May 30, 2024

How video games are made: the game development process

Curious about how video games are created? This article explains the video game development process, focusing on the 'pipeline'—the industry term for the step-by-step procedure of building a game from the ground up.

What is the game development pipeline?

The game development pipeline is the structured process of creating a video game from concept to completion.

Much like a production line, it organizes the workflow, ensuring everyone knows their deliverables and deadlines.

This pipeline also helps manage the development timeline and budget, minimizing inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

Although pipelines can vary between projects and studios, the overall process remains quite similar across AAA, indie, and mobile games.

Games are continuously evolving, and ideas that seem promising in theory may not work in practice. Therefore, the pipeline is not always linear. Work often requires creative approvals and revisions, necessitating a flexible pipeline that can accommodate changes and adjustments.

The 3 stages of game development

Video game development is typically divided into 3 stages: pre-production, production, and post-production.

1. Pre-production

Every project begins with pre-production, where the game's concept is defined, its purpose is justified, and the requirements for its creation are outlined.

Whether you have a great idea for a game, a story you want to bring to life, or a desire to utilize specific technology (such as VR, a new controller, or console), pre-production is where you flesh out these ideas. This stage addresses crucial questions such as:

  • What is the game about?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • Is there a market for it? What does the competition look like?
  • Which platform will it be published on?
  • How will it be monetized? Will it be sold outright or offered for free with in-game purchases?
  • How long will it take to develop?
  • What staff and resources will be needed?
  • What is the estimated budget?

Pre-production can last from a week to a year, depending on the project's nature, available resources, and financial constraints, typically accounting for up to 20% of the total production time.

At this stage, the team is usually small, possibly including a producer, programmers, and a concept artist. If you're a solo developer, you'll be handling most of these tasks yourself.

  • Producer: Manages the business aspects, particularly financials, including the budget and marketing strategies.
  • Concept Artist: Establishes the visual tone with early artwork and sketches, providing a visual guide for the overall look and feel of the game.

The insights gathered during pre-production are compiled into the Game Design Document, forming the project's blueprint.

The Game Design Document (GDD)

The Game Design Document (GDD) serves as the project's guiding star. It’s a living document that aligns the entire team with the overarching vision of the game.

Our Game Design courses will prepare you to be career-ready in just 12 months.

The GDD typically includes:

  • The idea or concept
  • Genre
  • Story and characters
  • Core game mechanics
  • Gameplay
  • Level and world design
  • Art and sketches
  • Monetization strategy

As a living document, the GDD is continually updated and refined throughout production. Changes might arise due to technical or financial constraints, or simply because certain elements don't work as well in practice as initially envisioned.

While smaller developers may prefer agile development techniques that focus less on process and documentation, larger studios like EA, Microsoft, Sony, and Ubisoft rely heavily on detailed documentation and structured processes, which have contributed to their repeated successes.

A well-maintained GDD helps keep the project organized, identifies potential risks, and clarifies staffing and outsourcing needs. Even seemingly straightforward game ideas can reveal their complexity and resource demands when fully laid out in a GDD.

Projects lacking a solid plan are more likely to exceed their timeframes and budgets.

Additionally, a GDD is crucial for pitching and securing funding. Investors want to see a comprehensive plan before committing resources.

Finally, the GDD aids in marketing your game once it's ready for release.


A video game prototype serves as an initial test to evaluate functionality, user experience, gameplay mechanics, and art direction.

Prototyping occurs during pre-production to assess the viability of a game idea and determine if it's worth pursuing. Many concepts don't progress beyond this stage.

Teams often begin with paper designs to swiftly, easily, and cost-effectively explore various aspects of the game or its systems. While conceptualizing and theorizing are crucial, practical testing is essential. Most game ideas need to be experienced firsthand rather than solely imagined.

The goal is to develop a prototype quickly to verify if the concepts are effective and if the game is as enjoyable as envisioned. Prototyping can also uncover unforeseen challenges that may alter the project's direction significantly. External testing is vital as well, as what's evident to you may not be apparent to others.

Placeholder Assets

During early testing phases, placeholder assets are used to expedite development and reduce costs. These temporary, low-quality assets represent items like weapons and props until final, high-quality versions are created.

Placeholder assets can be acquired from online sources or within game development software. While they typically consist of basic shapes, they may also include slightly more advanced elements.

2. Production

Production, the lengthiest phase of the pipeline, requires full team engagement.

Spanning from 1 to 4 years, production marks the stage where the game truly takes form. The narrative is honed, assets (characters, creatures, props, and environments) are crafted, gameplay rules are established, levels and worlds are constructed, code is written, and much more!

Every aspect of a video game is a deliberate choice, including characters, environments, objects, aesthetics, sounds, difficulty levels, rules, and scoring systems.

However, initial concepts don't always translate seamlessly into reality. Thus, as work progresses, the game undergoes continuous testing and refinement.

Let's delve into the key milestones of game production and the essential roles in video game development. It's worth noting that smaller teams often fulfill multiple roles, while larger studios employ specialized staff for various production aspects.

Production Milestones

The game development process consists of several key milestones.

Prototype: This initial test, conducted during pre-production, evaluates the game's feasibility (as detailed previously). Some projects may not progress beyond this stage.

First Playable: The first playable version provides a clearer understanding of the game's aesthetics and gameplay. While still far from final, placeholders are replaced with higher-quality assets, and artwork is introduced.

Vertical Slice: A vertical slice represents a fully playable segment used to pitch the game to studios or investors. Typically lasting from a few minutes to half an hour, it offers a firsthand experience of the game.

Pre-Alpha: The pre-alpha stage sees the majority of content development. Critical decisions are made at this juncture, with content possibly being cut or new elements added to enhance gameplay.

Alpha: The game reaches a "feature complete" status, meaning all core features are implemented, and the game is playable from start to finish. While some art assets may still need integration, controls and functionality should be operational. QA testers ensure smooth operation and report any issues to the team.

Beta: At this stage, all content and assets are integrated, and the focus shifts to optimization rather than introducing new features.

Gold Master: The game is finalized and prepared for distribution to the publishing outlet, ready for release to the public.

Essential Game Development Roles

Game development roles vary based on studio size and type. Below are some common positions found in game development:

Project Manager

The project manager ensures the smooth running of the game development process, ensuring milestones are met, risks are managed, and team members are aligned with their tasks. They act as a central communication point between development, design teams, and executives, requiring exceptional organization and communication skills.

Game Developers/Programmers

Game programmers translate design concepts into code to create playable games. They possess strong programming backgrounds, combining creativity, mathematical skills, and patience to code interactive visuals and sounds. Their tasks include building game engines, scripting functions, developing AI, and implementing game logic.

Game Designers

Game designers are the creative drivers behind games, responsible for crafting compelling stories, characters, goals, rules, and challenges. They oversee gameplay, rule-setting, level design, and programming/scripting.

Level Designers

Level designers create engaging and functional game levels, ensuring player progression and minimizing confusion. They draw inspiration from concept art and references to design and build game environments using level editing software.

Game Artists

Game artists bring color, movement, and life to games, including concept artists, animators, 3D modelers, and FX artists. They design visual elements and assets, create 3D models, animate characters and objects, and add special effects for immersion.

Audio Engineers/Sound Designers/Composers

Audio experts develop realistic sound effects, record voice-overs/dialogue, and compose soundtracks to enhance player immersion and set the mood.

QA (Quality Assurance) / Video Game Testers

Testers play a crucial role in identifying bugs, ensuring game functionality, and providing feedback to the development team for improvement.

Additional Roles

Larger studios may employ specialized roles like quest designers, combat designers, writers, interpreters, translators, and product team members to handle marketing and distribution aspects.

Each role contributes uniquely to the game development process, ensuring the creation of immersive and engaging gaming experiences.

3. Post-production

After the game is shipped, the game development process enters a new phase. Some team members transition to maintenance tasks like bug fixing and patch creation, while others focus on creating bonus content or downloadable expansions (DLC). Some may start working on a sequel or the next project.

A post-mortem or debriefing session is often conducted to evaluate what aspects of the project succeeded and what didn't, identifying areas for improvement in future projects. All design documents, assets, and code are finalized, compiled, and stored for potential future use.

Understanding the game development process is crucial for anyone involved in making video games. Regardless of your specific role, knowing the purpose and sequence of each department's work streamlines collaboration and minimizes potential issues. While you don't need to be proficient in every aspect of game development, understanding how your work impacts others and ensuring seamless handoffs between stages enhances your employability. Most major studios adhere to a standardized video game production schedule, making familiarity with the process invaluable.

Is your dream to make video games? 

Bletchley Institute, powered by CG Spectrum, is a game development school and Unreal Academic Partner offering specialized game development courses and game development degrees and diplomas specialising in game design and game programming for beginner and advanced students.

Be mentored by industry experts who have worked for Ubisoft, Microsoft, EA, and other major game studios and learn the game development process step by step, graduating with a portfolio of original work!

No items found.

Recent Resources
& Insights

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Duis bibendum ornare orci, a eleifend nulla semper id. Etiam non purus tincidunt, sagittis nibh ac,.

Explore Resources

Join us at the
Bletchley Institute

Be part of a community that dares to dream, to innovate, and to make a lasting impact on the world. Together, we can achieve mighty things.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.