October 31st came and went, and Stop That Hero! was not in a position to be sold, even as a beta or alpha project. Partway through the month I realized that even if I was able to finish the project, the work of setting up the payment systems, customer support, and even the website was going to take some time as well. According to my estimates, I’d finish the game sometime between the end of October and the beginning of December. As disappointing as it would be not to finish in time for the October Challenge deadline, I also knew that it was a “fun” deadline as opposed to a hard “must-hit-this date” for my business.
I will continue to work on Stop That Hero! because I believe in the project, but I’d also like to get better at project management. Now that the deadline has passed, I can look back on the month and think critically about how I did. Even though there was no business-related urgency in getting the game finished for the Ludum Dare challenge, I still wanted to do so, and it was demoralizing to realize that the game wasn’t going to be finished in time.
For the unfamiliar reader, Stop That Hero! was originally created for the Ludum Dare 18 Jam. The player was an evil villain in charge of a castle and a number of towers, and a hero character was trying to conquer the castle, liberating towers and collecting treasure chests along the way. The player would create minions at any of the towers, and those minions would try to kill the hero. Kill the hero three times, and you win. Lose the castle, and you lose the game.
For this project, I wanted to make Stop That Hero! a commercial-quality game that required no proprietary dependencies and ran on at least GNU/Linux (my preferred platform) and Windows, with plans for a Mac OS X port and an eye toward mobile devices. I wanted the game to be data-driven instead of hard-coded. I wanted the game to have multiple game modes and levels, and I wanted me and the players to have the ability to create our own custom levels with custom rules. I realized that it was a lot to do for a first release, so my intention was to make the game hard-coded yet easy to change so that it was using external data and scripts. Future updates would involve replacing the hard-coded bits with loadable data.
What Went Right
While it might seem strange to think that anything went right for a project that wasn’t finished, I do believe there were some good things that positively impacted the project.
- Planning and Preproduction Time. Even before the October Challenge was announced, I knew I wanted to take Stop That Hero! and make a full game out of it. I spent a few weeks at the end of September looking at every aspect of the game, from resource handling to monster variety to game modes.
While I think the original LD18 game’s mechanics were marred by a lack of game balance and probably could stand on their own, I wanted to investigate every possibility for making this game the best it could be. I identified major design challenges that I wanted to focus on early on. I also speculated on how much of the game could be data-driven or scriptable. This early planning helped me visualize how I wanted the finished game to look and feel.
- A Regular Work Schedule. As an indie game developer, I have no boss imposing a schedule on me. Keeping my job doesn’t require my presence during official office hours anymore. Since I determine my own schedule, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s not a license to slack off and take vacations every week, of course. My income depends on the output of my efforts.
The thing is, my time usage wasn’t very productive or balanced, and it hasn’t been for months. If I spent time on game development, I’d find that my writing would slip. If I wrote, I’d find that magazines and books would pile up in my inbox. If I read, I’d realize that I almost missed paying an important bill. Coinciding with the time I started preproduction for this project, I realized that I needed to do something to change my situation. To make my productivity a bit more predictable, I created a regular set of hours for myself. Until I had a game to sell, I wasn’t going to make any money, so production took up the lion’s share of the time I spent in a day. To ensure that there was balance between game development and everything else I wanted to get done, I gave myself regular hours for writing, reading, and organization. I use Google Calendar to setup recurring events. You can see an example of my day below:
I discovered I wasn’t very good about waking up early enough for the morning stretches part, which is something I want to work on next month, but I tried to stick to the schedule. If I missed stretches, I wasn’t making it up at the expense of being late for game development. If I was late for game development, I wasn’t going to encroach on writing time. If I did make such allowances, it would destroy the whole point. For the most part I stuck to the schedule, which meant I was doing about 4-5 hours of game development per day, an hour of writing per day, an hour of business or game development reading per day, and an hour of organization per day. While part of me wondered if I needed more time dedicated to game development, the balance allowed me the time I wanted to learn, share, and prevent things from slipping through the cracks. While I might tweak the hours going forward, I definitely prefer this self-imposed, organized, and regular schedule over letting each day’s activities be determined by whim.
- Agile Scheduling As Early Warning System. Once again, I’m pleased with the knowledge I learned from using nothing more than a couple of cork boards, some index cards, and pins. Before the project started in earnest, I created an estimate of the work I needed to do as well as an estimate of how much I thought I could do per week. As the weeks passed, I realized how poorly I was doing in terms of keeping with the schedule.
I wrote about it in Agile Alert: Slow Project Progress as well as Balancing Current and Future Needs, but the point was that without using story cards and a burndown chart, I wouldn’t have any idea when this project would be finished or what I could do to improve my situation. It allowed me to make project decisions earlier rather than later as well as weighing the advantages and disadvantages of delivering the finished project later.
What Went Wrong
- Not Planning Time For Art and Sound Work. The Jam version of the game features all art and sound created by me. I’m not that great of an artist, and I’m no sound designer. If this game is going to be polished, I was going to need to hire someone else to do the work. Of course, until I needed the higher quality assets, I could use my current art/sound assets as placeholders.
The thing is, I never really had a plan for how I was going to go about finding contractors to provide the replacements. For a project that was originally expected to be sold by the end of the month, I should have had a plan in place for getting all of the final polish in. It would have been hard to ask for finished art when the game itself was nowhere near playable, so it isn’t a total negative, but I could have started a search for artists and composers. At the very least, I could have looked into pre-made art and sound packages. Otherwise, I would be spending a lot of time learning how to create half-way decent art and settling for lame sound effects and no music.
- Underestimating the Complexity of the Software Architecture Hacking a game together in a weekend is relatively easy because the code is prototype-quality. It’s meant to be used for a few days, and you don’t need to worry about maintenance or future updates. The future is mere minutes later, and then it is over. For the October Challenge, I wasn’t interested in a single sale. I was interested in the health of my business. When there is one sale, I expect more to come later, and so I wanted to make high-quality software that is easy to provide support for.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize until late in the month how little experience I have with creating a full-fledged project from scratch. When all of the code is in a single, monolithic file with almost no external data driving it, it takes no work to determine what data structures should live where. When you’re working on software with flexibility and maintenance in mind, it’s a completely different mindset. Since I didn’t have much in the way of reusable code that was of the quality I desired, I was spending a lot more time working on infrastructure and scaffolding than I expected. I could write an individual piece of code well enough, but I had very little experience with knowing what individual pieces of code I needed to write in the first place.
Also, with unit testing, the code that “works” would only work in tests, whereas the actual game still needed a number of other parts of the project finished before I could see anything that looked like progress on the screen. It’s good to see the green bar as often as I do, but it’s frustrating that the actual game doesn’t do anything more than it did the week before. I now understand what the stakeholders felt like at my last day job whenever I would say “Yes, I’m making great progress. No, there’s nothing new for you to see yet.” Sometimes you just need to throw something, anything, up on the screen every once in awhile.
- Not Being Decisive About What Game I Was Making. Since I wanted the game to be data-driven and scriptable, I thought that the major design work would take place with malleable data rather than rigid code. I wanted multiple game modes, and I had an idea of what each one might include. I thought that there could be single level instances as well as campaigns of levels that tie together somehow. I wanted victory and defeat conditions to be scriptable, but I also wanted some core mechanics to be as well. For instance, while the basic game might provide all of the towers up front for the player with no way to retake a tower that the hero has liberated, a different level configuration could require the player to conquer independent towers first and provide the ability to retake them if they are liberated.
The problem with the game designer’s “I want it all” approach is that it put a lot of pressure on the programmer to make the software incredibly flexible. Since the designer and the programmer positions are both filled by me, it meant that I was asking a lot of myself. I knew better than to make a game engine that could be any genre, any game, but I didn’t realize that making a Stop That Hero! engine that essentially allowed for endless variety of game modes and mechanics wasn’t any less difficult. While the previous sentence sounds like it should have been self-evident, I didn’t have 20/20 hindsight to help me write it back when this project started. It seemed to be so simple. So long as the game was driven by data and scripts, I could make any mode I wanted.
At the beginning of the project, I had supposedly made a decision to implement a particular game mode as part of the version 1.0 of the game, but I didn’t want to give up on the flexibility to do any of the others I had thought of. If I really wanted to hit the end of the month deadline, I probably could have pared down the feature requirements list. Flexibility can be retroactively coded in after 1.0 was released. Instead, I gave myself the impossible task of getting everything done and hoping it could be done in time without regard to how long it would take. It’s no wonder the schedule slipped.
- Getting Into a Developer Funk. Towards the end of the month, I hit a point where I could not make forward progress no matter how much I wanted to do so. I was second-guessing myself, partly because I probably felt overwhelmed with the architecture work, and partly because I made the mistake of doing research and development on the state of the art for component-based game objects. Basically, I wanted a component-based game object system since it would help me in my quest for a flexible and data-driven game, but I learned a number of competing ideas, and I found that any new code I wanted to write had all of these new mental filters in the way. Data-driven Programming vs Object-oriented Programming, game objects vs game entities, encapsulation vs getting things done, etc. It was a lot to take in, and I had difficulty getting all of the new information to settle down in my head.
When I finally abandoned my attempt at the component-based system, I still couldn’t make progress on a less flexible entity system. How hard can this be? I did a working version in the original Jam version of the game, right? Well, once again, I wasn’t throwing all variables and data structures in the same class anymore. I couldn’t make decisions because I was paralyzed with the fear that I would make a poor one.
I experienced a smaller version of this when I was getting into unit testing for the first time. For instance, I’m not used to the need for as much Dependency Injection as I did on test-driven work, and I was losing confidence that I was doing software development “right”. Early in a project, you might think of one reference to an interface that an object needs, so you provide that reference in the constructor of the object. Weeks later, and you might have 4, 5, or 6 such references as parameters, and suddenly you’re faced with the need for another one. At this point, it starts to feel wrong, especially since it can hard to keep it all straight in my head. Since I was working alone, I didn’t feel I had anyone to discuss it with, so I would have to move forward reluctantly. Eventually, the fear that I was doing something wrong paralyzed me.
I did eventually get out of my funk and started making forward progress again, but it was only after a long phone conversation with a more software architecture-knowledgeable friend. Thanks, Larry! When you think you’re lost, sometimes all you need is some guidance and advice.
What I Learned
- How Much Technology I Needed and Didn’t Have. If I didn’t care about making my game available for GNU/Linux or avoiding proprietary solutions, I could probably have used technology such as GameMaker, Unity, or Flash to make a game. They offer plenty of game development-specific support, either directly or through libraries. Instead, I had to do a lot of work myself. While libSDL provided a number of basic hardware abstraction services, I still needed to write a lot more game-specific code.
Again, I understood I wasn’t writing an end-all, be-all game engine, but I still lacked a repertoire of code to help me make the game. A lot of my time was spent laying down the basic infrastructure to allow me to work on the game. It’s odd since I can easily hack together a working game in a weekend, but when the project’s seriousness demands more, I found that I lacked the basics. While I knew what tools I would use at a fundamental level, such as which compilers and libraries I would use, I didn’t realize I needed to figure out what technology I needed to create. If I did, I probably would have planned for it in the schedule or I would have pursued a simpler project in the first place. For instance, while I knew I needed AI pathfinding, it didn’t occur to me that I’d need something more sophisticated to track all of the objects in my game than a bunch of independent collections of data.
- How Much I Still Need to Learn Between software architecture and the basics of game engine requirements, I hit a number of stumbling blocks that forced me to pull books off of shelves and search online for answers. I would have thought I knew enough about game development to make a game, but I had underestimated how much more work there was to take an otherwise working game that was hacked together and writing the code in a way that made it easier to debug, fix, and change.
Working with others would help us all glean knowledge from each other, but as an indie, I’m going to need to interact with game developers in more than a social way. Also, I need to get better at project estimations. I was too optimistic this time around.
- How Difficult It Is To Talk About Game Development When It Is Not a Hack Fest. Most of the people I talked to on IRC were helpful when it came to particular aspects of what I was doing, but they almost all seemed to perceive that I was hampering my efforts with the use of unit tests and the desire for high code quality. “Just finish the game” is easy to say when you’re working on an LD48 competition entry for fun, but when your business depends partly on the ability to provide customer support without introducing bugs and problems, it’s not just fun and games anymore.
Selling a copy would have been nice at the end of the month, but I also want the ability to sell more copies later. Selling a hard-to-support game isn’t a good way to improve my ability to stay an indie long term. The October Challenge wasn’t an end in itself for me. I saw it as a kick in the pants to get me focused on moving my business forward. By and large, it worked. I have a project that is still moving forward even if it is at a slower rate than I would like. Still, it was difficult at times to talk about game development as a business-related endeavor since not everyone had the same long-term goals.
As I said, I am continuing this project even though the October Challenge is over. Using the project data so far and assuming I continue to work at the same rate, I can expect to finish the game by December. It’s still just an estimate, but it is a much better informed one than the one I made at the beginning of the project. While it is disappointing that I couldn’t finish this project in the month, I am pleased with some things. My schedule helped me make consistent progress, and I have a much better understanding of the game’s design questions since I spent so much time thinking about them before the month started. Still, while I had done a simple technical feasibility assessment, I needed to do a deeper study to realize all of the things I needed for this project. Basically, as much as I tried to plan ahead, there were some things that just weren’t on my radar. I know better now. Besides having done a lot of work for this project that can be reused, future projects should benefit from pursuing a better understanding of their technology requirements.