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Keeping Up Appearances
by Randy OConnor on 07/02/11 08:25:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I was talking with my dad and showing him my new one-man game.  We were discussing the mechanics and the modular way I built it and how much was left and so on.  

I explained that there was a bunch of work left to do before the game would be shippable. I'm in the heat of production, that phase where you are happy with how the project has worked out so far, but now you need all those detail animations and UI and code polishing, everything that takes it from amateur to a product you feel is worth commercial value.  (Man I hope this is worth 99 cents…)

My dad looked at the game and responded that I was going above and beyond what was needed, that such things would help, but I should probably focus on just shipping the game.  I could certainly understand where he was coming from. 

I have been working on several games since I went indie.  Zero have shipped.  It's been frustrating.  Most of the projects have not shipped because they aren't ready, and that's fine.  I began this solo project on my own with the intent of fighting the helplessness that comes with being part of a larger vision with a long timeline.  I was raised to make my own way, and yet you often make your own way by joining a larger force.

It's great to be part of something larger, but it's good to feel comfort and stability as well.  I'm sure many of you know, even the success and stability of a AAA company with health insurance and other benefits is dependent on a myriad of factors, many as fickle as the public playing or not playing your game.

So with such a feeling of helplessness, I had to come back and think positively about day to day living, and thus I've been making my own game in spare time for the last few months.

Success requires more than just a good idea and a few animated sprites moving around at the touch of a button.  You have to care about those extra moments, you have to know the details, you have to care about your art and your craft.  It's not enough to ship what I have done so far.  I am in "THE REAL WORLD", people won't give me the time of day if I don't give my work the same.  Dammit, I plan on being competitive.

Making a prettier Game Over screen, adding shadows underneath the characters and more animation, highlighting important elements, none of these actually affect how the game works, they don't change the system whatsoever, but they do change my and your perceptions of the game, and that is important to what you do.  While I write this blog, I will pull out sections, I might reorder paragraphs, make other changes, because the whole point of this post is to present information and thoughts to you, and how I write these ideas will affect how you receive them.

Every little extra piece of your game is the most important part.  I won't go to a store and buy a new appliance if it's missing a manual.  There are expectations I have, reasons I am paying for a new product.  Mostly I buy used stuff (there's so many useful and nice things that people throw away) so when I choose to spend money on something new, the love and quality of that product is a deciding factor.

I learned a lesson years ago when I was first attempting to build Half-Life levels.  The best way to make a level look more real, to add fidelity, was to add just a few small details to break up the monotony of a space.  Little outlets, light switches, a decal of rust over in a corner.  Drop a small little item somewhere, and suddenly your room has scale.  Real walls are never blank.  Just dropping that tangled piece of wire in a corner of an otherwise empty room gives the room individuality.  It shows that you care about the space.

I have a bunch of little details that I still have to add to my game, each is a sign of love.  So yeah, the game won't ship until I've put in the necessary details.  And in this project, any failure is only mine.

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Alan Lynn
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Adding polish to your game is good, but remember, it will never be perfect. You have to ask yourself, "How perfect can I afford to make my game?" When you've made it as perfect as you can afford to, you have to release it. It will be hard.

Kevin Fishburne
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I'm doing the same thing and agree with you.

One thing to consider is to make the game automatically patch itself when loading. You could release it and continue to add cosmetic (or more significant if need be) improvements. You could even incorporate barebones open-source bittorrent client code to download the patch, which could then seed it QOS'd very low while the game's running and remove heavy bandwidth requirements from your patch server.

Also, what's up with the game? No links to screenies yet?

Mine's here if anyone gives a poop:

Steve Jones
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As a developer by day, and a garage iPhone game developer by night. I fully understand your constant fight with "is it ready". During my day there is a quality bar I have to hit to make a AAA title, but I also like my night time work as it gives the freedom of putting something out there (maybe not quite as polished as I would like) and getting feedback quickly and then being able to adjust based on the feedback.

Nick Harris
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Remember that many AAA games with 1000+ man years of development time behind them are brought down by poorly conceived control layouts. Poor ergonomics will pull the player out of their immersive experience and curse their apparent clumsy inarticulacy. In short, make people feel empowered not disabled.

I would regard the Assassin's Creed series as suffering from this flaw.

Marque Sondergaard
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Thanks for the post Randy.

Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. The task of perfection before shipping, that you have set yourself, is an endless one.

A cross section between your logic and your dad's logic would be get the things it absolutely needs, and then ship. Developers have been fighting the temptations of feature creep since the dawn of time. I believe once you get your title out there, the feedback you will get from people using and abusing it will make you realise things that the game still need, which you could never ever realise on your own.

So get the key features right, put it out there, take in feedback and reiterate.

Ben Vance
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Great post! Polish is really important, and good to hear you championing it, contrasting against all the recent focus on "minimum viable product". The danger here is that it could be read as "less vs more". Should you spend less time on your game, or more? Well obviously, more!

I know you're not suggesting that kind of blindness. But as indies, I think it is critical for us to define and understand what "polish" and "minimum viable product" are. This answer is likely to be very different between indies, and even from personal project to project. Go too far in either direction and you're screwed. Too much polish and you never finish, or overextend yourself and risk too much of your time, money, and resources. Too "minimum" and your game isn't viable (not fun, interesting, captivating, etc) to attract and keep players.

Totally agree with your point here, but it also illustrates the dangers:

"Making a prettier Game Over screen, adding shadows underneath the characters and more animation, highlighting important elements, none of these actually affect how the game works, they don't change the system whatsoever, but they do change my and your perceptions of the game, and that is important to what you do."

These things can absolutely change perceptions... but I wouldn't want to imply that they always *improve* perceptions. More detail, more "pretty" is not, by definition, better. More detail in one area and completely cutting detail in another could be better. Shadows are a good example - not absolutely necessary for most games, though they can really help your look, ground your characters, and enhance authenticity of your world. But maybe doing something unusual instead could be easier to implement and help give your game a signature style? Of course, only you can answer that!

I don't want indies to skimp on polish. I do want them to choose their battles, to choose their aesthetics, and think about upsetting conventions. The details matter very much (they can make all the difference!), and they have the ability to surprise and delight players. That is a reason in itself to do something a bit differently - to surprise, challenge expectations, and capture attention. So it's critical to choose the right details and think about the game as a whole, especially because indies don't have the horsepower to blindly pursue "more". We can compete on being unique and unusual, and sometimes, that might include being unconventional on the details and on those "extra pieces".

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

Randy OConnor
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What any player expects is that what they play has love and polish where it matters. When you play the game, it needs to not crash, when you get to the end of a level and want to know how you did, it should tell you the stats you want to know. And as a player you want a reward for certain things. Certain genres or types of games demand certain levels of depth, and to provide anything less almost feels disrespectful.

This isn't the main challenge, this is just necessity.

I am expecting people to pay for my game, so ya know what? I am going to spend a few more minutes on the Game Over screen. And I'm going to add the shadows, because even though an update is there to add content, you can't add shadows under characters in an update, that is a fundamental shift in art. The first real release is you, as a developer, saying that you believe this product to be complete in of itself. Additional content should be a bonus, not a fix.

And I may be foolish, but somewhere in my head I'm thinking, "I can compete with Doodle Jump. Maybe I could be the next Tiny Wings." And they reached their target by making sure everything you saw was polished.

The challenge, I think, as a developer, is to choose where to stop in terms of gameplay and interactive content. It's a challenge as a writer as well. I've started to discover that my favorite writing is not wordy and flowery or anything like that, but concise, beautiful statements that say only what they need.

So I'm making this game and I have to say, what elements are core to the experience? There are certain things to finish otherwise I'm putting out a half-assed product, but then there are gameplay relevant pieces that I have to decide whether or not they are relevant.

The best example right now is that it's a zombie game, with more and more zombies eventually coming to kill you, and currently there is one type of zombie. Is one type of zombie too few? I've got one more zombie type in the art queue? Is that still enough? Will the later game stink with one or two types of zombies? Or does it matter at all? That, I feel, is my challenge.

I generally err on the simple side, but sometimes I wonder where the line is.

Randy OConnor
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And for you guys, the most I have to show right now is probably this pic:

I've worked on too many projects over the last year with inconsistent release schedules so I'm not revealing much until this game is SHIPPED!