Starting an indie game project is easy. Finishing one is not. Why is that? And what can be done about it? Common problems and a few suggestions to transform your workflow and become more productive in general.
Everyone who has ever had an indie-game project knows that starting it is the easy part. Coming up with an idea? Man, you have tons and can’t decide! Learning an engine? Well, there are a few that are actually not that hard to learn — at least as far as the basics are concerned. Finding the assets? Graphics, music, sound effects, plugins? May take some time, may cost some money, but other hobbies are time-consuming and expensive too, so what the heck! Let’s get it all.
With a folder full of cool stuff and a newly created project, you start putting stuff together. The heroes. The skills. The items. The enemies. This is fun! The first map. Some chests. Some NPCs.
The hard part is actually finishing the project. Even a demo is something not many hobby developers will every achieve in their life. Sad but true. Most projects are abandoned long before there’s even one playable area.
Abundance of Elements
One reason for projects being cancelled is the sheer complexity of most games. JRPGs tend to have a lot of elements: 10 playable characters? Seems doable. That’s 100 player skills, plus 100 enemy skills. 100 items (let’s create loot for each enemy type with rarity levels!), 100 weapons (10 per type, well, triple that because you want weapons to be upgradable), 100 armours (a lot of accessories! That have levels as well!), 100 enemies, 10 bosses, well, make that 20, no, 30. There are so many things you need to get right — or at least make a decision on. A decision that you will stick with for long enough to create a playable version of the game.
And then there’s actual events. NPC dialogue, cutscenes, puzzles. Planning a JRPG takes weeks, or even months. Some people never leave the planning stage.
Once you do, you may find that your ideas don’t make much sense after all. You may find it hard to continue making adjustments until they do kind of work.
Is it any good yet?
Another reason is that, due to the nature of the medium, we really can’t tell whether a project is actually worth the effort before it’s practically done. We may have a good feeling about it, but when we test it, we realise it’s not fun at all. We may have a bad feeling about it, which often times can be trusted, but we don’t realise that with just a few little tweaks here and there it could become a great experience. You can only really evaluate a game when you see it in action — with all the design elements in place. Just like you wouldn’t be able to evaluate a car before it has been assembled, with all the extra components that may improve (or impair) the driver’s experience.
As a game designer, it’s hard to keep up the motivation if you’re essentially working on a black box. Or blind-folded, so to speak.
Designers, being gamers themselves (are there any who aren’t?), also tend to see a great number of new game-design ideas in other games. When starting up a new game, enjoying it much and analysing what’s so fun about it, we start questioning our own project.
We think about all the elements in the game we’re playing that would fit into our project.
Then we’re suddenly thinking about the ones that clearly don’t.
Then we realise we have our mind wrapped around a completely new project already.
And that new project is, well, new, and, frankly, way better than what we’re working on at the moment — right? What if we … start again …? We haven’t come that far anyway, so … yeah, let’s do it.
Let’s delete this thing we’ve been working on for the past few weeks and click on ‘New Project’.
The solution to this?
We need structure, tools and discipline to keep going in the same direction for a while without being distracted on a regular basis. We need some sort of system. Rules to follow no matter what. The key is to realise that a) it’s more important to finish a project than to finish the project (our magnum opus, if you will) and b) we can always improve the game after we’ve completed at least an alpha version. Iteration is the cool (and, well, also necessary) thing about games, but we tend to forget about it.
Make it. Then make it good.
The important thing is that we actually create a playable game. That alone is something we can be proud of, because not many people get that far. In fact, we’re among the best hobby developers in the world for just reaching that stage. You can actually brag about having created an alpha version of a game if you want. It’s totally legitimate.
Plan. Execute. Evaluate. Repeat.
If you really want to complete a project, you need to be good at planning — and the ability, the willpower to stick to the plan. Some people may not like planning anything and prefer the excitement of not knowing what’s next. Of coming up with great ideas on the fly when creating a game. Well, yeah, that may even work for some of you! But most likely, you will find yourself in a situation where the game systems, while pretty cool on their own, don’t combine well. That’s when the project gets stuck. And cancelled.
Not only does the game itself need to be planned — that would be your game design document and maybe a number of additional files —, but the development schedule has to be clearly defined as well. Therefore, try to divide the development process into steps that are ambitious, yet realistic in scope. You don’t want to lose motivation just thinking about the tasks that you planned to complete on a given day. You want to, instead, actually increase your motivation by making continuous progress. Even if that progress doesn’t amount to much within the first few days, if you keep at it, you will actually stop thinking about the process.
Before you know it, the game is half-way done.
Use some Tools
So, if you’re still serious about making a game, there are several tools than can help designing the game and scheduling development. One tool I’ve started using only recently is Notion. It has a lot of advantages keeping your notes on a cloud platform like that where you can actually open every section in a separate tab as well as link and comment stuff — instead of searching for some information that is scattered throughout multiple documents somewhere on your hard-drive. Well, that may be exaggerated if you’re good at managing your files. But even if that’s the case, you should give Notion a try and see if you don’t find it even easier to work with.
Another useful tool is Todoist. It’s basically a digital to-do list which allows you, for instance, to categorise your tasks into projects, schedule repeating tasks or reschedule tasks (which you should, of course, only do if absolutely necessary!). For a long time, I used a simple RTF document (the format WordPad saves at; a little fancier than a TXT, yet simpler than a DOCX) to keep track of my tasks, but with Todoist, my schedule could be made much more nuanced, and thus, I’ve become more efficient at managing it, I think. You should at least give Todoist (or a similar tool) a try.
The sacred To-do List (once more)
And here it comes. This is basically my secret to productivity: Consider your to-do list sacred. You read right. Keep telling yourself that what’s on the list must be done, no matter what, and force yourself to to your tasks out of self-respect. Tell all your friends how you managed to follow this intrinsic order for a week, a month, a year. The longer you can sustain it initially, the easier it gets to keep going, since after bragging about being such a beast of productivity, you will have a reputation to lose. (To be honest, your friends may also think you’re crazy, but at least you’ll have released some stuff!)
Yes, a sacred to-do list requires sacrifices. It might be hard sometimes. Leaving a party early so that you don’t spend half of the next day in bed (and then having to work on difficult stuff with a headache). Taking forever to finish that awesome new series on Prime or Netflix because you hardly find time for it (and lagging behind your friends). But if you really want to release a number of games in your life (and/or novels, music albums, films or whatever else you’d like to make a name for yourself with), you don’t really have a choice.
It’s a Secret to everyone!
Here’s another trick: Keep silent about your project. No, seriously! Don’t tell anyone. As soon as you start sharing your setting and some of the brilliant ideas you had for your game, the project loses quite a bit of its magic. Part of your motivation is to show people what you’ve created, after all. If you tell them beforehand — especially if met with a reaction less enthusiastic than you had expected — the motivation is extinguised and hard to rekindle.
Try it. See where it takes you.
So, with all that explained, why don’t you go ahead and try this approach, at least for some time? Make a to-do list for, let’s say, 4 weeks. Remember, the list is sacred! Set yourself ambitious but realistic goals and keep at it. After 4 weeks, see where it has taken you. How much you have accomplished. And try to do it for another 4 weeks, and then another. Soon enough, the structured game development process will be part of your daily routine without much thinking about it anymore.
And that’s it.
Now, tell me: If you’ve tried to-do lists, what are your experiences with them? Have you had success with the approach I laid out here or a similar one? Or have you found another way of keeping your motivation alive when working on a lengthy project? Please, let me know!