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2012 May

The Studio Game Postmortem Tutorial

Most starting indie developers recognize postmortems as those handy four or five page documents seen on Gamasutra that break down project development for public consumption. While these are awesome for the reader — they give us a window into another team’s successes and failures — there are more useful methods for ensuring that your own team learns from its successes and failures.

The below method for performing a postmortem was taught to me by Jeff Peters, Executive Producer, and Marty Clayton, Art Director, at the local branch of Electronic Arts.¬†Every time I’ve performed this postmortem I’ve had revelations about how I can make my next games even better, so I hope you find it as useful as I have. Without further ado:


What You’ll Need:

  • Large whiteboard
  • Sticky notes and pens
  • Whiteboard markers and eraser


First Step: Timeline

First, find a long, large whiteboard on which you can create a horizontal project timeline. The first point should be the project conception, and the final point should be product launch (with a slight extension for any immediate post-launch support.) I find it useful to break the line up into pre-production, production, and post-production (or, pre-pro, alpha, and beta.) After it is blocked out, work together with your team to fill this out with every major event during production. Examples include:

5/29: Phil, our lead tech, got sick with the flu for two weeks.

6/7: Major milestone hit, grappling hook feature fully implemented. Looked great!

6/8: Client hates grappling hook, three weeks scrapped.

6/15: Phil gets back.

6/16: Implementation of AI changed due to Phil’s epiphany during fever hallucination.

Etc. etc… Make sure every event that affected development in a notable way is included — design changes, vacations, and on and on. This can be a bit of an exercise, as you’ll find your team won’t remember the development process perfectly. You will need to help each other remember.


Second Step: Sticky Notes

After your timeline is complete, give each team member a sticky notepad and pen. Each person can now add comments to each event on the timeline regarding whether or not they think that event was helpful or unhelpful in development, and why. If the comment is positive, write the comment on a sticky and post it -above- the event on the timeline. If the comment is negative, post it -below- the associated event. Pretty soon, you should have a colorful white board full of both good and bad sticky notes.

It’s important during both this step and the following steps to keep all comments impersonal, objective, and professional. If your postmortem ends in a fist fight, it’s not a very successful postmortem. For instance, if I think Phil was a dick for taking two weeks off for the flu when I know he was only sick for three days, I might say “Not having the full tech team during the implementation of the grappling hook was really difficult.” Better results will ensue.

Postmortem Close-up: Pete the Cat


Third Step: Checkmarks and Culling

When everyone has posted all the sticky notes they want to, you will probably have far more comments than you have time to discuss in depth. Because of this, it’s important to find out what the most important comments really are. Give everyone on the team five to ten checkmarks and ask them to write a checkmark next to each of the comments they agree with the most. After everyone has marked which comments they agree with (good and bad) you’ll quickly start to see comments that stand out as most prominent.


Fourth Step: Discussion and Review

Now it’s time to discuss the most relevant comments as a team. Go from the start of the timeline to the end, and discuss all of the comments that received a large amount of checkmarks. If the comments are negative (i.e. there are seven checkmarks next to “Not having a full tech team . . .”) have a discussion about how to mitigate it next time. Don’t leave the point alone until you have a solution in place. Likewise, if a positive comment gets a lot of checkmarks, make sure you and the team understand why it works so well, and that you know how to replicate it again. Through this process, you and your team will learn how to overcome your mistakes and accentuate your strengths. If you keep the discussion high brow, you’ll also grow better team relations as well — working through production problems together is a great team bonding exercise.

Postmortem In Progress: Pete the Cat

Happy postmorteming!