10.2. Lifecycle of a Game


This stage is an edited excerpt from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Career Outlook report for Video Game Development.

How do those studios, or indie developers, actually create a game? Almost every game follows a similar development process: preproduction, production, and postproduction.

The full process can take from months to years. Full-featured games, such as those made for consoles, generally take longer to develop — usually between 18 and 30 months but sometimes even longer. By comparison, most games that are played on social media and mobile devices tend to be shorter and involve simpler technology, which results in a quicker development process of a few months.


Work completed during preproduction lays the foundation upon which a game is built. In this phase, the lead designers outline a game concept with the help of lead artists and programmers. Lead designers also might select a feature, such as an innovative gameplay element or powerful graphics, that makes the game unique.

The different design teams flesh out a specific part of the game, such as its mechanics and storyline. The designers then compile their ideas in a game design document, which describes the game and its features in detail. From this document, programmers create a prototype game. Designers use feedback on the prototype to revise game features. Many game studios also use the prototype to secure financing from publishers, allowing the designers to continue developing the game.

Once the game receives funding, programmers begin building its technological framework. Meanwhile, artists create concept art, such as character illustrations, that helps designers visualize the game. Completion of the prototype signals the start of the production phase of development.


In the production phase, teams of designers, artists, and programmers use the design document as a guide to create the game.

Artists use concept art to create textures, models, and animations for the characters, levels, objects, and environments that will populate the game world. Programmers finalize the game engine — a video game’s physics and graphics systems — and tools. They also write the code that dictates everything from the game’s rules to how its visual elements are displayed on the screen.

Designers meet with workers from the other departments to ensure that the game’s design document is being followed. Feedback during production helps the designers revise the document as needed—for example, to improve a game’s mechanics or remove an unfeasible feature.

Throughout production, developers continually build improved versions of the game. “The goal is to add more dimensions to the game,” says David Sirlin, lead designer for Sirlin Games in Emeryville, California. “That is, to create more content that is better looking within a design that is more refined.” At the conclusion of the production phase, the fully playable game includes art, music, and sound effects. This milestone is referred to as “content complete.”

Postproduction and beyond

Postproduction focuses on playing the game to test it for errors, called bugs, and on tweaking it to eliminate unwanted elements. The quality assurance staff tests the game by playing it and attempting to do things the development staff never considered. As the game testers find bugs, they document the errors and assign them to a programmer, designer, or artist to fix.

Testers might also find that parts of the game are inconsistent or imbalanced. Fixing these issues might require tweaks to existing features and content. Dealing with bugs and tweaks can make postproduction time-consuming. The process may take as long as production, especially for more complex games that have bigger budgets. When a game is released, it is distributed for sale to players. However, the work does not end there. Games often need patches, which are frequent updates that might include bug fixes, tweaks to the game’s balance, and new content. And a game’s success might persuade the studio to develop an expansion—a large content and feature update that usually is sold separately as an addition to the original game.