Do As I Say, Not As I do

24 Jul
July 24, 2014

I’m going to give you some good advice.

In fact, it’s great advice. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot, recently. Ruefully, mostly. But yes, it’s excellent advice. And I’m going to give it to you even though you’re going to completely ignore it, hypothetical reader. I ignored it. The people who passed it on to me, they ignored it themselves. And you, reader, will undoubtedly continue this proud tradition.

But I’ll give it anyway. So here goes –

Pick a smaller project to start. No, even smaller than that. Like, SMALL.

Got it? Yeah, sure you do.

I direct this mostly at other game developers, though it applies generally. But let’s go with game development as the target here. Whatever game idea you’re setting out to develop as your first project, young indie developer, you’ve almost certainly picked something with too large a scope.

I know, I know, you probably nodded when you read the advice above! Very sensible, you thought, I totally agree with that. That’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind! I’m going to set myself a realistic target!

Yeah, I thought that too. And then I proceeded to completely disregard it. Ok, disregard is probably the wrong word. I certainly thought I was keeping it in mind. But I maintain that, in my heart of hearts, I knew I really wasn’t. And I can offer you a simple test to determine whether you’re ignoring it, too.

First, go and find the game that is the nearest equivalent to the idea you have in mind. Don’t tell me your game is completely unique. Find the closest thing to the core gameplay mechanic, whatever.

Got it?

Right, now find the credits. Ignore the biz/marketing people. Just look at the production team. And be honest, now. What was the size of the team that built that game?

Was it more than 20 people?

It was, wasn’t it?

Yeah, I did that too. The game I had in my head was comparable to some of my favourites. Because of course, you get into game development because you love those games. Certain particular games excite you to the point where you just have to make your own! But those were built by teams, probably. I knew that. But I somehow thought that, with real dedication and perhaps some enthusiastic volunteers I would find online, I would be able to build something equivalent to the output of a 20 man team. I would do it, I was certain!

Yeah, no.

Pick a smaller project, dudes. One that you know is of a similar scope to what individuals like yourself have been able to achieve in a reasonable time frame. And start with that.

Unless you’re already experienced or are absolutely certain that you’re one of the rare, god-like developers, the John Carmacks of the world. Everyone else, learn to crawl before you walk.

But you’re going to ignore this advice. I know, I did. I’ve ignored it multiple times. I scoped down, and down, and down. But each time I realized that it wasn’t not far enough. System Crash, for example, only came about after I realized that Scars of War was beyond my current capabilities. Scars of War, had, at that point, been through three rounds of scope reduction.

But with System Crash, my little card game, I thought that it would be a good idea to build an interesting, involved narrative for the single player campaign. I mean, I don’t have multiplayer so I had to have something else, besides just card battles, right?

Yeah, what I should have done is start with something a lot simpler (narrative-wise) that provided context for the core mechanics, but not much else. Then, for the next game, I could take that mechanical core, build on it and wrap it in the deeper, more satisfying narrative. Alternatively, I could have built a narrative game but kept the mechanics relatively simple.

Instead I, foolishly, took on both challenges at once. Narrative depth and mechanical complexity. Which is like trying to write a short novel at the same time as building your first video game. Not an insignificant challenge, let me tell you. I’ll get it done, but damn, I really should have structured it to get one game out in the first year, with another to follow the year after that. That would have been sensible.

Not only would that have paced out the work better, I would have had experience with shipping and marketing two games, instead of one.

Ah well. Spilled milk and all that.

But you, reader, you really should choose a smaller project.

But you’re not going to. It’s ok. Just nod, and we’ll both pretend that you’ll take my advice to heart. And perhaps, in a few years, we can ruefully exchange stories. 😉

Good luck, my friends.

3 replies
  1. Daniel says:

    Believe me, I know what you mean, I chose to come into this industry knowing it was going to be hard. Even then I still find myself closing zbrush/unity and thinking. “Fuck it. I think i’ll go play me some dark souls.”

    To every aspiring game designer/developer, I know it’s hard but soldier on, ignore the niggling pain of procrastination and keep pushing that metaphorical boulder up hill, if you just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll find yourself over the finish line, without even realizing it. cheers 🙂

  2. Diego Doumecq says:

    I find that on top of starting small, it’s always worth considering that it’s way WAY easier to scope UP than to scope DOWN. That is to say, start with the basics, build everything as simple as possible and once that is almost done, then and only then consider if adding new features would improve the experience within a relatively reasonable period of time.

    But as usual, I don’t listen to my own advice. I’ve been toying with an idea for a mobile strategy game for a while and the scoping has been a rollercoaster: Make it as simple as possible! Right, I have the basic rules but what if … and I could then do that other thing and and … aaaaaaaaaaand I don’t have 30 years of my life to dedicate to this, let’s trim it down. Yes, this seems more manageable but way meatier than before! But wait a minute, this can let me introduce this other mechanic that will do this other thing …

    You get the idea.

  3. gareth says:

    Absolutely, Diego. It is WAY easier to scale up.

    But yeah, you aren’t the only one who regularly fails to heed that advice. -_-


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