather than two? Can you increase your staff and hopefully get to a release candidate in 10 weeks rather than 12? Can you attempt to hit beta sooner than planned?

There are a number of adjustments that you can make once you have your production schedule, each with their own cost and associated risk. But, when you start with a realistic schedule you can more effectively weigh those costs and benefits. A production schedule doesn’t just help you meet your deadlines; it can also help you to identify challenges and opportunities early on while you still have time to adjust your release plans.

So, is hitting your release date really that easy?

There’s always some level of RNG even in real life, but this maxim seems especially true in game development. As our Head of Production always says, “what CAN’T go wrong, will also definitely go wrong.” Following the principles laid out in this article won’t necessarily make game development a breeze, but it can certainly help with putting out the fires that eventually crop up. Trust me, when you find that bug that relates to collecting every outfit in your game and the only way to properly test it…is to collect every damn outfit over and over again, you’re going to be glad that you gave yourself twice as much time as what you originally planned.

Andrew D. Nguyen is a Producer at Modus Games with 8 games shipped across PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC. His latest project is coaching his 3-year-old through Super Mario World. You can find him on Twitter @OverrideAndrew.

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