One of the most underrated aspects of video game development (second only to sound design) is tooling. Having good tools is essential for a smooth production process. However, finding the right time to work on tools can be a challenge because, in a way, delivering the game seems more crucial than perfecting something like a boring voice line CSV converter. One thing that all experienced game developers agree on is that your game tools are actually more important than the game itself. When they are well-crafted, they enable you to design, produce, and deliver multiple games without breaking a sweat (though, let's be honest, you'll still sweat A LOT, just not as much).
When on should start thinking about tools
When game developers start working on their game, they are filled with excitement and countless ideas, new systems, and mechanics to explore. At the outset, it's hard to divert their attention from actual game development. Unfortunately, the best time to address tool needs is during the early stages of pre-production (post-prototyping). The challenge lies in the fact that the game is still in heavy development, and many aspects aren't set in stone. Developers might not know all the enemy types heroes will encounter or the specific weather conditions or ecosystems for epic battles. However, they do know a lot: there will be heroes, different battlegrounds, and battles. This is the ideal moment to ask simple questions like, "What is a hero in the game? What is a battleground? What is a battle in this game?" While some answers may be unclear, many will already be defined, serving as the foundation that made the developers believe, "This could be a great game." Designing tools naturally stems from these answers and will provide a foundation for the rest of the development.
Why making tools
Why start developing tools this early, you might wonder? Firstly, it shapes your content. Understanding the game's core elements helps ensure that the game remains true to its original vision. Tools structure the content in a way that everything added later complements this structure. Consider a save system, for example. Save systems are essential in about 85% of games. If you develop it late in production, after years of wild and unrestricted development in terms of structure, data, or character elements, it can be a challenging task. However, if tools were available early, shaping the content and structure as they should, implementing a save system becomes much more straightforward, without hard-coded bits of logic that are difficult to track or eliminate, relying on homogeneous data structures. Developers already know how the content is organized, which makes saving it to disk easier (not painless, but definitely easier). Think of it as "restricting" content structure for the sake of homogeneity and efficiency. More than just structuring your game, having tools early greatly helps your team define their needs. Your team members are experts in their respective domains, and they know what kind of tools would speed up and enhance the quality of their work. Tools significantly reduce regressions and ensure long-term quality. Nothing makes an artist happier than being just two clicks away from automatically cropping, converting, and adding their PSD file to the game in the correct format.
Never underestimate the impact of an appropriate set of tools, even if it's as simple as a set of command lines, on your team's efficiency.
How to ensure tools coherency
How do you proceed to establish a proper and efficient chain of tools for your game? The answer is simple: start early. It's crucial to consider tools as soon as the development process begins to take shape, but it's a proactive task. Tools won't materialize on their own. You need to dig deep and have discussions about them. Understanding your team's needs means understanding how they plan to work in the long term. Does the writer plan to write the game in plain text files? If so, where will they be stored? What format does the game understand? How do you ensure compatibility? How do you create a safe and automated environment for the writing team? Asking these questions forces you to thoroughly understand the writing pipeline and adapt your tools to ensure a smooth and flawless process for the writers.
The key here is to recognize that no one can foresee all the needs they'll have for the next two years or more of development. It's impossible to predict all the possible variations in the game, art, or game design direction that will naturally occur in the coming months. However, you can ensure your tools will adapt to these changes by starting with a minimal version of them based on what the team is certain they'll need in the near future. Tools are there to empower various teams to work autonomously. Even with a very early and basic version of a tool, team members already have something that saves them time. As they become accustomed to it, they will identify new needs, allowing developers to create updates and patches. Starting with something small and limited helps establish a "vocabulary" between users and developers, making it easier to understand the actual needs and convert them into tangible features.
In the end
Even something as simple as a command line can save team members days of repetitive tasks. Unfortunately, many game development teams overlook the importance of tools to focus only on game content. However, investing time and effort in tool development early in the process is a winning strategy to fully focus later what truly matters: your video game.