Finishing Matters. So Help Someone Finish.

Apr 27, 2009

Partial Indie Game Developers

I know many partial indie game developers. I say partial because whether they’re a student making a hobby project, a professional at a large company with their own game on the side, or an expert in another field exploring game making as a hobby, they haven’t finished what they started. All they’ve developed so far are partial indie games, and so the label fits: partial indie game developers.

Unfortunately, the outside world is uninterested in driving a partly finished car, living in a partly finished house, or playing a partly finished videogame.

There are two main killers of indie projects: (1.) lack of excitement in finishing off the little stuff near the end, like menus (and 2.) hopelessness that creating the game the way “it’s meant to be” will take too long.

To the first point, while making menus and tying up remaining loose ends isn’t as much fun to do as building levels and programming enemies, nothing about game making is more exciting than watching people play it. It’s a thrill knowing that strangers around the world are getting a blast (or getting pensive, or getting nightmares) from your work. The only way that happens is after the game is finished. So sprint that final stretch, and ignore temptations to add other cool features that will require additional unplanned work before it can be called done.

Even a modestly decent game, completed, is worth far more to people than the greatest game ever started that didn’t get finished.

To the second point, don’t worry so much over how the game was “meant to be” because the player doesn’t know anything about the game except how it comes out, and often that’s for the best. Our ideas about how the game could be often aren’t anything special, they’re really just inspiration to give us a direction to move in. What works on paper or sounds good in conversation is often not what works great in real-time gameplay, and vice versa. Embrace the reality that it’s not going to turn out as it was “meant to be” in your imagination or earliest plans. It can even wind up better in unforeseen ways through needing to be refocused throughout the development process to make the most of your current talent, tools, and time. Check out the original design doc for id Software’s genre-defining hit Doom. Imagine how much the game would have lost its focus if it had 4 main characters, and some of the other weird stuff proposed that didn’t make it into the final game since it didn’t have priority or play to the development team’s strengths.

Imagine how much less exciting your thoughts might be today if Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Sonic, Twisted Metal, Myst, MechWarrior, Chrono Trigger, Okami or another game you love would have stalled forever at 98% done because the options menu wasn’t finished, or got cancelled during development simply because (notice what an obvious trap this sounds like when said outright!) the developers were able to think up and talk about more and grander ideas than they could possibly program and create data for. It would have been like someone stealing from your childhood!

The game being done at all – completely behind you – even if it frankly isn’t especially great, is infinitely better for you as a game developer than being hung up on it indefinitely. There’s really no reason to feel bad about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to know whether something will be any fun until you’ve tried it, so taking chances creatively means occasionally creating stuff that didn’t work out as well as expected. If it’s beyond the prototype phase and pretty far into development though go ahead and wrap it up, put the little extra time into preparing it to be self-explanatory and playable by the outside world. In the process of finishing you’ll learn a lot of valuable lessons about details that will be helpful to have in the back of your mind when making time estimates and design predictions about your next game project. Who knows, maybe it’ll surprise you and find some audience that likes it, after all.

I’ve heard the excuse before that if it’s just being done for practice it doesn’t matter if the game gets finished. Nonsense! Practice leads to mastery. If you practice not finishing projects you’ll become a master at not finishing projects. Practice finishing projects.

If the first time you’re actually going through the motions of finishing a full project is when you finally get a game that you’re genuinely pleased with during development, you’d lack the background experience necessary to really see it through well during the last stages to make the most of its potential.

Buddy System: No More Flying Solo

Finding someone to work with can help keep us on track. This point requires some clarification though, because I definitely don’t mean what it might sound I’m saying. I’m saying to still just work on your own game, while someone else still works on their own game, but partner up to avoid getting sidetracked or losing track of time.

Why don’t I mean to find someone to work on the same game with?

Having multiple beginning programmers on a project can go considerably slower, and much less reliably, than only having one. A ton of time gets lost in those situations on trying to make sense out of one another’s hackish code, butting heads over writing overlapping or incompatible functionality, and discovering bugs that arise from misunderstandings. Five beginning programmers working together will not get done five times faster than one, but together they may be five times as likely to never finish the project. And that’s for the exact same project, which means it isn’t even accounting for the very real danger that when five people work on a game as a group they tend to come up with even more overly ambitious plans. This is considering only the programming side of problems, completely ignoring other style, design, or other arguments. Figuring out how to do your own thing separately first will also help develop a more full appreciation for the difficulties involved in various aspects of a game’s production, so that when you pair up with someone, it’s less likely that you’ll take for granted that what someone else is doing for the game is easy or accomplished by magic.

When I say find someone to work with, what I mean is in the same way that friends are often more successful at getting and staying in better shape when they have a friend to go to regularly go the gym with. Having trouble keeping game development a weekly priority, between school/work/social demands in your life? Get someone else having the same problem to help keep you on track, and do the same for them. Having someone else interested in videogame development to share war stories with, complain to, ask for feedback, and otherwise share in the endeavor is considerably more likely to succeed in a timely manner. Excuses, plans, and concerns will need to be made to someone besides yourself, outside of your head, and as innately social animals at heart that’s a powerful motivator. Though again, until at least one of you has a few games completed as background experience to build upon, I would tend to advise against working on the same game together quite yet.

Not sure where to find someone else interested in game development? The internet is full of them. Cast out a line or go looking for others that are already searching.

Don’t leave your success up to the whims of someone else, though. Make up your mind that if something goes sour, if they flake out, if anything happens outside of your control (or heck, even if it’s in your control!) that causes that pairing to not work out, treat that as an opportunity to open yourself up to learning from and alongside someone new. Get back out and find another. And in the time between keep working on your game, because the demo of it, the screenshots of it, or even just being able to talk coherently about it is going to play a key role in helping you find that next “workout partner.” That work you’re doing is what will prove to people that yes, you really are committed to sticking to this, and that’s going to help draw in the right kind of people who get and share that level of determination.

Este artículo está disponible en español. Traducción por cortesía de Andrés de Pedro.

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