This may be a strange topic for starting a new blog, but the thought of creating it has haunted me for quite some time. At first, I wanted to start with the basics — go over how somebody gets into game development, what a game designer should know for developing dream game, which books to read, and so on. But I realized that there’s a more pressing matter — a question that starts bothering me whenever I get stuck with a new project:
Do I clench my teeth and press on in the hope that everything will turn out alright, or do I ditch this project, throw it into the recycle bin and try starting something new?
Realizing the problem is the first step toward its solution, so if you’ve ever wondered if your project is taking too much time, ask yourself this:
Am I still working on it, though I thought I’d finish long time ago?
If the answer is yes, let’s figure out why this happens and how you can avoid it. There are a couple of reasons why you may find yourself in a situation like this, but the most obvious one is planning.
Not enough planning
One side of the coin is poor planning. When you think about your future project, what you need to do and how you should do it, you may not get the whole picture or understand what is involved in this process, what is behind all those ideas in your head. It’s like starving and thinking that you can eat EVERYTHING, but you’re full after a few small pieces.
The same thing with game development — you may be perfectly capable of doing everything you planned and possess all the necessary knowledge to create every piece of your game alone. But you may not be able to do so because you lack resources such as time. For instance, you estimate your project to take two months to be completed — but then some personal business comes up, or you get ill — and all of that takes time. And after two months, your game is still not ready.
Why? How did this happen? You haven’t planned enough. Or your plan was not good enough. Or you overlooked something. Maybe you didn’t consider a realistic situation — you thought you’d be able to work 8 hours a day on your project, seven days a week. But sometimes you just couldn’t force yourself to work because you took no breaks? Crunches exist not only in corporations working on AAA games and are about working 16 hours a day. If you work too hard on something, you can get sick of it, no matter how much you love it. It’s because your neurons don’t generate that much dophamine as they used to in the beginning. So that requires consideration as well when you’re trying to figure out the scope of your project.
There’s a wonderful video related to burnout and habituation in games called Why The Hell Are There So Many Fishing Minigames?. The same thing can be applied to most of our activities, including game development, so I suggest watching it.
Too much planning
The other side of the coin is overplanning. Now that you’re aware that not planning your development process can get you wondering whether all this is worth it and if is it a good idea to keep going, you might want to plan everything to the smallest detail. But this won’t save you from falling into the same pit called Development Hell. Trying to lay out your ideal game on paper is a good idea, but only if you don’t overdo it. If you try making your design document too perfect and spend two years making it — that’s a problem. Trying to precisely pinpoint what you want before making the game will get you stuck with too much paperwork.
The solution here will be to find the golden mean. Don’t spend too much time on documentation. Instead, try outlining your core gameplay, mechanics, and other stuff, and get your ass to prototyping it. Don’t think about prototyping as a waste of time. Like if a prototype is not working the way you imagined, then it’s wasted time you could’ve put into creating your GDD. But then, at least, you’ll know whether something works or not. Imagine finishing your massive design document after two years (or even four months) only to discover that when prototyped, some mechanics don’t work well with each other, while others don’t work at all. Now that’s a waste of time. It’s better to try and make something, even if it won’t work exactly how you wanted it to, than sit and theorize on it.
Do not obsess over your documentation and planning — OCD and perfectionism are only good in small portions. If your prototyped feature looks good but “could be better,” — move on to the next one, don’t get stuck polishing that one thing. Personally, I have fallen into this trap too damn many times in the past. I got carried away polishing the UI or trying to make the animation smooth and perfect when I could’ve developed new features in that time.
Something in between
Aaaand there’s one more tricky thing that can get you, even if you’re aware of planning: feature creep. As an indie developer, you can easily get carried away with adding new features to your game. It’s understandable — while developing it, even if you have everything planned, you get new ideas, see further references, and immediately want them in your game. It can start with the most minor things but quickly turn into a nightmare.
Unless you’re just starting… Don’t do that. It won’t be long before you start adding more and more features, expanding your project scope. By adding new features, you add development time to your project. The time you might lack or not have. You will eventually end up with the very question asked in the beginning. You’ve spent so much time adding new features and polishing those you already have, but are you closer to finishing your game? Should you continue?
Stop for a second
To answer these questions, stop for a second. Take a deep breath and look at your project. So much time sank in there — so much effort. So much work done.
Think about your initial intention. Why did you start making this game? What did you want with it? Was it money? Was it fame? Or was it something else? Being an indie developer, you develop a connection to your project, and the thought of killing it creeps you out. You don’t want to make that decision. You just can’t, can’t you?
“But wait, there are some legendary indie games that were in the development process for years!” — you might say. Yes, there were. Limbo, The Witness, and a couple more titles. But they are an exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. There are countless legions of games that burned down in the Development Hell. So it’s better to shake off that thought about making a game for ten years and waking up famous one day. Prepare for the worst.
So, to answer a very simple — and yet very hard at the same time — question “Should I continue developing my dream game?”, go back to the very beginning of your project. Why did you start making it? What was fun about it? What was the core idea?
Then think about what you are doing. Reassess where you are now. Are you strayed from the course? If you have, harness your willpower and get back on track. Set a minimum target and think how long it will take to get to the MVP. Bare minimum of graphics and functionality. Just your core gameplay mechanics. Yes, even if they are not perfect and won’t work exactly as you envisioned. If you hit that marker, you will already have something. Not just a pile of paper or a proof of concept of a single feature, but something playable. Maybe ugly, but playable. You can iterate on that later and improve it, but right now — you already have something.
At the end of the day, only one person in the world can answer this question — you. If you understand that you’re stuck with your project and have lost faith — maybe it’s better to throw it out of the window than forcing yourself to work on it. Don’t be afraid to move on. After all, we’re learning in the process. After one mistake, after one fall, you’ll know more and do better. Yes, you’ll almost certainly make new mistakes and throw even more projects out, but you’ll learn.
And if you’re adamant that everything is going to be okay, you’re back on track and making your magnum opus — then rock on! But keep in mind what we’ve discussed and reassess your project from time to time to avoid losing perspective.