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Why make a game a week?: Learning game development in public
Why make a game a week?: Learning game development in public Exclusive
August 25, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

August 25, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Design, Exclusive, GDC Europe

Adriel Wallick began working on satellites at university, helping build the systems that handled the routing among instruments. But making games was her dream job, and she piled on computer graphics and AI programming electives. "It never occurred to me to just make a game," she reflects. "Growing up, it never occurred to me that games were made by real people."

At first, she was discouraged when she found how job listings in game development frequently required experience on a shipped game, even for positions described as "entry level." Wallick hadn't made any games, but she had made a satellite, leading her to work at Lockheed Martin on the GOES satellite's geostational lighting mapper. "I made a simulation model and then a flight command database," she explains to me while I nod dazedly.

"I started making things."

When she left that job to move home to Boston, even getting a job at a different company led her to work on a different aspect of the same satellite she'd just left. So Wallick went to PAX East and tried to meet developers from local independent studio Fire Hose Games. "It was an awkward interaction," Wallick admits. But not to be deterred, she emailed the studio's founder Eitan Glinert, and learned about the area's IGDA meetup.

"I started making things," she says. She collaborated with a team on a global game jam game and ended at Fire Hose doing contract work for Harmonix, working on games including Rock Band Blitz. "I basically just shoved my way in the community til I knew enough people, and then I worked hard," she says cheerfully. "All my game development is self-taught, I built up my skills, and then I finally went indie-indie."

Wallick has since kept on contributing: She planned and organized the cross-country "train jam" for indie developers -- which will return next year with even more tickets -- joined others in walking off the set of a disastrous reality show with a message about accountability, and started making a game every week in public.

A game a week

Wallick says quickly prototyping and making a small game every week has been crucial to her relationship to game development. "When I first went indie, I thought, hey! I've always had the best ideas, and I don't have time to do them, so now I can do them, and they'll be wonderful and something-something success," she says. "I spent a lot of time opening up Unity, organizing things, and then months could go by."

"At first I felt horrible because all my ideas were dumb, instead of feeling good that I was accomplishing things."

For her, waiting to execute those big projects, those long-term great ideas, became demoralizing the longer she went without a finished project on her plate. So she decided to borrow an idea from Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, who recommends giving oneself a Sunday deadline and committing to complete -- and then let go of -- whatever can be accomplished in that one week.

"I spent those first few weeks going through all the 'perfect' ideas I had obsessed over -- and realizing they were shit when you only have a week to prototype them," Wallick reflects. "At first I felt horrible because all my ideas were dumb, instead of feeling good that I was accomplishing things. But once those ideas were 'gone' out of my head, I began to get better ideas."

Making small games rapidly every week gradually began to liberate Wallick from the paralysis of laboring under gigantic, vague ambitions. "There is room now to look at the sunset and be inspired by that," she says. "These games are not for sale and nobody has to play them; this is practice that is helping me improve the quality of my game design."

"Sure, you don't get the experience in production and release, but you get experience in seeing a concept through from start to finish -- and it's still an exercise in gaining experience with the emotional impact of putting something out there, putting just a little bit of your heart and soul onto the internet," she adds.

For her 38th week, Wallick decided to make a game that would act as her GDC Europe presentation about her game-a-week project. She hopes other developers will try a similar experiment, and benefit from the results.

"Continuously making myself vulnerable and putting myself out there for feedback makes me feel a little less scared," she adds. "And you learn other people have felt these things as well. Just talking about things in public, about feelings in general is helpful, as you learn we're all feeling a lot of the same things. And when I analyze why I can't do something, I learn about where I can push myself."

A common misconception about being indie has to do with 'not answering to anybody anymore,' but Wallick has found that public accountability helpful. "You're not just making games for yourself; you're making games for other people to play, and the first few weeks you'll have unplayable messes of nothing. You're going to feel bad, but you're also going to feel good because you did it and got to move on, and you know where to go next."

"You're going to feel bad, but you're also going to feel good because you did it and got to move on, and you know where to go next."

And you learn about your own strengths and weaknesses fairly quickly, as well as the things you like and don't like to make. Wallick struggles with time management and planning ahead -- "I tend to just sort of do things, and then I sort of mitigate the risk of what happens when a thing goes wrong," she laughs. "When we try a lot of things, some of them will work out. I have a lot of self-doubt, but I don't let it stop me."

"We put a lot of constraints on ourselves, and some of them are self-constraints that are easily worked on. Embracing a 'what's the worst that can happen' attitude has really helped me in a lot of things," she continues. Wallick has emailed business magnate Elon Musk about her idea to send indie games up into space, and while her insistence (and likely follow-ups) might amuse her some, she feels she has nothing to lose.

"The worst consequence is that someone says no," she says. "Or you have to leave a room you're not supposed to be in."

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Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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I remember when I first started making Monsters of War, using Microsoft's XNA Framework. Every once in a while, I would randomly create a new project just to test things. It was tedious and time consuming. I would copy/paste things over, rename things. I was too dumb to realize I could probably just copy the whole project to a new location.

The tipping point came when my game was finally starting to form and I needed actual menus. I was like, great, I can barely code as is, how will I ever make menus? Luckily Microsoft already had XNA_GameStateManagement.

I often hear these stories of how developers make a bunch of random games. I think it would be highly valuable if they start putting all these games into one game engine. In the end it would save a lot of time and make your game more valuable to play/buy.

Llies Meridja
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I practised a "game prototype/mechanic in three days" approach when I first started learning game design a couple of years ago. However I still get lost into oblivion every time I try to take any particular prototype to a production ready level. Haven't cracked it yet!

Curtiss Murphy
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There is no right way. I implement prototypes, test ideas, and then discard them. Again and again, until I find one that resonates. For my most recent, I allowed 4 weeks for core gameplay, and another 8 for polish. From initial concept to submitting to the App Store, was 13 weeks, in my spare time (i.e. 2nd job). And when live, it'll be my seventh iOS product in three years.

A game-a-week is a wonderful concept for deliberate practice, and even more powerful when combined with the occasional experience of finishing! Or as Joel Spolsky said, "Shipping is a feature. A really important one. Your product must have it."

Loved the article - best wishes with your presentation and future releases!


Joshua Wilson
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It's always great when people are creating but any kind of "jam", for me, always go back to the fact that it's essentially a form of procrastination, it's just slightly more productive and on a deadline, with a release compared to randomly starting a new project when you get stuck/bored or browsing the web.

You're still not accomplishing what you actually want to accomplish, which is making a shippable product, and all the prototyping and iteration you could be applying to an actual game is being spread around instead of concentrated.

One of the most important skills a developer (or any creative person) can learn is taking on larger projects and finishing them. It's incredibly tough, I'm not denying that. This is something I know I'm capable of, having worked on larger personal and professional projects and having seen them through release but it's still something I struggle with.

It's a strange thing that something you really enjoy doing can still be incredibly hard to motivate yourself to do - but that's the thing you want to work at overcoming.

I think I mentioned this before on a similar article but at the very least I think you want to start pushing your deadline out. Make it two weeks, three, a month and so on. So eventually you're working on larger projects over a larger period of time.

Also, execution is often far more important then the idea and it's often the hardest thing to get right so I would be really careful about throwing out ideas after only a short prototype period. It may just need more time to cook or a a different approach.

Jesse Mikolayczyk
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I did something similar with making a game a week, except i put them all together in a single project so it was a large game project but the large project was a mash of tons of mini games. It was nice getting the sence of accomplishment out of completing each of the mini games every week, but I also got a really big sense of accomplishment when the whole project was done.

This also makes running a demo of what you can do easier as you have a large collection of different work in a single app as opposed to "I did this in that little game if you open it and see, and did that in this little game, and..."

Thomas Happ
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For some reason I really only seem to stay interested when a project is long and involved. I guess I just like seeing all these small parts come together into a big thing in the end. Or maybe it's because that's the kind of video games I like to play?