After talking a lot about game design I thought I would discuss some practical project planning aspects this week. To start I wanted to discuss feature creep and setting goals. One of the most important things we did to help get our studio going was to set a very attainable bar for our game.
Our first few meetings were a lot of fun. We talked about all the possibilities of making our game. We discussed our favorite games. We even went over everyone’s skills and democratically decided to vote on all the options for a project together. We made a simple survey to ask everyone on the dev team what they wanted to make.
Then the features came creeping in. Also known as scope creep, we had some issues early on in the project. We reorganized our thoughts however and found some ways to avoid it.
1. Take your concept back to basics
A game concept can get hairy nowadays. Think about Fallout 3 or Diablo 3–both have very basic gameplay mechanics deep down but what we remember about them is all the stuff happening at a high level. The VATS for example is a crazy feature for a game that is basically a first-person-shooter. All the leveling aspects or weird skill trees of a game are layered on top of a basic concept. That’s where we needed to start at. We have some really cool ideas for our game but we wanted to start at the highest level of design and not the nuts and bolts of the design.
We have taken our game from where we started and dialed it back down to just the aspects that we need to build on. We aren’t giving up on our awesome ideas–just waiting till we have a more finished project to work on them.
2. You can always add more later
One thing that has helped up dial back on feature creep is knowing we can go back and work on it more later. For example, we wanted a real-time-strategy element where you controlled the battlefield in different combat theaters while also fighting as a twin-stick-shooter with a role-playing-game level up system in the backend. It is a great concept for game but too many features to balance. Our plan is to work on one of those mechanics and then go back later and add to it as we can.
Think about Minecraft. In pre-alpha it was literally picking up things and placing them. Now there is red stone, dragons, magic books, and minecarts. I highly doubt that was all in the planning originally exactly the way it is now as a “finished” project. Games evolve over time and concepts are very malleable. Starting small lets you emphasis the best parts of your design without losing the core game play aesthetics.
3. Make goals for now, tomorrow, and next year
Making a game or any piece of software is a big job. One thing I have been doing to help keep on track has been to make short term goals I know I can complete today and working on them. Then I make a list of what I will do this week and keep to it. Lastly I make big picture plans for the year so that I know where I am going.
4. Keep to what you know when you can
One huge issue for us was just determining what we could do. We went around the room and discussed with everyone what our talents were, what software we knew, and what our time constraints were. This helped the team develop a strategy to our development plan. We had programmers, musicians, and writers but we needed graphic and 3D artists. This helped up know where our chokepoints would be and what we needed to focus on. It also help shape how we planned our game. We knew art would be our hardest area to complete so we chose a game that would not need highly realistic art to be fun. We turned our focus to emphasize what we could do better.
5. Communicate with your team
Nothing was worse than having to tell the team that I couldn’t deliver on a goal, except maybe pretending that I could have. There was a time when I just didn’t know if I could make a project goal or I didn’t know how to work GitHub, or I was lost on what they needed from me. Communicating with the team how I felt was hard to do but in the end that is how we worked through problems and found solutions. Hiding an issue from the team only worked against us. It’s not easy but talking about problems with your team can be crucial to finishing your project.
In addition if you don’t have a team then find someone to communicate with on a regular basis. Twitter is fantastic for finding people with similar projects, ideas, and the like. Try searching for #gamedev and start asking questions or posting about how your project is doing. Living in isolation can hurt your project.
6. Document every chance you can
One other big misstep was not documenting what we wanted in our features. It allowed the features to grow and contract as we forgot or added more we thought were already in the plan. Features we had that we thought would be easy to add grew overnight into beasts that we couldn’t handle. We began writing down and sharing publicly for the group our goals and feature list. That way if we had a brilliant idea to add or remove we knew what we were already looking at.
Now I’m developing full fledged Game Design Documents (to be discussed later this week) to help build out what exactly we what we want and how we want it.
7. Keep it simple, keep it fun
Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional or something inbetween–remember this golden rule of game design. Games don’t have to be complex in design to be fun. Sometimes adding more features just makes them unwieldy and difficult to even play. Keep your design at the forefront and remember to keep it fun. And that goes for you too–if you aren’t having fun why are you doing it? If you aren’t having fun what could you do to make it fun?
For us this meant rethinking how we were planning. Selecting the mechanics we wanted to focus on and hitting those harder. We wanted to make the game the best possible and then expand on the idea.
Thanks for reading! Join me later this week for a discussion of game design documents and more project thoughts.