A Little Planning Can Go a Long Way

Jul 8, 2013

This post is available in audio form.

Music by BoxCat Games, via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0


If you keep up with material on this blog, you know that I’m often a proponent of do, do, do. I’ve written entries before about over-preparation is often a form of procrastination, about how people over-complicating everything, and of course, I frequently advise against starting by writing up 20 page design documents, in favor of making a mock-up screenshot then programming just enough to bring it to life, with at most a 1-page treatment of gameplay and basic theme notes.

But I don’t want to overstate the case! Especially after you’ve gotten over learning some of the essential skills and ideas, after you’re past the point where you need to follow tutorials to make anything, after you’ve maybe cloned a game or three and are shifting toward doing your own thing: suddenly situations will arise where the blocking issue between you and moving forward is the need to sit down and plan a little.

Mistakes will be made.

Overplanning is going to happen.

But making those mistakes is the only way to learn how to avoid them, carefully and narrowly, in your own future. Even if that mistake happens to be overplanning, sure you’ll be relearning the same lesson so many others have already learned before, but it’s time for you to be the one learning it! And, sure enough, people will still need to learn it after you’ve figured it out.

When someone gets stuck, whether unable to make progress or unable to get started, it’s often a case that there’s a step being skipped. Look for that step, something to use as a stepping stone between where you’re at and where you’re trying to get. Think about the additional process steps that you introduce to any other kind of creative or problem solving process, since videogame making involves both. Brainstorming, concept mapping, rough draft, sketch, storyboard, diagram of the problem, draw up a map, write enough down until your mind is clear of whatever’s holding it up (something an old teacher of mine called Brain Puking), the sky’s the limit on what the step might look like or might be. But consider that a step may be missing, look for what it might be, try anything that comes to mind to see if it unclogs progress and if it doesn’t then try something different til you’re able to move forward.

The danger of excess planning is usually a result of someone trying to come up with a plan that doesn’t have enough context and practice yet for the plan to accurately reflect what realistically can or will happen. The more experience you accumulate though, the better positioned you become to account for your future development a useful, productive way. This includes foreseeing some likely sources of complication in advance and already possessing some strategies and fallback plans for how to keep rolling – even developing a comfort for how it’s not always a problem when plans and reality diverge, as long as the right things are still falling into place.

Excess plans can get in the way of beginners, becoming an excuse to work on something other than the game. Lack of plans can get in the way of more experienced people with more ambitious targets. At some point that’s a necessary but difficult transition: to go from planning being a misuse of time to planning being a necessary use of time.

Here is where planning really begins to be learned, and not because it’s some abstract, artificial, bureaucratic exercise that we’re told to do before we’re allowed to start the next part. We learn – and this is actually kind of exciting – because you actually can derive real utility from doing it. You need something to happen, but until you jot a few of the right things down, it’s simply not going to happen. That’s kind of crazy, right?

It may be as simple as writing down a half page plan, first as an unordered list of what’s left to be done, then rewritten a second time ordered by which sequence will make the most sense for you going forward.

Just because a plan needs to end up short doesn’t mean it needs to be short at first and only ever be short, sometimes like the process of overproduction or the Photographer’s Algorithm it can help to begin by getting it all out of your system and putting too much down, then going through it to find highlights of what’s really worth saving form all that.

And though I keep saying write it down, let me stress that I mean exactly what I’m saying here: you’ve actually got to write it down. Information in our head is too easily changed every time we think of it. Digital files are far too easily changed, or far too easily ignored by being tucked away where we won’t see them since they take up zero physical space.

When I say brain storming, concept mapping, scheduling, etc., that’s really something to be put down on paper. If you’re more comfortable working in a digital format – and I know this can sound like heresy in 2013 – print it out and put it where you’ll see it. Again because it takes up physical space it’ll get in your way, it’ll remind you, you can’t as easily deny it or easily change it. Trust me on this, if it’s the difference between your project stalling out from paralysis, or getting done, then it’s a darn good use for one sheet of paper.

Sometimes it’s true that in order to make progress you need to just sit down and put the time and work in, writing code, churning out art and audio assets, iterating on level layouts. Even if there’s a problem you’re going to run into you need to work on that problem up until the point at which you’re stuck in order to ask for help from someone productively! However other times, it can be just as important to put on the producer hat and work out a list on whiteboard or paper about what’s left to be done, and out of that: what should happen, by when, just to know at least what to do next.

There’s a reason large teams tend to have producers, and if your small team or solo effort doesn’t have a producer, one or more of you is going to need to fill in that role from time to time, ideally, at least a little bit of every day that something is supposed to be making progress on your project.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed at all the options? Not sure what type of chart or graph or process to apply? Then let’s keep it simple, here are two specific planning instruments that, used in conjunction, can be used to bulldoze through nearly anything.

(1) Make a high level – meaning non-detailed – list of what’s left that needs to be done for the project to be considered finished. Your goal in making that list is to make it as short and uncomplicated as possible, don’t list any nice to haves on it, put those on a second list to, you know, which realistically you’ll never look at again ever, because if you find yourself suddenly having oodles of time later to reinvest in the project you’ll probably have better ideas then anyhow of how to spend it.

(2) Divide that real list of what’s left to be done up into realistic weekly chunks, so that you’re not trying to get it all done at once immediately – too much pressure! – nor letting yourself put it all off until the last week – which is just not going to happen! That is your new schedule now. Maybe you had a schedule before. This is now the schedule.

Be flexible about it, swap order of things if it makes sense to do so by bartering between weeks, and if in the process of making continual forward progress it doesn’t go quite as fast as you optimistically hoped don’t beat yourself up over it. One of the hard skills you’re learning in this case is how to plan and estimate your work more effectively. That’s another type of skill alongside doing it.

It’s a steady plan to wrap up your game in some form, even if it’s not exactly what you originally had in mind. Sometimes that can even wind up better with a more focused game. Or if nothing else it’ll set you free to collect your thoughts, avoid the guilt and lost learning opportunity of an unfinished project, and move on to the next thing in a finite period of time.

Want another simple planning idea to turn to? If you find that when the day is gone that you can’t account for where the time went, devise a way to add more structure to your time, and break your weekly goals further into daily goals, or even further into: 1 tangible thing you’ll have done before lunch, 1 tangible thing you’ll get done in the afternoon, and/or at least 1 tangible thing you’ll get done for the day before letting yourself crawl into bed.

Stuck, or finding you’re not progressing on a chunk? You’ve got to break that chunk down further, you’re probably still trying to bite off too much at one time to chew. You’ll choke. The metaphor exists for a reason.

Let’s try on another metaphor: videogame development still, absolutely, all about doing, you’ve got to be doing the programming, design, and art, just like a road trip is about driving. You’ve got to be behind that wheel and driving. But making yourself a map, and thinking ahead a bit about how much you’ll be able to handle in each stretch, or where you’ll be able to comfortably stop, that’s a tool and process to keeping your trip or project on course to a destination. If you just sit in the car and hold down the accelerator you’re going to run out of gas, almost certainly wind up in no place interesting, or even wreck the vehicle with you and other people in it. If it sounds irresponsible, it is! Even more so when other people are onboard, planning has to be part of doing.

Don’t let unwillingness to find a pen or use a few sheets of paper keep you from making forward progress that would just be silly. It’s still important to not get sidetracked into burning energy coming up with fantasy plans that’ll never happen, but a short bit of written planning may be just what’s needed. Figure out what’s left to do, break those chunks into spread out weekly objectives, and when you swap your producer hat back for your designer/programmer hat, have some trust that producer you knew what he or she was doing when the weekly schedule was put together as assignments.

As always, if you’re finding these tidbits helpful, please consider liking HobbyGameDev on Facebook or following @HobbyGameDev on Twitter, as silly as it probably sounds that kind of little support really does help keep me keep going in my ongoing mission to help others.

Thanks for taking the time to listen [or read if you chose to go for the transcript!], and once again, this is Chris DeLeon signing out for HobbyGameDev.

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