Hey everyone! I’m Elif. The game designer of Swaps and Traps, which is an upcoming 2D platformer for PC. This post is about balancing the ups and downs of game development process based on the past three years of our lives with Swaps and Traps.
In addition to being a developer, I’ve also worked as the program manager of a pre-incubation center in Turkey, which supports indie game developers only. My personal experience with hundreds of developers and dozens of teams showed me some common patterns in all of us. Here are the major ones, including how we handled them during the development of Swaps and Traps.
Does your team have a roadmap? Do you all have the same vision? Are you sure if you are all moving forward to the same game?
I’m not just talking about design details. I’m talking about the overall progress.
When you decide to go for it, sit down, have a cup of coffee and have a piece of paper for each team member. Noone else is allowed in this session, it’s important to have the team members only. ;)
Without checking each others’ answers, fill your opinions to below questions:
After answering the above questions, see which ones you agree on, and which ones you think differently. This will walk you through the inital setting of a healthy project. You don’t have to know each detail on your roadmap. But be sure to have one.
Business Partners vs Friends
This is one of the first things you should talk even before you call yourselves a team of developers.
You don’t have to be a corporate entity or a company to have an agreement. You don’t even have to have a team name. But it is important to accept and express that you are all working together with common goals and mutual responsibilities. It just takes a couple of minutes but trust me, it saves years:
When things get rough, it is possible to lose sight of our partnerships. And you won’t of course have a copy of this “agreement” whenever you have a problem. It doesn’t work like that. But this exercise is not about the future. It is about beginnings that set the right direction. You will feel better, communicate better and progress better if you talk to each other and know each others’ expectations. Writing is necessary just to ensure that you won’t cut it short and you all shape the same dough. If you do this, you won’t hesitate to communicate when time comes.
We get mad at each other. We sometimes get angry when one of us delays a task or does the job poorly. But we never let it become a silent issue that just drags all the team down. We talk. Whatever you do, talk. It will solve your situation, but above that it will save your friendship.
I witnessed more than enough teams breaking up, and friends falling apart just because they didn’t talk. They talked to a lot of people, but not to each other. Ego avoids confrontation. We feel exposed. We take it as a personal attack. Take care of this as early as you can, or you might probably end up talking about unfinished games over and over again. I have the perfect exercise for this in the last section. ;)
Tasks from Hell
If you talk to other teams, you will probably learn that they tried different methods and tools to manage tasks. And most of the time none of it works efficiently, or as expected.
You can define deadlines, put milestones, have weekly sprints and daily stand ups. You can use whiteboards, advanced management software, casual apps, stickers on walls.
These are just tools, and will never work if you don’t “manage” the process. We were all working in different full time jobs for the most of Swaps and Traps development. It is highly difficult to keep track of your tasks when you spend most of your day with other things in your mind. But this is the key. Your job is to manage the team, not the tasks. Your priority is to lead the team to the right direction in order to check more tasks on that list.
Here are some tips based on our process:
Everyone Has Problems
This is not just some regular generalization. We all read, watch or listen to other developers sharing their stories. We always try to learn something from each other, mostly just because we don’t want to live what they’ve gone through. We sometimes tell ourselves “we are a better team” or “pffftt, that’s rubbish, just focus on developing”... But that’s not life, is it?
I think the most important thing to get from each other’s story is the simplest one:
Everyone has problems.
Game development is not a theory. It is not just a value chain on paper. It is an ambitious process of enthusiastic people who are not robots. Not at all... So, it is very important to remember day by day that we are not just developing games, but we all have lives. We all have feelings, thoughts, reactions. This may seem too romantic for some, but this is one of the earliest things we lose. We get lost in the construction of our game’s world as the builders, but still live in our world of daily chores and interactions. This mostly results in motivational problems.
I’ve seen so many (maybe too much) videos and articles on “how to avoid losing your motivation”. I don’t think that is a proper problem description and I don’t think there is a right answer to that. And I strongly think the problem is not the motivation loss itself but the fact that we ignore the reality of it.
All teams lose motivation.
During Swaps and Traps, we lost our motivation like a million times. The key is we knew this would happen and we didn’t try to avoid it or stop it in advance at all. We experienced this before, so, when one of the team members or sometimes all of us lost the motivation to develop a gorgeous and challenging platformer, we just kept in mind that this was ok. We are a team. You don’t avoid motivation loss, you heal it.
Developing Swaps and Traps was not easy. It never is, is it?. We all had problems, obstacles, things that we had to take care of. Some financial, some psychological, some other... We sometimes had to wait for another for months to heal. Always supporting. Never blaming. Knowing who is having a problem right now is a different thing than blaming that person. We know, but we never blame. So, we always came back stronger, being a better team rather than a bunch of people drifting away.
Yin and Yang Again
While developing Swaps and Traps, we learned more about each other although we’ve been friends for ages. We are all different, and being different is maybe the best thing you can be in a team. :) It may sound a bit weird but once you see that your traits complete each other, you’ll feel safe. You can start a project anytime, with anyone, for any reason. But you can only finish a game when you know you have your teammates to catch things that you cannot even see. You have your teammates to argue on things that you cannot even imagine differently. Your game will be your top performance when you are different but not disconnected.
Here is my final exercise for you. Of course, with a cup of coffee. ;)
(This was one of the first things we did when we started the PC version in 2015. We knew each other for years but this was a milestone moment.)
“One thing I like the most about you as a developer is your enthusiasm being infectious.”
“One thing I like the most about you as a developer is you keep being cautious as rest of the team is going bananas .”
“One thing I dislike the most about you as a developer is you tend to ignore what others have to say about our decisions.”
“One thing I dislike the most about you as a developer is you work messy.”
“This feels weird isn’t it. I mean I know you don’t mean to attack me or anything, but I feel an urge to defend myself.”
You should do this one often. Do it once a month. Twice a year. Whenever you feel a shift in the force. Trust me, this will be one of the best things you’ll do. It will show your power as a team, heal your communication channels even though you didn’t know they were broken and bond you like no other excercise.
Balancing the game development process is like balancing the difficulty of your game.
When you see a challenge, just get ready to learn your new skill.
Be sure that you can overcome this one for sure. You just need to practice and find how it works.
You are a team. This is co-op all the way, don't get competitive!
That's A Wrap!
This has been a looooong post, but it has been a looooong journey for us. :)
Swaps and Traps is now finished and safe, walking the plank towards Steam launch on February 12th. If you feel like you want to check our game, feel free to witness my shameless promotion right here:
We feel excited, tired, happy, emotional...
We feel surprised, weak, sensitive...
We feel incompetent. We feel superior.
We feel everything... as a regular developer should feel. :)
We are not a bunch of robots, you know.
We are a team, after all... ;)