Game development and the art of wearing many hats

I’ve been thinking about making a new mobile game and have started work on prototyping and basic implementation. I plan to post on that more in upcoming weeks but today I wanted to write some more about game development in general, especially when done as a hobby by yourself or on a small team.

If we look at software development as the practice of writing code to fit a set of detailed requirements, the set of tasks involved is relatively well defined. Define the high level implementation, including modules and how they interact, then gradually drill deeper down until you get to the function level and are writing small chunks of well-defined logic. This is no means an easy job, typically requiring knowledge of one or more technologies or languages (iOS, objective-C, etc.) and possibly third-party frameworks (i.e. Unity). Implementation itself can take a handful of people to hundreds of people anywhere from a few hours to several years, but the point I’d like to make is that you can generally see the road ahead and make gradual progress [Exception: projects that stretch the limits of technology]. Worst case, you reach a testing phase and find out your design doesn’t support an important requirement, at which point you may need to re-design the modules or some algorithm.

Now lets take a step back and look at the scenario where there is no requirements document, or any clear set of things you want to accomplish. As a hobby game developer, you might just “want to make a cool game”, “want to make a RPG like Final Fantasy”, or maybe “just make a game that becomes popular”. Note that I purposefully omitted “want to make money” since that is one of the most difficult goals for a small team.

Here what you are supposed to implement is vague, or at worst totally undefined. If you are the perfectionist type you can take the ivory-tower approach, and write pages and pages of a specification document about what you game is going to be like: the world, game mechanics, interface, etc.

But as a hobby game developer, you have limited time and being an idealist just isn’t going to cut it. The only way you are going to get anything done is by bouncing back and forth between implementation and inspiration (design) modes. This can involve building a set of prototypes, or fine tuning a more fleshed-out implementation, but you can’t avoid jumping back and forth between these two modes. This is because that whether something is fun or easy to use is very subjective and requires someone actually playing the game.

Without design there is nothing to implement, but without implementation you don’t know if what you’ve designed is actually an enjoyable game. In some cases, you may not even know if it’s possible to code in terms of technology and development time. For example, if your game involves natural-language input (like classic adventure games), you need to either develop this technology yourself or find a third-party library. If during prototyping you discover you can’t properly parse the types of language you want the user to be able to input, you might have to go back to the drawing board and re-think the game’s interface.

If you are working by yourself, you’ll have to put on even more hats during this process: visual artist, sound designer, scriptwriter, gameplay balance engineer, QA tester, etc. There is research indicating that, for the average person, multitasking like this takes a toll on productivity, so you have to fine the right granularity of work to minimize this overhead.

Personally, after many years of doing software development as a career I’ve improved my ability to implement quickly and efficiently, and much of this carries over to my hobby game development activities. But I have a great deal to learn as far as design goes, especially the tricky act of juggling the many roles of a game developer.

I’d argue that the art of smart, efficient multitasking – knowing where and how much to spend your time at any phase in the project – is one of the most important skills to learn as a hobby game developer, and one of the hardest to learn. Another one is scoping (maybe a good topic for a future post), which means determining how much stuff you want to fit in a project for a given timeline.

Note: this post was inspired by this post I just read.


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