One of the core experiments of the r/hobbygamedev community has been in facilitating non-commercial internet collaboration on projects.
Back in April we ran a 30 day trial, in which 3 modest games were completed: Swing-It!, Galactic Egg Snatchers, and Match Mania. (That last one, Match Mania, later evolved into Jewelized Saga, now in alpha – more info via MultiplexGames.)
This summer I led a project named Light Hook. Highlights video here:
Tim Waskett, lead of the April Collaboration project Swing-It, returned this season to lead One of the Herd, which also got completed recently. Tim collected some of his thoughts on r/hobbygamedev about this time with the project. I had a ton of fun playtesting his game during its development and I really think it came out well. I recommend checking it out. I consider it more fun to play than Light Hook! (I think of Light Hook as “interesting” but it’s not really exciting, as by design there are no time or reflex pressures. One of the Herd has more thrills and skills moment-to-moment.)
Waskett’s game includes Sheep Soccer as a multiplayer mode, which I find awesome. I made this gif of it earlier in the project’s development:
All of the freeware online collaboration projects mentioned above are now available in the HobbyGameDev.com Games tab.
Three Month Online Collaboration
The hope with the non-commercial collaborative projects was to recreate online a bit of what the experience was like at Game Creation Society and VGDev, two university game development clubs that I helped establish. By meeting in person those had some advantages that I think we lost in our textual web approximations, especially:
• The opening pitch, rather than being a slide presentation with high level spoken overview as we had in-person at general group meetings, was instead presented here as a wall of text with relatively few illustrations. This raised the barrier of entry to projects since it meant people thinking about joining needed to actively wade through the text, rather than sitting back and watching someone’s presentation. Perhaps a video-style project pitch via YouTube approximating our in-person format might work better.
• As a general rule of thumb for the club games in VGDev we encouraged projects to stick to well-recognized genres, since that made it much easier for people coming onboard to a game to have a clear idea of exactly what they’re getting on board for, and greatly increased the chance of people wanting to be involved with it. Here I hoped that having a playable prototype from early on could help fill in for that need, and make it possible for us to do a game that was a bit different from the usual, but lack of established conventions about the type of game led to some immediate and incompatible dovetailing of visions for how people thought the gameplay might change during development: adding weapons, adding dangerous obstacles, adding non-grapple spaceship movement, etc. Figuring we were already biting off quite a bit with this project, I kept it as simple as I could just to ensure we’d be able to complete it at all, but I think when some people saw that it wasn’t getting any more complex it failed to hold their interest.
• In local clubs we’d meet weekly (often outside of the club meetings as well), giving everyone face to face time within the group, and in a setup which made group discussion natural. As an online crude equivalent I sent out a weekly email with the latest updates, but email’s one-to-many style wasn’t nearly as conducive to discussion. Additionally when sitting around in person people are more likely to speak up, or at least respond in a timely way, whereas email naturally makes it easy to just disappear for a bit or take a long time to respond. At best we had some email threads going on but those were tricker to follow and remain engaged with. Trying to figure out a time when most of us could virtually meet weekly in a live text or voice chat environment could’ve helped this. I was reluctant to try to schedule a standing meeting into people’s busy weeks, since that makes international involvement tricky and inherently excludes some folks who can’t make the time that everyone else does, but all told trying to keep things fully asynchronous I think was just too weak a connection to maintain.
It was mostly during the middle of the project when we got the content that we did from team members. Earlier than that we were just trying to figure out who could do what, and in the project’s final few weeks I had my hands full just trying to wrap things up and was finding it difficult to simultaneously coordinate tasks for others on the team as the producer. This project was also a hobby for me, too, and as such something that I could only consistently fit part of an evening or two each week into. In my exhaustion for one or two weeks I tried to check with people about what they’d like to do, but the offer was too open ended and more often than not people kind of drifted away during that time.
One of the details that I’d failed to realize was that being able to meet in real-time somehow (even if just a voice or text chat, as opposed to an email) isn’t just a more natural project experience for contributors, it can also ease the challenges for the team lead by making it much easier to feel out through back and forth who’s eager for more tasks, who’s unhappy with their assignment (even if the clues are nonverbal) so they can be switched to something different, who’s getting along well enough to be paired up to tackle something together, etc. It also would have helped camaraderie on the team I think, increasing people’s feeling of connection and accountability to one another. The weekly emails at best could simulate some connection with me as team lead, but it definitely wasn’t nearly as capable as a real-time meeting for facilitating connections and interactions between collaborators.
Compared to In-Person Hobby Teams
Now, for what it’s worth, as bad as the above may seem from what I’m describing, it’s actually not all that different from the experiences that I’ve had on many local non-commercial teams as well.
It’s simply in the nature of non-commercial projects that when other things in life demand our attention, the non-commercial projects get less time. It’s not as though the game’s going to earn less money ($0, no matter what), and it’s not as though the collaborator is going to get fired or miss out on a promotion (all pure volunteer involvement anyhow). At the end of the season: here’s a game which otherwise likely would not have existed in a complete enough form for others to play, but now not only does it exist, but it has more models, original music, sound effects, an additional level, and multiple iterations of feedback and fixing. Cool. This is maybe about as good as most non-commercial (and non-graded) collaboration I’ve experienced, sans the few specific and solvable hiccups identified further above.
I’m proud of the project for serving its primary purpose from the beginning: giving everyone who got involved an opportunity to gain some more applied experience at whichever aspect of game creation they wished to practice, and fitting the artifacts of that experience together into a complete game they can include in their portfolio. Besides the actual “portfolio” site or list of past games, this also means more practice and learning they have behind them mentally, one more wrapped up project that they can use as a reference point in thinking about later projects they might join or start. I hope that team members feel that they got out of it in return at least as much as they put into the project.
I knew going into this that collaborating online would bring with it some additional challenges compared to what worked well in-person. The experience I had leading this project helped me better identify and understand those challenges are, and has helped me realize some ways that we may be able to better work around them in the future.
Additionally, this project pushed me to learn some new skills and tools that I hadn’t worked with before, without which those Blender for non-artists video tutorials wouldn’t have been made. It’s always far easier I think to learn how to use a tool or skill when there’s a context in which its use is actually needed, as opposed to just abstractly fiddling around with trying to learn bits and pieces of how to do something for its own sake in isolation. While it’s less visible than my gaining a bit of comfort with Blender fundamentals, working on this project also led me to work through some tough programming and 3D math problems that I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered.
I feel that this was time very well spent. I’m happy that we worked through to completion, and I very thankful to everyone that got involved.
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