Finish Your Game

May 31, 2012

It’s tempting to get lost in whatever area of specialization we do best. Even when we’re wearing multiple hats to make something alone or on a small team, designers are tempted to prototype forever, programmers are tempted to overgeneralize code or endlessly optimize tech demos, and people gifted in audio and art creation can get lost in perfecting or churning out infinite variations.

But, if you’d like your work to reach people outside your specialization, beyond yourself and your team, that work needs to get filtered, processed and tied up into one or more self-explanatory, self-contained, appealing deliverables ready for the public. Put simply, it has to turn into a videogame–a pile of code and assets, even elegant code and pretty assets, simply will not do.

If the games that you like most never came together as anything more than prototypes and folders full of digital art/audio, no one would have never benefitted from them.

This entry is in the intermediate section, so I am assuming here that you have completed some games before, and have practiced game making fundamentals enough for it to matter that your results reach others. However I am figuring that you may be somewhat new to making original games on your own schedule–perhaps your beginning projects were clones (a fine way to practice), based closely on a tutorial, or kept on track by a classroom deadline or employer’s nagging.

When a non-commercial game doesn’t get finished, it’s not because the developer(s) never got to that point, but because they didn’t take action to finish the game by a self-imposed deadline. Except for very modest designs, finishing a game always involves changing plans and removing partial implementations for anything that didn’t fit, instead dedicating what time is left to tying up loose ends and filling in for any still-missing essentials (in-application instructions, credits, menu, ending, and if you’ve been putting it off: audio).

It’s common now to see developers finish game jam games more ready for public release than their long-term projects. The two main factors that seem to contribute are having a smaller scope and an unmoving deadline. The thing to keep in mind is that larger projects still need a controlled, reasonable scope and an unmoving, if initially further off, deadline. The projects that have no scope control and no target deadline just expand indefinitely, opening up more issues than the developer(s) could ever realistically expect to find time to close out nicely.

It’s a basic producer/management-type skill to be able to begin closing at any point in a project and preparing for public release. If your game has been dragging out with no end in sight, why not make that beginning of the end now, getting on course to soon set yourself and any other developers on the team free to move on to the next idea? That is, without the lingering guilt, confidence hit, or endless wondering (maybe some people would have liked it?) that can come from simply abandoning worthwhile work that has already been done. Remove any lingering evidence for what doesn’t exist–for example, if certain weapons or levels never got made, simply remove the slots in the interface for them. Make the most of the work that has already been done, so that it can finally be put in front of players.

One strategy to simply tie things up is to basically treat the final stretch like a game jam, with all the work done to date as a starting point and – flexible – direction. That means a fixed deadline, making decisions efficiently, clear intent to release, and fitting in at least the minimum layer of niceties needed for the outside world to understand what’s going on: menu, instructions, working in-game UI, possibly intro text, sound, etc. Sure, this isn’t always ideal, and with enough experience it can be avoided in favor of a smoother wrap up. However it’s infinitely better than a project that you (and maybe some peers) invested weeks, months, or years working on just fizzling out without it ever reaching anyone, or maybe worse, that project never finishing nor fizzling out and thereby blocking you from moving on to newer things.

At some point the alternative to just getting the current game done isn’t releasing a bigger or nicer game, but no game at all. That hurts the players and the developers alike.

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