When to Shelve a Game Project?

I write this post to help me process as well as to share the journey of the last few months as I have realized I need to put my current project on the shelf and take up a new and simpler project. This is not an easy thing to do. Even as I right this I can hear the doubt whispering in my ear...

Like so many of us, I too had a dream of what my next project could look like. I had learned so much from my first published game and I was excited to start my second project making use of all that experience and knowledge. My coding was better. My design was better. Even my art had improved significantly. 

I was ready and excited to not make the same mistakes that I made on my first project. And so, no surprise, I proceeded to make a whole new set of mistakes...

Not bad, right?

I approached the design of "Game #2" much smarter this time around. Rather than just jump in and work on the next thing that came to mind. I laid out the design in layers with discrete chunks that could be prototyped. With each completed prototype I became more excited and more hopeful. I was making it happen! 

In early 2018 I started to put the prototypes together. I started to build the game world and  began the process of weaving together my creations along with a few third-party tools (that's a whole other post). I was creating art assets and the world was starting to looked "not bad."

And then it happened...

What "it" is exactly I'm not sure. It wasn't a singular event. It was more of a dawning or realization. I think most simply put, it was the realization that this project was simply too big and too complicated. If I look back on the development process this was no surprise. I knew it was ambitious. I had been fooled by the success of each prototype. Each step forward gave me hope. But when all the prototypes came together I could see that what I had was, frankly, a mess. 

The spaghetti code that haunts Fracture the Flag and led to so many bugs had been replaced by chunks of code that individually were reasonably well put together, but when connected made for a not so tasty pasta dish. I could see the writing on the wall and I was headed towards another bug riddled project. 

Added to that was the knowledge that I'd broken a cardinal rule of game development, especially indie development. I had over scoped the game. I knew it from the beginning but had run headfirst into that all too common trap somehow believing it would be different this time. I had a plan. It was going to work.

Fuck.

How'd this happen? 

Pretty simple really. I'm an idiot and I ignored my own advice let alone every blog post, article or book I've ever read about designing a game.

I know better than to design a large game. I have discussions multiple times a month with students (I'm a teacher) about the scope of games and what a single person or a small team can accomplish. I preach simplicity and then I ignored my own advice. 

What a dumb ass.

Beyond dreaming too big, it was super easy to get lulled into a false sense of confidence by the Unity Asset Store. I learned long ago that most of what is published there is not as good as advertised and especially to stay away from assets that will be in the final build (as opposed to editor extensions).

A slick inventory system saved me weeks of work...

I picked up an exceptionally well-designed (truly!) behavior tree asset to be able to program my AI...

Other assets allowed me to quickly sculpt terrain and procedurally add scenery...

To be clear the assets I was using are in fact very good and they did save me time. That is until I needed to tweak them or until my vision didn't match the traditional vision of the asset developer. To stand out as an indie or even have a few people notice a game there needs to be something special about it. It needs to be different. You need to twist the boundaries of a genre or at least employ a new mechanic. So rolling someone else's tool that is based on past games and established mechanics is not be the best plan and frankly I'm not sure it even qualifies as an "okay" plan.

This has nothing to do with the article. Just felt like I needed a picture... maybe the confusion of the chickens is a metaphor?

This all helped to create a fiction that I, a solo hobby developer, could greatly expand the scope of my project. Each of the assets could potentially save hundreds or even thousands of hours, but that masks the hundreds of hours required to use those tools to create content.That's no one's fault except my own.

My stupid, overreaching, dumb ass self. 

Aside from my stupidity, part of the realization that I needed to shelve the game came from my day job's seemly unending ramping up of demands. This is usually my easy time of year, but instead I've found that I'm busier than ever before. The chunks of time where I used to be able to stream my game progress are gone. The easy afternoon where I could find 3-4 hours to code, model assets, or just dream about game design have turned into 15 minutes of down time between meetings. Ugh. 

I'm not planning on quitting my day job to go full time indie developer. Given my current game based income, that it would be a particularly bad idea. However, a career change is needed and it needs to happen sooner rather that later. In the next 12-18 months I will likely be looking for something new. I would love to publish one more game before that shift occurs. Not because I think I'll produce the next Stardew Valley, but because maybe I could sell 10,000 copies and maybe that could justify taking a couple years to build a third game and then a fourth... 

Limitations Lead to Creativity

It's so easy to get carried away with game design. After all you can make anything that you can imagine. You are LITERALLY writing the rules of the world you are creating. With this comes the danger of not having limitations. One good idea leads to another and another. Take a second to breathe and your scope is stupid big.

Don't believe the lies. It's not the first time this has happened... And yes, it happens to everyone.

Screenshot - Fracture the Flag

When I was creating Fracture the Flag I had this vision for dealing with player territory. I was going to split the map in to distinct chunks that the players would fight to control. I spent a few days working on several different solutions, but nothing was working or even getting close to working... That was the genesis of the flag mechainc. Why limit the shape of territory? Why presume to know a good way to break up the map into chunks? My limited skill set forced me to be creative and I came up with a simpler and far better solution. My constraints had led me to a creative solution that became the namesake of the game.

By over scoping my game design I have applied almost no constraints. As a result I haven't really forced myself to think creatively. This has put me on a path where I doomed myself to struggle with weaving all the different systems and mechanics together focusing on  the question "can I do it?" rather than "how should I do it?"

As an solo developer I won't be successful by copying or mimicking other designs. If I have a chance to be successful, it will only be possible if the game is fun and not if it's complex. The two are not mutually exclusive, but complexity has been know to stifle fun on more than a couple occasions.

I think this might be the best and most important reason for needing to set aside the game. The game design has become it's own burden. It's weighing me down. It's slowing me down. It's stopping the creative flow.

Sometimes the band-aid just needs to be ripped off.

If you are sitting there saying that I just need to stick with it, I just need to keep going, or others have done it so you can too! Maybe you're right? But this business is tough. Working hard, having a good idea, and executing the design well are not enough to find success.

If you haven't watched this, then you should. 

Sure, there are examples of indies working for years slaving away and then making it big. But for every success story I bet there are ten, a hundred maybe a thousand stories of indies working for years and hearing crickets when they release their work. Go dig into the new releases on Steam if you don't believe me.

Admitting I've gone the wrong direction and restarting is painful and hard to process but it is a far better option than stubbornly staying on the same path. Even if that means a year's work is going to be shelved. That's better than putting in another 1-2 year's worth of work and having a only a steaming pile shit to show for it. Still, as I write this I have a hard time truly saying "it's done," because there was so much good stuff in the game

The Hardest Question

A GIF of a very early System Prototype

What's next? I love making games. I really do.

I've allowed myself to pause the development of "Game #2" for the last several weeks. I had hoped that I could redesign the game to have something that I could still release. I saw several hurdles in the development process, so if I could design around those then maybe the months of work would still result in a game? While I haven't totally given up on this, the simplified design looks too much like what is already out there. Do we really need another resource management game? It's a popular genre, but isn't it already a bit too crowded? There are systems that I have I built that could probably be reused. If I was more creative I could probably split Game #2 into 3 or 4 smaller games all based on a single mechanic or system. 

During this "pause" I've been playing with a prototype that I've worked with off and on for the last couple of years. It's an idea that I've had and I chip away at from time to time. In a few weeks of (very) part time work, I've managed to cobble together a nearly working prototype. This prototype is just the first layer of the design, but it's taken me more than a year to get that far with "Game #2." From that alone, I know I'm far better off pursuing this new idea.

 Hard to take pictures of a game that's about darkness

Hard to take pictures of a game that's about darkness

I also quite liked the results of my Ludum Dare entry. It's not unique, but it was fun to play. It potentially allows for players to create and share levels - always a good thing! (I wrote a script that converts a png file into a playable level.) It was a top down shooter that tried to use light and lighting in new ways. So while the top down shooter genre maybe not be as crowded as the platformer genre I still wouldn't call it an under served genre. 

I feel the danger in wandering through the desert for too long searching for the perfect idea. I can waste just as much time looking for the perfect project as I could trying to keep a bad project moving forwarad. So where to next?

I'm still working on that.