Value stream mapping applied to video game production: the Rainbow Six Siege case

From the production line through to the Ubisoft studio, all the experts who subscribe to the DevOps [1] approach are talking about value stream mapping (VSM) [2]. Applying a value mapping process to video game production might appear counter-intuitive. Traditionally used in the manufacturing sector, this process provides an understanding and overall picture of how a process works. The production of a traditional video game is the total opposite of a regular, stable process. But with the growth of live experiences and GaaS (Games as a Service), as well as regular delivery of new seasons and characters, it is worth studying, testing and validating the production process.

Gaëlle Robert, Laura Metzlaff and Salomé Jugan, from Rainbow Six Siege, have implemented VSM in their production system. They utilized the Ubisoft Developers Conference to present their best practices and discoveries from this experience to their international colleagues from the other Ubisoft studios.

Why use value stream mapping?  

Adopting a DevOps approach allowed management to take the plunge into VSM, moving from a traditional production structure to several small teams devoted to producing new content. This operational change provided an opportunity to understand and document all the work that needs to be done to deliver new operators and elite skins.

In fact, this method is pertinent to a variety of scenarios that apply to video games, notably:

  • Changes in the content creation pipeline that involve various departments
  • Stable yet complex workflows
  • Recurring delays in an existing process

On Rainbow Six Siege, the VSM method was applied to operator and elite skin delivery. The operators—the game heroes with weapons, gadgets and different abilities—are the game’s biggest product. They have a long production cycle (nine months), and the workflow to produce them is complicated, varies little from one character to another, and requires the input of several different disciplines. Elite skins, on the other hand, require a range of simpler items that are used in several parallel productions and as a result, their production cycle is shorter (three months).

This provided an ideal production situation for implementing VSM!

The Research

Value-stream mapping is all about identifying individual tasks that are transferred to other participants in a complex production process.

For each of these tasks, the ideal time to complete the task is recorded, as well as the actual time it took. The difference between these two sets of data provides a great deal of useful information, particularly regarding bottlenecks, production blind spots and a variety of details affecting the interdependencies of the tasks at hand and resource management.

This mapping process can be applied at the product, departmental or project level.

For Laura, Gaëlle and Salomé, the initial mapping process took six months.

They use Post-it Notes to identify all the workflows involved in producing new operators and elite skins. They then asked their team leaders to confirm these tasks and to add or remove them where necessary. They also asked team leaders to give an estimate of both the time needed and the ideal time required to complete each of these tasks. Once the overall workflow was completed, the map was digitized with Visio and Excel.

The Findings

Implementation: the importance of methodology

To begin with, very few team leaders were able to give an accurate, reasonable estimate of production time. Their initial estimates were generally longer than the actual time required, as they had not been sufficiently prepared for the exercise and entered a room full of Post-it Notes to then be questioned on their methods. This experience could be stressful if participants did not fully understand the process at hand, the stages needed to successfully complete it, and the benefits that could be gained from it.

The silo effect

Producing elite skins consists of sets of items, each of which has its own production process. These processes are overseen by different managers who apply their own methods, procedures and resources. Once the managers could consult the map, they quickly realized that nobody had visibility of the overall project, which introduced a significant amount of redundancy into the process.

Seizing opportunities: optimizing the process and encouraging creativity

In the case of elite skins for Rainbow Six Siege, the team decided to invest more time into product creation rather than reducing the three-month lead time, based on the results of the VSM exercise. The value of creativity was more important for the team, and its members are now delighted to be able to deliver a much higher-quality product. This decision also gave the team more flexibility should the number of skins fluctuate from two to three in a given period.

Optimizing a longer production cycle

The production flow for operators is more lengthy, complex and multidisciplinary than the production flow for elite skins. To measure the return on investment of efforts made in VSM, a nine-month cycle is needed. Bringing about change in such a lengthy cycle is not easy, and recording the return on investment for these changes is even less so.

As the very essence of the operators dictates that they differ from one another, the team had to select two operators with similar characteristics to obtain valid indicators of success.

Before committing to the exercise, the team had a fairly general idea of the friction points involved in operator production. The only invariable piece of information they had was that an operator had a production cycle of nine months. After implementing the VSM method, the managers can anticipate which period will be the most critical for each type of operator and how to best manage the interdependencies that can hold up delivery.

The benefit of dedicated work cells

For the Rainbow Six Siege team, the answer is clear. The benefit was not delivering the product faster. That was never one of the success criteria goals. Implementing this method means that the teams no longer spend their time managing emergencies and fixing bugs on top of adding new content. The iteration time has been optimized in terms of exchanges between game developers, programmers and testers. Those involved are investing their time in a more worthwhile way, focusing on clear-cut tasks with a proven order of priority.

Finally, one undeniable benefit is that the team has managed to deliver an operator with 50% fewer bugs within the same production time.

Rapid-Fire Advice

If you too are thinking of adopting a more DevOps approach and using value stream mapping, here are a few quick tips:

  • Get your teams involved in the process from the very start to reduce stress levels and obtain realistic answers. Your success depends on the accuracy of their data.
  • Team leaders are your allies. Be sure to consult them, as they have a clearer view of production interdependencies.
  • Work in small groups when analyzing the production flow. If team leaders are not involved until you invite them into a room full of Post-it Notes, there is a strong possibility that they will feel intimidated. In small groups, people are more likely to share ideas on different parts of the production chain and to give more detailed and authentic answers in an organic exchange of knowledge and ideas.
  • VSM is destined to progress in the future, so we need to think about how to maintain it.

If you follow this advice, everything should be just fine!

This method highlighted several stages in the Rainbow Six pipeline where a significant amount of time was being wasted transferring tasks from one team to another or simply waiting for someone to perform a task. Based on this data, you can decide to reduce the time needed to create a product or to improve the product within a set timeframe.

Finally, documenting your pipeline with value stream mapping not only allows you to easily share information but also to share your best practices, backed up by solid data. When you’ve finished, you will able to say without any doubt if the changes you made to your pipeline had a positive or negative impact on your overall production statistics.

To conclude, the Rainbow Six team found that value stream mapping can help you and your teams understand all areas of your product and workflow. It also offers real optimization opportunities, based on concrete data.

Article taken from a presentation at the Ubisoft Developers Conference 2020 by:

Gaëlle Robert – Production Manager, Rainbow Six Siege – Operators

Laura Metzlaff – Production Manager, Rainbow Six Siege – Elite Skins

Salomé Jugan – Associate Producer for Data Leads and Multidisciplinary Teams

[1] Le DevOps is a management philosphy that brings together two key functions of the CIO of an application development company. On the one hand, the developer teams (Dev) and on the other, the system opering teams (Ops). This agile method brings together development and operations managers to continuously deploy different versions or functionalities of software.

[2] Le value stream mapping or VSM is a tool groupind all the actions that bring a product from an initial state to a final state. The purpose of this mapping is to obtain a simple and clear vision of a process. The analysis will then lead to improvements that will focus on the whole process and not on a lambda step.

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