Why the Rush?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
For the last 2 months, I've been working away on a new game I temporarily entitled Project Merfolk. It was a tactics rpg whose battle system is inspired by fighting games. The following are videos showcasing my progress:
I was relatively happy with my progress; however, when I looked at what I had to do with the game as a whole, even for a short, 3-level demo for a late submission to IndieCade on May 15th, I was filled with a sense of dread. Overall, I had jumped way out of scope for the period of time I wanted to try and finish what I was working on. So, I've decided to take a break and step back from the project and no longer try to submit for that deadline, and instead take things slowly, maybe plan to submit for next year's IndieCade. I'm writing this to help me figure out where exactly I went wrong and how I could have done better.
A Desire to Rush
I've always had a desire to get things done quickly, and I still do. I've always been a firm believer that perfect is the enemy of good -- or whatever the phrase is -- however, with this project, I was beginning to feel that done was the enemy of good. I was rushing just to get things finished, to mark items off my checklist, but in the process, nothing was feeling "good" and the entire project just felt more and more mediocre and uninpisring to me as I worked on it.
Now there's a lot of reasons why getting things done quickly seems desirable. With the number of games launched every month continuing to grow, there is a feeling of "If I don't get my game out there now, there's going to be no room!" (Some could argue we've been there for years.) At the same time, with new innovations, engine versions, console updates, etc., coming out so rapidly, there always feels like this looming risk that something will change and you'll have to take 3 steps back, preventing you from finishing because you weren't fast enough.
Both of these are were reasons I was rushing this project. I wanted to get it done for IndieCade so I could get it noticed now because I felt it was important. Though I had to stop and think -- if the game doesn't look good, then it's not going to get into IndieCade and all I'm going to be left with are some judges' comments and negative $110.
Overall, game development takes time. I think a problem I was having was that I set too strict and short of a schedule; I had no wiggle room for iteration or mistakes. Sometimes game development goes smoothly, but sometimes you realize that things aren't working out as you wanted and you need extra time. An analogy I've heard before for tech is that estimating tech tasks is like trying to find your keys. Sometimes it takes 2 seconds; sometimes it takes 2 hours; I feel this can apply to most creative endeavours. My issues was that if I didn't find my keys in two seconds, I would get frustrated and angry. When in reality, I should have given myself the 2 hours regardless if it took me 2 seconds or not. These are things that after 7 years in the industry I should know, but sometimes when working on stuff by myself, I forget the simplest things.
Preproduction is ALWAYS Important
Due to my desire to rush, I think a lot of problems arose because I didn't take the proper time to do preproduction. Heck, I don't even have a proper title yet! It's similar to when a programmer doesn't document their code because they are the only programmer, only to go back to it it 6 months later and forget everything they wrote. I felt I had this game's design all figured out -- at least from a jumping off point -- in my head; only to discover that after starting, I didn't really answer any many questions as I should have, that there were a lot of gaps presents.
Solo Game Dev Woes
I know it's nearly impossible to say that any game is developed by one person; however, I do tend to try and do as much as I can on my own. One reason is a strong desire to have and maintain creative control. The other has to do with stress. Making games can be stressful, but I find the type of stress induced when trying to do a lot of tasks to create a game on one's own is different than the stress induced when trying to work with others and trust them to bring a vision to life, especially if you're trying to keep your vision as intact as possible. As of right now, I prefer the former stress to the latter. This isn't to say I never work with people -- I contracted music and audio and art tasks before -- however, I'm still not ready to try and create a team, to manage individuals on it, resolve conflict, etc. I'm not sure it's something I'll ever really be ready to do any time soon.
I think the biggest issue I have while working on a game by myself is this feeling of being alone. Sounds silly, right? It should be obvious that working solo comes with feelings of being alone. For me, the problem really started to emerge when I tried to write the game's story, even for a short demo. There were so many ways to go about it, so many directions to take it, and I wasn't confident in any of them. Longer preproduction could have helped with this, but so could working with a few others to bounce ideas off of.
I think the other issue is that beacuse I work solo, I have to break tasks down into parts, and everyone has a preferred order in which they develop games. Some people do all the art concept first, some people get a working prototype, some people make the music. Regardless of the order, when you are in a team, these paths can be going simultaneously; when solo, it's a lot harder. What I was trying to do was go down multiple paths at the same time. It was turning into a muddled mess. I should have either decided, "Okay, I'm going to get this gameplay down solid. I'm going to use simple visuals and not care about how it looks at all right now." OR "Okay, I'm going to just make my characters! I'm going to get them looking how I want in engine." Instead, I was trying to go down both, rush both, and I was getting in the middle of both paths and feeling "Eh, these are both mediocre and won't fare well in any contest."
The other comes to the fact, that I don't start with art first; because of this, it's a lot harder to get initial feedback. Art plays a big part in design, but it also attracts interested; if the art doesn't look great, people won't really care. I feel I'm in this area; the art isn't there yet, so when I tried to get feedback, I didn't really get a lot which created this feeling of loneliness, this feeling of "Why should I keep going?" I still want to keep going, I think I have something, but I need to understand what I'm trying to make better.
So I'm not giving up on Project Merfolk, but I'm no longer going to try and rush a build for IndieCade 2016. I'm going to take some time and focus on the preproduction. I'm going to get my story more figured out, to get a actual title. I know the ultimate goal of this project; however, I need to take some time to build the bridges so I can get over the problematic gaps.
At the same time, I'm going to resume work on my currently released Xbox One game, Battle High 2 A+. I feel I always need at least two projects going on at once. I know that seems like too much; however, I always need something that I can go back to when I'm feeling burnt out on one of my projects, a major project and a minor project.
I definitely don't think the time I worked on this was a waste; I got a pipeline figured out for swapping animations using Mecanim, worked on developing my character modeling skills, as well as basic tactics RPG game with pathing working; however, it needs more and some things probably need to change. I still wonder if the tactics RPG is the correct route to go. Regardless, sometimes I have to ask myself, "Why am I rushing this?" and if the answer isn't good, maybe take a step back and a break before continuing.