The Internal Struggle on Doing Game Development Right

There are a lot of conflicting thoughts in my head about how I want to approach my efforts at creating games. Some of these conflicts are from seemingly contradictory pieces of advice I’ve received over the years, and some are just related to fear, uncertainty, and doubt due to inexperience.

On the one hand, I want to be prolific.

I want to quickly get a minimum viable product out there in the hands of customers, get their feedback, and similarly very quickly make an informed decision to either tweak the existing game or abandon it for a completely different project. If I can do this quickly enough, I have more chances to earn enough money to make these efforts sustainable.

On the other hand, I don’t want to put out junk. I don’t want to release half-finished ideas, non-workable games, or projects that aren’t anywhere near ready. I want the projects to have a chance, and in order to be proud of what I put out, I need to finish my games.

But on the third hand, I don’t want to work on my project forever, constantly tweaking, adding, and removing inconsequential features. You might call it “feature creep,” but I don’t think that name really describes the issue I’m worried about. It’s more like being so afraid of pulling the trigger that you distract yourself into thinking there’s more development work to do to avoid thinking about the hard work of actually releasing the game to the public.

There’s always unimplemented features and more balancing work that could be done in a game, right? As a developer, I KNOW how to do that kind of stuff. It’s easy to stay in the comfort zone of being the technician.

And when you work by yourself, it’s easy to forget to take off your Developer’s hat, put on your Producer’s hat, and think about deadlines and what work is optional versus what work is core to what your game needs. You need to ship.

On the fourth hand, I will become a better game developer if I work on more games more often. There’s that story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland about the ceramics teacher who split his class into two groups. One group was graded on the quality of a single pot on the last day of class, and the other group was graded on the quantity of pots produced by the last day of class.

It turned out that the group that produced the higher quality pots was the group graded on quantity, mainly because the experience of creating each pot also gave them insights into how to make the next pot better. Meanwhile the quality group spent more time merely thinking about how to make a quality piece of pottery, and when it came time to actually put in the work, they were not necessarily up to the task.

So, if I focus on making more games more often, I’ll make better and better games.

Of course, on the fifth hand, I don’t want to make throwaway entertainment that people pay little or no money for and pay little or no attention to. I want my games to have meat on their bones. I want my games to be the kinds of games I’d play.

On the sixth hand, I am not my customers, and I need to make sure I create games with a target audience in mind. I should find out what THEY want to play.

On the seventh hand, I’m creating these games, and the message these games put out reflects what I want to see in the world. I own my art, and they’re not “just games.”

On the eighth hand, I’m not working on games in a vacuum. There are other games being made by other developers, and I should make sure to spend some time playing those games.

I should research other implementations, see what other developers have tried, learn what works and what doesn’t, all without spending the effort myself.

I should listen to podcasts, watch presentations online, and read blogs more regularly.

I can leverage the experience of other people.

On the ninth hand, I’m a part-time indie game developer. There’s only so many hours in a day that I dedicate to being a game developer, and if I spend it playing other people’s games and watching other people talk about how they do their work, I won’t have time to do my own work and put out my own games. I barely participate in online forums anymore, and I finally understand all of those people who complained about the lack of time to participate in forums. Where does anyone in my position find the time?

There’s a difference between doing and learning how to do, and there is always more to learn.

There’s also always more to do, and doing is the hard part.

On the tenth hand, I hate that I’m ill-informed about what’s going on in the world of games and their development. I was blown away to learn that multiple people were making virtual reality games for the most recent Ludum Dare 48-hour game development competition, as it sounds like the kind of thing that still requires a huge upfront investment. Clearly I’m out of the loop.

On the eleventh hand, I’m an indie game developer, which means I define my own rules of engagement.

It’s not a race, despite the realities of opportunity costs and trends, and despite the realities of impending life events that change everything.

Success isn’t defined by money but by accomplishing goals, despite the fact that earning a significant income from this effort would be a great side-effect of those goals being accomplished, one that could help me set and achieve bigger and better goals. Money isn’t a goal, but it can be a measure of progress. But it also doesn’t have to be.

When you’re starting out, you look to people who already know what they are doing to provide some guidance. And they are often more than willing and able to share what they think works.

But in the end, it’s easy to get stressed out about meeting someone else’s expectations if you don’t take care to set your own expectations.

I’ve had people tell me what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. I’ve had people question decisions I made and ask why I didn’t make a better decision on a choice I didn’t know I had.

There is no wrong or right way to go about this process, though.

Some people swear by putting out prototypes daily. Others like to work in secret for months or years at a time.

Some people like to explore one game mechanic fully, and others like to experiment with lots of different concepts.

Some people like to put out fully formed games to be consumed, and others like to release early development builds for people to nibble on.

Some people throw spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks, and other people like to plan out an entire evening with a multiple course gourmet meal.

If I use the same criteria for the spaghetti-thrower’s efforts that EA uses for their heavily-invested and marketed blockbusters, it’s going to look like a lot of failures and flops are being thrown at a wall. That’s not the way to make a blockbuster hit!

But the spaghetti-thrower has different goals entirely. They’re not trying to put out blockbuster hits. They might not even be trying to make something commercially. They’re trying to gauge interest in prototypes, seeing if there is a significant amount of interest in something before putting a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears into a more substantial work.

Following EA’s playbook is probably not going to help them achieve their goal. They’ll probably stress out way too much to be useful if they somehow get it in their head that EA has the truth about How Games Are Made(tm) and that they are not following it.

While other people might have great advice for their own expectations of how things work, it’s a lot less stressful (although still pretty stressful) if you politely ignore them and create your own expectations. You have enough to worry about without second-guessing if you didn’t make games similar enough to how some celebrity game developer did.

It’s fine to seek out and get advice, and it can all be really great advice, but don’t forget to make your own path.

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