5 Tips To Stay Focused on Your Game Development
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Midnight Hub is a Swedish indie studio run by former Mojang and Paradox developers. Right now we're hard at work with our story-driven mystery game Lake Ridden. Feel free to reach out on Twitter if you got any questions! This post was originally posted on our developer blog.
This week we gave our old page an big overhaul. The truth is that launching this new web page is something we had in the works for quite some time now. I guess we're not the only indie studio stuggling with fidning enough time to make their game AND having an updated page? It’s one of those projects that just drags on and on, eating up a lot of valuable time and energy you could have invested into making the game instead. For us the longtime benefits of having this new page were big enough to justify the hassle of setting up it up. This leads me to the blog topic of today: how do you stay focused on making your game (or any kind of project!)?
When starting Midnight Hub we knew that there would always be plenty of things that are not really game development, but which still needed to get done. But I guess none of us were prepared on just how many different kinds of tasks that pop up all the time and drag you away from delivering Lake Ridden to you guys. Making a game is hard enough, you are short on time, money and talent, so spending it on anything that doesn’t directly help the actual game getting done needs to be justified. Otherwise it’s very easy getting caught up doing busy work instead of actual work that should be taking you closer to releasing the game! Here are five tips on how to get your game done (and at the same time making sure you’re not ignoring vital responsibilities when running an indie studio):
1. Have a plan.
Let’s say you are making a game or have a serious hobby you want to turn into a full time job. What do you want to achieve? Only when you know what you want, can you identify what you should be doing to get there. When you know what needs to be done you can apply a project management method and break down the work to manageable chunks, just as we talked about a few weeks earlier on this blog.
Rumor has it that when Epic developed the action fueled shooter “Gears of War” they went by the mantra “Marcus Fenix is a badass” (Marcus being the main character of the game). Every decision about the game should reflect this statement during the development.
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but distilling it down like this gives you a very clear mission. Is this gun helping Marcus look like a badass? Yes/no? Does this voice actor makes Marcus a badass? Yes/no? Does this cut scene make…you get the idea!
We have a drawing in the office showing a piedestal with the word “story” written on top of it. This reminds us that we always want to focus on telling a good story with Lake Ridden. Story above all with this game project.
Problem: You’re jumping all over the place, not really getting anything done, perhaps discarding a lot of work.
Possible solution: Focus. Identify what you want to achieve. When you know the vision for your game you can start making decisions on how to actually get there. Having a clear, shared vision in the team pretty much is a deal breaker for your game project, as this big study of successful game developers suggests.
2. Tackle time-consuming, but important tasks.
When running your own small studio you just can’t focus 100% on working on the game at all times. Accept this. You need to put time aside to do things like networking, making sure the rent was paid in time, interviewing potential team members, hassle with subscriptions for programs or meet with investors or press. This is part of the job at any small studio. Realize that these are important things that need to get done, to enable you to write code, draw concepts or design features for the game itself.
Problem: You feel like you don’t get enough time to actually work on the game hands on. All kinds of other work keeps coming in the way.
Possible solution: Realize this is part of running a small studio, to some extent. Then you can either choose to ignore all kind of “distractions” OR decide which ones are important to you. Ignoring them all will almost certainly come back and bite you in the butt sooner or later.
Instead, identify the important ones, like having a updated web page to market your game, to pay the rent so that you have an office and perhaps attend one IRL event for game developers each month to expand your network. Be picky and choose wisely. Prioritize.
When someone asks me if they can come by and hang at our studio or interview the team for their master thesis on game development my standard reply is “let me get back to you”. This gives me the time to see if I/the team actually got time for this. You don’t want to come across as a douchebag, just let them understand that unfortunately you don’t have as much time as you wish you had. Sometimes it sucks to say “no”. We get emails at least a couple of times a week with all kinds of requests for meetings, Skype calls, or other kinds of meetings. I just can’t attend all of these AND get Lake Ridden done on time, on budget.
The fewer you are on you team, the harder you need to prioritize. When we started Midnight Hub we were three crew members, and one of my missions from early on was to be the one dealing with most of the non-game development stuff to give Johan and Erik as much time and space possible to work hands-on with the game.
Let me put it this way, your time is never really free of charge. Let’s say you put all your savings into making a comic book. You quit your day job to do this full time, you want to fulfill your dream! What is one hour of your time worth? If you take the amount of moneys you invest into your project (how much of your savings your are burning trough), divide it per hours and person you get the hourly rate for what 1 hour of work is worth to you. That is the monetary value a 60 min “unconditional meeting over a cup of coffee” or one hour of drawing actually has. Scary when you start to think about it ; )
3. Avoid bad meetings.
It’s easy to waste time on meetings. Some people use meetings to be socialize, to talk about their kids, or to pass time. If you are not careful meetings can be a huge time sink. But there are ways to maximize your meetings and then get back to working on the game again!
Problem: You are constantly in meetings that just seem to drone on and on forever. Nothing is really decided, and you feel like you are losing valuable time that could be spent with the code/art/design.
Possible solution: Some meetings are necessary to make sure you are all on track with the development. Again, prioritize. Identify important meetings! Sprint planning meetings and our morning stand-ups are necessary for us, everybody need to know what to work on.
Here are some pointers. I have seen meetings failed since they lacked one or more of the following. How to have an efficient meeting:
- A clear purpose with the meeting: to decide on how a specific feature will work, to decide on what company will do your trailer, to interview a possible new team member etc.
- A time frame. Most of the time you can keep the meetings quite short. Set a tight time frame.
- An agenda. Send it out to everyone ahead of time so they can come to the meeting prepared. Stick to the agenda and firmly guide people back when they wander of the agenda.
- Invite the right people only. Don’t waste anyone else’s time.
- Make sure you decide on something. All discussions during the meeting should end with a clear decision(s) so you can take action!
4. Sometimes done is better than perfect!
Many creatives are perfectionists. This can lead to having a hard time releasing something or knowing when to let go of your masterpiece. Wanting something to be perfect is a good trait in itself, you just need to know when to call it done and ship it. Both for your own mental sanity and the rest of the team.
Problem: You spend a lot of time on small details, you want it to be just perfect, which results in very little code/design actually getting committed/published.
Possible solution: “If you’re not ashamed of your beta you released it too late”, as the character Jared says on Silicon Valley. Making games are very much an iterative process. Sometimes you need to accept that “done” is better than “perfect” and just push it out the door. Knowing when to let something go comes with gaining experience. Acknowledge that your time and energy are limited resources, spend them wisely. A work of art is never “done”, just abandoned and all that.
Each Friday the team takes some time to play games together, to get inspired, to learn and to analyze. Last week we played The Descendant ep. 01, among others.
5. Take breaks!
Your brain need breaks. Working with creative tasks all day requires a lot of focus and energy. To stay sharp and on top of the game you need to give your brain some rest. A lot of startups or creatives work very long hours.
Problem: You work long hours or periods of time, getting less and less done. You don’t feel inspired or keep making a lot of mistakes.
Possible solution: Work smarter, not harder. When you are working on your game your mission is to make the game, when you are off duty your mission should be to recharge yourself, both your brain and body. I don’t believe that the 8 hour work day necessarily applies to all kind of work. If you are doing creative work you need to get up from your desk and go see the world sometimes. As creatives it’s crucial to keep exploring, visit new places, play different games, meet a lot of new people, read books or something that makes you relax and expand your inner database of references. Take care of yourself, try not to work on the weekend, don’t work when your’re sick. Get the sleep you need. You are not a slacker for giving yourself some slack, enjoy the summer!
Did I forget something? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments :)