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Plan for freedom
by Samuel Rantaeskola on 08/20/13 10:15:00 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.


(this post can also be found at

For most of my life I haven’t had a credit card, the simple reason is that I don’t believe in spending money that I don’t have yet. The owner of a credit card can choose to spend the amount she gets in salary and pay the bill with her monthly paycheck. Each month she starts with an empty account and starts building a new credit bill. With this strategy she has limited possibilities to take on any extra expenses if new opportunities come along, for example a spontaneous trip with her friends. A better approach in my mind is to have a buffer (savings), which allows you to be spontaneous and every now and then take on larger expenses than your budget allows.

Planning your personal time has the same traits as the above. Let’s say that you meticulously fill your calendar for one month ahead, spontaneous activities are now made impossible. They have to be planned for the next month, or you will have to re-organize your schedule to fit the new activity. In my mind this is a very boring life, where most of the fun will be taken out of it.

When talking about games, a common saying is that you can’t plan fun, it comes along. Sure, you can make some educated guesses, but in the end you will have to evaluate on what is on the screen and adjust. I strongly agree with that statement.

There are several things that you can do to apply the same thinking to project plans.

1. Undersize the backlog

Looking at the scope of your game in your backlog at any given moment in you project, the size of it should be smaller than the remaining capacity. The bigger the difference (to a certain extent), the more room for extra-fun you have. But don’t fall in the trap of not adding the discoveries to the backlog. If you fail to do that you will eventually lose track of how much room for “fun” you have left.

2. Use spikes in the backlog

When there is an area with a lot of uncertainty, create spikes in your backlog that describe what should be examined. This in combination with an undersized backlog allows you to keep track of what still needs to be done, while leaving room for fun.

3. Don’t automate planning

If you are planning your project using GANTT scheduling, it’s not a good idea to automatically plan the resource time using functionality such as leveling. This creates a packed schedule that leaves no room for fun. The manual approach is much stronger as it forces you to think on how this will work in reality.

4. Prefer goal-driven containers over buffers

If you are using agile methodologies, this refers to having large epics in the backlog and also maintaining a schedule of sprints that have a larger goal attached to them. In GANTT scheduling this would be long items that are goal-driven, rather than tasks for a set of people. Buffers can create the sense of security that there is a lot of room for fun, but in the end it will be eaten up by things that slip. 

5. Trust the team

This is by far the most important thing. The team is closest to the problem and most likely to identify those small nuggets that eventually will become fun. Leaving them room to actually explore and create, instead of packing their time, will lead to better product.

In the description of this post I stated that I tried to avoid planning my vacation as much as possible. Looking back at it I think I succeeded fairly well, but some people were a bit disgruntled with my effort. It affected their lives negatively, since they couldn’t plan the parts that involved me. This brings me to the aspects that make this kind of thinking hard to apply in a lot of game projects.

Many games are produced with fixed schedules and large contracts defining the expectations on the game. The relationship between studios and publisher is riddled with demands on predictability and excellence. In this environment a packed and extremely ambitious project plan is needed to keep the publishing side happy. Paradoxically this leads to less predictable and poorer products. The team is forced to follow predefined plans and ignore possibilities that could either be better or faster. Solving this problem is the holy grail of game development in order for us to continue building the large magnificent games we are creating today, without sacrificing our health on the way.

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Brenton Haerr
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Thanks for the article. I'm working on my first game now, but wish that you had taken the time to more clearly define some of your terms in the article. How one accounts for "fun" and "backlog", for instance, would be good to know.

Also, just a quibble, but I'm fairly certain that (in America at least), not owning a credit card is a large financial mistake. Owning MOST credit cards (you would have to check your specific terms) is free so long as you pay off your balance each month, making it essentially a debit card that must be reconciled monthly. In exchange for this small chore, you earn as much as 3% back on purchases AND build up credit--invaluable when a loan for a large purchase (house/car?) is required. Sacrificing those benefits is a huge financial mistake unless a person knows that he lacks the willpower to actually pay off his complete balance each month.

Michael Joseph
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The aspect of credit card use you're talking about is a strategic one that is not applicable to the warnings relayed in the article.

As for the "willpower" thing... credit cards do not get paid off for lack of willpower. It's lack of money. This is what we're talking about in the first place and why the first defense is to not take on the debt you cannot afford if at all possible. In other words, never use credit cards to purchase items you do not urgently need. In other, other words, you shouldn't use credit cards for discretionary spending or as a substitute for disposable income because it's going to land you into trouble and no amount of willpower in the world is going to make a damn of difference if you don't have enough income.

And maybe you can show otherwise, but it sounds to me like a complete myth that having steady employment and a good income and 0 historical credit card debt puts you at a disadvantage for getting a home loan.

Logically, if someone has a credit card for 10 years that they've paid off every month, what does that tell you over the person who's had the same job for 10 years and has never incurred any credit card debt, had paid all his bills and never has anything sent to collections? I say nothing. Any "reason" you can come up with that places on over the other seems like an invention to me. The person who's never used a credit card strikes me as no less disciplined or graced with "willpower" than the other person.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Thanks for taken the time and reading it! :)

My point is that you cannot quantify "fun", you can come up with a idea you think will be fun but getting there will require a fair amount of discovery which is hard to plan. In my mind the best is to leave room in the plan for fun to evolve and explore.

The backlog is the term for the road-map in agile methodology.

I fully agree with Michael Joseph's comment on credit cards. On top of his analysis there's also the fact that the 3% back is in fact paid by you with a mark up. Consumers would be best off if no one used credit cards as the store owners pay a fee on every transaction. They have to cover that fee by increasing prices enough to make their business profitable. All in all credit cards is a pretty bad thing that creates problems for a lot of people and increases overall prices for consumers. We'd all be better off if we could have the discipline to have a buffer that allows us to take on extra ordinary expenses in the short term. Much like when we plan our games.

Ashwin Lassay
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You should read "Agile Game Development with Scrum" by Clinton Keith. This book explains what was written in the article in more detail. Even tough it's written for team development a lot of it applies to individual projects as well.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Stephen Etheridge
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With respect, Samuel and Michael, you are incorrect about the importance of establishing a credit history.

It's a pretty simple concept. When a bank provides a large loan it is taking on risk. To estimate the level of risk you pose in terms of being able to meet your repayments the bank checks your credit rating. If they have zero information about your ability to meet your repayment conditions with prior loan providers, you are a riskier proposition than someone who has a history of always or even mostly meeting those repayment conditions. Therefore it is strategically sensible to take out a credit card and make some repayments for a period of time to establish a good credit history, after which you can file the card away and never use it again. Not doing this, though, makes you a riskier proposition to the bank and will leave you with a higher interest rate for your repayments when you do take out that mortgage loan.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Stephen, where I'm from (Sweden) I don't think that has an effect on your interest rate but I guess that's the case in US. However, the point I want to make is that it's bad to spend money before you have them. A combination of savings and credit card works as well to give yourself more freedom.

Gryphon Myers
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^ Everything that guy said.

Laura Bularca
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Excellent article as always!

Harry Fields
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6) Double everything.