GameDev Thoughts: How To Get More Game Development Work Done In Less Time

New developers will find it easy to start on a project; after all, you just had a brilliant idea and it’s going to be built into the next best seller and will be amazingly fun to make! Most developers don’t actually manage to work on those projects until completion, however. They’ll find something else and put that project into their backlog so they can work on something new. This just leaves them with a bunch of half-finished games. Here are some tips to avoid falling into that trap by staying more productive and more motivated.

First, set some goals for yourself. If you have no ways to track your progress, you won’t realize how much work you’ve done and will lose the motivation you need to keep working. Make these goals specific — for example: “Create 3 game levels,” as opposed to just “Create game levels.” In addition, break those goals down into a bunch of subgoals. Those subgoals add to the feeling of progress, and it’ll also be easier to start working if there’s something manageable you can do. Similarly, you’ll find it much easier to work if you start by doing high impact tasks first, as that feeling of progress will be amplified. Don’t let anything distract you from completing your goals, and keep on making progress by breaking larger tasks down into smaller chunks. If those chunks still feel too big, don’t be afraid to break them down even further. Progress is paramount to success.

It should also be known that consistency is critical to your motivation. If you can turn development into a habit, you’ll find it much easier to work on your game. If development is just a side activity that you try to avoid as much as possible, obviously you won’t want to work on it much at all. Develop your habit daily and keep track of your progress so that you can see consistent progress and keep your spirits high. Maybe make some milestones that you aim to achieve in a week’s or month’s time, but try to do something that’ll inject urgency into your development routine. Even if you’re developing daily you still need to be making significant progress using that time — strive for efficiency. If you can’t keep up with your schedule here and there, that’s fine, but whatever you do don’t let yourself start missing multiple days of work in a row or that’ll undo the creation of the habit you worked so hard to create. It can take weeks to build a positive habit.

Next, you have to keep the scope of your game in check. Sure, you might’ve gotten the idea for some massive, ground-breaking game, maybe a space game in which you can do ANYTHING, including creating your own ships and colonies and whatnot. You might’ve even laid down the entire foundation for said game. The problem is that if a large AAA company with professional developers takes multiple years to build a smaller-scaled 4X game, how do you expect a tiny indie team with inexperienced developers and a limited budget to even come close to completion? I’m not saying that you should completely scale back your ambition, but you should definitely make sure you’re not biting off more than you can chew. Focus on getting prototypes out as quickly as possible so you can determine if your ideas have viability for making a fun game, and don’t expand too much on that prototype besides ironing out kinks. Find the fun first, then elaborate on that fun. Vlambeer’s quick and dirty Wasteland Kings prototype is just as fun as Nuclear Throne. Success leaves clues. Follow in their footsteps and create a small but extremely fun prototype first.

While this isn’t possible for everyone, being in a group will make the grind of daily development much less significant. Each member in the group can reinforce each other and motivate each other whenever there’s a feeling of doubt. Find some people that will keep you working, and you’ll definitely feel a surge of motivation from hearing positive feedback. These people can also help you out when you get stuck and will generally just smooth out your development cycle. I personally owe much of my success to the people around me. Conversely, avoid hanging around negative people if you can as that’ll just crush your motivation slowly and steadily.

In general, even beyond groups or people around you, avoid negative influences. View everything in a positive light and treat every small positive as if it were much bigger. Also, make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Don’t ruin yourself just because you feel the need to meet an arbitrary deadline; put yourself first. Eat well, exercise, and take breaks if you really need them. Find ways to put any harmful distractions behind you and figure out how you can make development into something much less stressful.

Important Takeaways: Newer developers often lack the motivation to follow a project to completion, so here are some tips for maintaining it. First, set goals for yourself so that you can see continuous progress and feel that your work has actual meaning. Next, keep a consistent schedule or you’ll find yourself slacking more often than you should be. Then, ensure that you’re keeping your game’s scope in chec. Taking on too big a task is just asking for failure to hit you when you least expect it. Next, groups will help you in every aspect. As long as they’re positive about your work, they’ll both provide motivation and may even help you with your development. Don’t forget to get feedback from others outside of your immediate circle of friends and colleagues though — those people can be the most honest with the constructive criticism. Finally, as a whole, just avoid negative influences. Anything that can take your attention away from the work you’re doing. If you leave yourself with only positive influences, your work will be nothing but positive in your eyes and you’ll never lose that motivation.

GameDev Thoughts: How To Find Out If You’re Trapped In An Endless Game Development Cycle Of Doom

Developers should be developing games, this much is obvious. Problems arise, however, when that development never actually turns into something tangible and released to the public. Lots of newer developers get stuck trying to develop their games when they keep adding on and adding on, or keep fine tuning until they’re “perfect.” This is a good way to ruin your career, however, as building a portfolio of shipped games is absolutely crucial to your success and momentum in the game development industry. Here are some signs that you might be trapped in this endless development cycle.

First, if you’re developing things that are cool for you, the developer and not the players, you’re going to end up in the cycle. All of those shiny features you’re adding don’t matter if players don’t see them or care about them. Because of this, you should be thinking about what the player will think of each feature or mechanic, and focus on improving the player’s experience before building things for your own sake.

Next, you need to be showing people your game. It’s understandable that it’s scary for others to judge your work, but if you’re not letting that happen you’ll never know if your game is good enough or not. You might be adding unnecessary features or modifying systems that were already perfect if you keep going without playtesting. Maybe your developer bias is hiding problems that any other person would immediately point out, or maybe it’s skewing your thoughts on how knowledgeable your players will be when they first start playing. The point is if you don’t show people your game you’ll eventually end up doing unnecessary work that’s stopping you from finishing development. Get feedback, early and often.

On a similar note, if you don’t have any unused, quality ideas, you’re definitely over-developing. Not every idea should be stuffed into every game; even if they’re wonderful on their own, having too many conflicting systems will just make a game complicated and water down the experience. It’s fine, and even encouraged to have a lot of these great ideas, but don’t try to fit them into your games if they aren’t absolutely perfect. Sometimes, even a perfectly fitting idea should stay out for the sake of keeping complexity down. After all, players play for the experience, not for the number of widgets in your game.

Quite the opposite of overly-stuffing a game, if you are constantly shifting focus you’ll never get anything done. If you find a new idea for a game that you absolutely fall in love with while you’re developing another game, remember you have to stay dedicated and finish what you’re working on first. Save that idea for later, but don’t try to switch your development focus to it. If you do this once, this may turn into more than once. Soon enough, you’ll likely do it again and again — this may mean that you’ll never finish a game.

Lastly, if you are developing your games just for the sake of developing, you should probably shift into gear. Oftentimes indie developers have no pressures to release their games; there’s no publisher, no deadlines, no audience, etc. Because of this, developers will often just freely work on their games and they never really get anywhere. You need to develop from the ground up with the idea that you’re going to ship that game at some predetermined point in time. Even if you end up moving that date, setting this goal is a must. This doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice quality, but you can’t keep developing without releasing and getting feedback from real players.

Important Takeaways: Developers can sometimes fall into the trap of endlessly working on games without ever actually finishing them, so here are some signs that that could be happening to you. First, you need to think of the player’s perspective in development or you’ll just keep adding things that sound and look cool to you but never get the game to a point where it’s enjoyable to players. Next, if you aren’t showing people your game, you’ll never get the feedback you need to feel confident that it is “complete” and you’ll just keep doing unnecessary work. Similarly, if you are using every single idea you come up with, even if they’re all good ideas, you’ll deal with feature creep and never actually finish the game. On the contrary, if you are constantly shifting to different projects that are currently catching your fancy, you’ll only have a bunch of half-finished games to your name. Stay dedicated to one project and ship it before you move on to your next projects. Don’t get stuck.

GameDev Thoughts: How To Use Negative Possibility Space To Improve Your Game’s Design

Negative possibility space, a term seen perhaps too rarely in the gaming community, is the void left by a designer when a player has a certain expectation. This void must be filled in order for the player to be satisfied, as events leading up to that moment have led them to assume that a certain thing will occur.

An example of this is when, particularly in an open-world game, one devotes an extraordinary amount of time to, say, scaling a mountain. One expects some form of reward for one’s hard work, but when one finally manages to ascend the peak, one finds a barren mountaintop devoid of even the smallest acknowledgement of achievement. Any form of reward, no matter how small, would soften the blow, yet there is nothing.

This is, in large part, what differentiates good level designers from mediocre ones. Making the player feel as if their efforts have not been in vain is key to their continued enjoyment of the game — good level designers will always try to acknowledge what the player has done. Through constant playtesting, they fill out their games with unique and creative easter eggs which make the player feel as if they’ve discovered something new.

Yet negative possibility space is not confined solely to level design. It also plays an essential role in a game’s narrative. Here it’s particularly important that a player feel as if their choices matter, even if this is very rarely the case. If a game is too heavy-handed and makes it obvious that the outcome would have been the same regardless of the choice, the player’s patience will begin to wear thin, and they’ll stop caring about the “outcomes” of their decisions.

There are numerous ways to combat this, one of which is the method adopted by Telltale Games in their Walking Dead series. Generally, the player is presented with a couple of significant, wide-ranging choices from the outset and made aware of their outcomes. This conditions players to believe that their choices matter and could influence the course of events, even if, later on, many of them cannot. In addition, small messages often pop up after a decision has been made, showing the player the “consequences” of their choices and thereby filling the negative possibility space. Despite the fact that this is often the only consequence of their actions, most players don’t mind, as the simple acknowledgment that their choices matter is more important than anything else.

It’s important to remain conscious of negative possibility space when designing games, no matter what particular aspect you work on. Remembering that your players are only human and that sometimes a simple reward can go a long way, can be an easy way to make your game a far more enjoyable experience. Being rewarded for one’s ingenuity is one of the most satisfying experiences in gaming, and on top of this, it’s fairly easy to build into one’s game.

Important Takeaways: Negative possibility space is the emptiness left when a player’s expectations have not been met, and that designers should make it an endeavor to fill this in wherever possible. This will not only leave a more satisfied player and a generally more enjoyable experience but foster innovation and outside-the-box thinking by acknowledging and rewarding it. Reward your players for being creative.

The Difference Between Good Graphics And Good Aesthetics In Video Games

A mistake that’s unfortunately all too common in the gaming industry, is to lump graphics and aesthetics together as if they were the same thing. This, needless to say, is false. The difference becomes obvious when one compares, for instance, a heavily stylised, cartoon-ish indie game with a triple-A title that aims for realism above all else. The former’s aesthetic, despite its presumably smaller budget and scope, will most likely hold up longer than the latter’s. This is because, if a stylised and well thought-out aesthetic is done correctly, it will outlast one that merely attempts to make use of the latest graphical technologies. A useful analogy is the comparison between an old painting and old film. Many films from the 80’s, through their heavy-handed use of special effects that wouldn’t age well, look terrible by today’s standards, whereas a painting from even hundreds of years ago can still blow modern gallery-goers away. This is because, rather than simply attempting to use the latest technology, which is doomed to become outdated at some point or another, these painters made a conscious effort with regard to a timeless style.

Stellar graphical horsepower does, of course, have its uses. It allows for more fidelity and detail, which is never, by itself, a bad thing. However, one must bear in mind that graphics alone do not determine whether a game looks good or not, which is, at the end of the day, what most players want. This is done through aesthetics, which are so much more than just visuals. The term “aesthetics” encompasses every aspect of the game; aesthetics refer to a game’s style, rather than simply its technical visual capabilities. For the sake of simplicity, however, this article will focus purely on visual aesthetics.

Take, for example, the visuals of a graphical powerhouse game such as Crysis back when it was released, and compare them to those of Duke Nukem 3D. While the former’s graphics was indisputably superior, the latter stands up better to the test of time. Not only has the aesthetic of the early first-person shooters aged well, but Duke Nukem 3D possesses a unified, unique and highly recognizable art style, in which every enemy, weapon, and prop contributes to the player’s feeling of being an unstoppable badass. In this way, the game’s aesthetic not only looks good but supports and compliments the gameplay too. Crysis’ graphics, on the other hand, is now virtually indistinguishable from the myriad of other shooters, which is a disservice to an otherwise highly lauded game.

When talking about aesthetics, it’s also important to remember that one element can influence another and offset the balance quite easily, ruining the player’s immersion. For example, if the music for an otherwise excellent fantasy game is too reminiscent of a sci-fi title, a player can instantly be jolted out of the experience. Because of this, every aspect of a game must be crafted to fit together and serve the mechanics in a well-executed way. Therefore, the most important learning here is that graphics, while nice, exist purely to serve aesthetics. Regardless of the level of rendering, if there is no unified, clearly thought-out aesthetic, all is for naught.

Important Takeaways: Graphics are simply not the be-all and end-all of making your game look good. In fact, they are only one component out of many, all of which, combined, form a game’s aesthetic. If developers do not design their games with a certain aesthetic in mind, we will continue to see the trend towards excellent graphics and utterly forgettable games. Players, developers, and game reviewers alike should make a conscious effort to focus more on the aesthetics of video games rather than sheer graphical finesse.

GameDev Thoughts: How To Implement Better Achievements For Your Players

My personal take on achievements is that they can be classified in one of three ways. They are either unavoidable, optional, or inspiring. I’ll go ahead and explain the meaning of each of these three categories, as well as which to avoid and which to aspire to when designing games.

Unavoidable achievements are, of course, practically unavoidable. They “reward” the player for what they would have done anyway, such as completing the tutorial or killing their first enemy. These achievements are oftentimes utterly pointless and say more about the designer’s lack of interest than the player’s level of ability. They’re the gaming equivalent of a participation medal and, let’s face it, no one really enjoys getting a one of those once they realize what it is. What’s more, these achievements attempt to reward the player for something that should naturally feel rewarding, often trying to compensate for a bad game’s lack of real, meaningful content.

Getting a bit better are optional achievements, on the other hand, are not nearly so provocative, nor as pointless. They are quite similar to side- or mini-quests, in the sense that they provide additional content that doesn’t feature prominently in the main story or objective of the game. It’s hard to resent them because of their optional nature; while they aren’t particularly creative, and add almost no actual content to the game, they can be avoided entirely if the player so chooses. When done well, they can exhibit previously hidden or unique parts of the game the player might otherwise have missed, as well as introducing them to more challenging aspects too difficult for a first playthrough. Through this, they create replay value, extending, albeit somewhat artificially, the value proposition of the game.

The best form of achievement are creative achievements, and these will inspire the player to think creatively, and inspires the player to throw away the set of skills a game has taught them and examine the problems before them with a fresh pair of eyes. Rather than simply tacking on some extra “content” that, while harmless, isn’t particularly new or innovative, these achievements suggest alternate, creative ways to play that aren’t the main focus of the game. They force the player to reinterpret the rules of a game, to gain a new, more thorough understanding of the mechanics governing their actions. Rather than simply extending playtime, these achievements make the gaming experience a fuller, more rewarding one.

Not only can these inspiring achievements improve gameplay, they can strengthen a game’s narrative as well, causing players to re-evaluate the ramifications of their choices. Yet, as always, it’s tempting, not to mention easy, for bad developers to be lazy and put as little effort into their achievements as they put into their games. Many fill their sub-par games with even more mediocre achievements in the desperate belief that this will make them more palatable. This is rarely the case. Except in the niche case of achievement hunters and completionists, few gamers play games purely for the achievements. Rather, achievements should enrich the experience a game provides.

Important Takeaways: Achievements are great. There are the unavoidable ones, which have no reason to exist beyond their designer’s lack of inspiration. Next come the optional achievements, which, while not particularly innovative, can be completed or ignored at the player’s discretion. Then, finally, we have the creative achievements, which enhance and improve the gameplay, adding not only replay value but a new and exciting way to play the game. This last group of achievements, while the hardest to implement, are the ones to be strived for. They require creativity on the part of both player and developer, enriching the experience for everyone.

GameDev Thoughts: How To Properly Implement Microtransactions In Mobile Game Development

I’ve been delving into my fair share of mobile gaming as of late, and have observed a ton of design patterns that I’ve found to be most effective. Remember that if microtransactions are implemented seamlessly in games, it can act as a bridge linking game developers to consumers and making the overall industry better for both players and the developers. Microtransactions allow players to test a game before paying fully for it. It also allows them to set their own payment levels according to their budget. Players who don’t want to pay for a game don’t have to. While all this stuff sounds great on paper, as a game developer you’ll need to implement them the right way.

Many developers see microtransactions simply as a way to gouge the customer in order to generate more and more revenue. If left unchecked, this strategy can be disastrous for games, as it would lead potentially successful games to tank. They would sink under the heavy weight of atrocious pricing and the inevitable player backlash, which would lead to wasted opportunity and leave the game with zero chance of any comeback. If the players, on the other hand, show their willingness to pay high rates for games, companies will keep trying the same formula, again and again, giving them a lot of financial gain in the process. But this is a much harder problem to fix due to the large variety of consumers in the market, and hence, we should take a hard look at the gaming industry in order to get rid of this manipulative strategy. A wide variety of steps are needed to ensure that microtransactions are implemented properly in games.

The first mantra of implementing proper microtransaction logic in games is to make sure that you, the developer, stop assuming that the player is your enemy and instead consider the player as an asset to your game which makes the overall experience of your game even better. This concept of players being an asset to the overall experience of a game can be easily noticed in multiplayer games. Microtransactions shouldn’t be implemented as a paywall. Instead, treat microtransactions as a way to reward loyal players. Hook them in with the paid content, and then give them a reason to spend money. Don’t choose the lazy (and ineffective) rout of purposefully make the game too difficult to progress without paying. This will only lead to frustration from players and negative reviews.

The second mantra of implementing proper microtransaction implementation is to allow players to earn in-game resources without too many restrictions. Although these resources can be purchased by paying too, the developer should allow the players to themselves pay for it using time (a bit of grinding never hurt anyone), or optional video ads (allowing players to voluntarily watch an ad in order to gain in-game currency has been a staple. While some may argue that giving away currency disenfranchises players to pay for the game at all, in reality, this approach has a variety of advantages. For starters, it makes the players feel that the game is fair to them. Many players have this notion that free to play games are made in order to extract more money from them, and this approach can blunt that mindset and make them receptive to the free to play concept.

Another advantage of giving away currency that it allows the barrier between the player and the in-app purchase store to crumble away. Once this barrier between the store and the player falls, they’re much more likely to use the store to buy stuff to enhance their gameplay. Tease your players by giving them a bunch of currency that you can only pay for, then stop for a while. If your in-game items are priced sensibly, a significant majority will pay to access that content instead of patiently waiting to generate it themselves due to the time it would normally take to generate that content. Remember to give as much as possible — if you’re not giving away stuff, you are excluding a large demographic of younger players who may not have access to ways to purchase in-game items at the current period of time. But if they are invested in the game, at some point in the future when they do get access to purchasing stuff, they are more than likely to invest money in the game.

The most important thing to know as a developer is to never sell stuff which heavily alters the balance of power in the hands of people who pay. While it may seem tempting to suck players dry to increase the bottom line of your company, it heavily damages its reputation among the majority of players who are generally not able to pay top dollar for the game. It also makes players feel like you’re taking advantage of them. Some people will pay to gain power but it would be a tiny minority. Essentially, the goal of microtransactions should be to sell conveniences which would improve the overall gameplay experience of the player.

One last aspect while developing a game with microtransactions is to keep the monetization framework in the game from the start, instead of shoehorning it in later. Developers should make sure to make the process palatable for the players so that they’ll eventually pay without having the feeling of being forced to pay for. The game should not segregate between paying and non paying players by offering paying players special access to content while keeping non paying players away from it. As with everything, make sure testing is a priority. With microtransactions, make sure to market test the prices to have a look at what the community wants to pay for the game.

Important Takeaways: Microtransactions are a great way to build an audience around your game. Lure them in with free gameplay, and then gradually introduce up-sells via optional content that they’d benefit from. For example if you were making a roguelike game, you could give them full access to the game’s first character, but then introduce an element where they’ll have to earn enough in-game currency to unlock other classes. Or if you were making a racing game, you design the game’s core campaign to be free, but charge for cosmetics, extra campaigns. Maybe even different modes that aren’t part of the core experience, but that more dedicated players would want to have.