One of the most difficult parts of game development is staying motivated. I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve started, a great idea and achievable goal in mind, only to have those projects fall by the wayside, almost but not quite finished. Last time I talked about dealing with adversity; this week, I’m going to talk about how to stay motivated when working on a game development project.
As game developers, we love games, and we love developing games. When you first come up with a great concept for a game, you’re excited about it. You have so many great ideas, and you just can’t wait to implement them. You have an image of what your game will look like in 2 years, and with that pristine goal in mind, you simply feel driven to work on it.
As you work on your game, however, that drive begins to falter. Where you once looked forward to sitting down for an hour or two of coding, you find yourself shying away from your computer. You look at your game and all the effort you’ve put into it, and you realize how far away you are from the perfect game you had imagined. Rather than tackling cool, big-picture things like core mechanics, you find yourself slogging through your levels, double-checking initialization values.
Basically, there comes a time in the development of a game where the fun parts are over. Your motivation is at its lowest, the work is the least interesting it’s been so far, and your noticeable progress has slowed to a crawl. You find yourself with a solid, but definitely half-finished game, and it feels like it will never be any more than that.
Depressing, huh? Let’s find out how to avoid letting your game succumb to this fate!
“The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.” – Tom Cargill, Bell Labs
The Ninety-Ninety Rule
The ninety-ninety rule is a saying that describes a lot of the difficulties associated with software development. It works on two levels, both of which are relevant here.
First, the shrewd reader will notice that the total development time in the quote adds up to 180%. This, of course, cannot be true in a literal sense; rather, this is a reference to the fact that estimates of development time for a project are almost always woefully low. If this is to be believed, then these projects take almost twice as long as estimated! In my experience, this is very accurate.
Secondly, we can look at the values used above. We see that the last ten percent of the code accounts for just as much time as the first ninety percent! While this seems nonsensical, it is perfectly true. Anyone who has made it 90% of the way through a software project can attest that the last 10% always drags on and on. When developing Where Shadows Slumber, for instance, I found myself with a game in which every core game mechanic was completely developed within 10 months of starting! And yet here we are, nearly two years into development, and the game is still not complete (and not just because I’ve been slacking off this whole time).
The ninety-ninety rules helps explain why we start to feel so depressed as we reach what appears to be the 90% mark of our game. We feel like our game is almost done, and it’s taken just as much time as expected – awesome, we should be done in a few more weeks! What we don’t realize is that we’re really only halfway done. Since we don’t realize that fact, we don’t understand why our expected release date has came and gone. We missed our deadline, our project is dragging on, we aren’t really enjoying the work anymore, and we still don’t understand why the last 10% of the work is taking forever. With all of these things weighing down on us, it’s understandable when we start to lose faith in our game.
So, now that we understand some of the reasons behind this phenomenon, lets look at some ways to deal with it.
Set Realistic Expectations
A big part of the problem is feeling like you’re falling short of what you should be doing. The problem, however, isn’t with your work – it’s with your expectations. While you may be falling behind the schedule you set for yourself, you’re actually right on track – with the actual schedule for the game.
I’ve worked on a lot of software projects, and I would estimate that only around one in a hundred are actually completed by the original deadline. These types of projects are simply hard to estimate, and often take much longer than you would think. That’s why, whenever I have to estimate the time for a task, I always take my best, most realistic guess. And then I double it. Even after all this time, my best guess falls far short of reality, and the doubled timeline is far more accurate.
In addition to schedule expectations, this tip also applies to your game itself. If you start your one-man project, aiming to create the best MMORPG the world has ever seen, of course you’re going to fall short! You have to decide what you can reasonably accomplish, and at what level of quality, and then aim for that. If your game is starting to look like your goal, you’ll be much more motivated than if your goal is a perfect game that you’ll never be able to make.
I’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of fun activities – game jams, NaNoWriMo, Ludum Dares, etc. But, since we started the development of Where Shadows Slumber, I have refrained from participating in any of them. It’s not that I no longer enjoy these things, it’s simply that I want to avoid distractions.
As you work on your game, you feel less and less excited about it – it’s only natural. This loss of excitement can be very dangerous to your game. Other projects are still out there, and they probably still seem very exciting to you. But it’s a slippery slope; it’s all too easy to take a few days off for a game jam, then you take a week off for something else, and before you know it, you’ve put your game on hold so that you can spend a few months working on a prototype for a new game. Betrayal!
I find the best way to avoid letting other things take over is to avoid those other things altogether. Perhaps some of you with stronger willpower or more time might be able to risk it a bit more, but be careful – it really is a slippery slope.
On the other hand, you don’t want to take this too far. Getting burnt out is very easy to do, especially when you’re spending a lot of time on a game. Sometimes I’ll sit down at my computer with the intention to work on Where Shadows Slumber, stare dejectedly at the screen for a few seconds, and then boot up StarCraft instead. If other game jams are your StarCraft, then go for it. As long as you’re continuing to work on your real game, and you don’t spend too much time on other things, it’s healthy to give yourself the night (or the weekend) off every once in a while.
This tip is something that I simply stumbled upon, but it has proven very helpful in forcing myself to work on Where Shadows Slumber. A year or so ago, I got a new job. My body still wakes me up by 8 am, but I don’t have to leave for work until 9:30 am! Woe is me!
This was actually an awesome development. Previously, I would work on my game whenever I could find the time – an hour here, twenty minutes there, etc. Now, I have an hour and a half every morning with nothing else to do. That time has become game-time; now I work on Where Shadows Slumber every morning for an hour or so.
One of the hardest parts of game development when you have a ‘day job’ is getting consistent time to work on it. I’m pretty fortunate in that the time I need was basically forced on me, but the principle holds. Find a schedule that works for you, and set that time aside as game-time. Don’t let anything else cut into that scheduled time – after all, it’s already booked! Whether it’s thirty minutes every Saturday morning, or two hours every night, blocking off a chunk of time for game development work will help you make consistent progress on your game.
My last tip is less of an actionable item, and more of a mindset. There will be times when you sit down to work on your game, and you find that you simply do not want to. This happens, is perfectly normal, and is nothing to be worried about. As I mentioned earlier, when this happens to you, it’s absolutely fine for you to just take the night off and do something relaxing.
However… If you take a night off every once in a while, it’s fine. If you find yourself taking off multiple nights every week, you might be in a bit more trouble. Sometimes you don’t want to work on your game, but you have to anyways. You have to sit down, open up your game, and force yourself to work on it. If you never push your game forward, you’ll never get it into a spot where you want to work on it, and it will stagnate. This is an opportunity for your game to die, and you don’t want that to happen.
There you have it! These are my four biggest tips for staying motivated and continuing your game’s development. There’s obviously a lot more to keep in mind, and a lot of stuff I mentioned that’s hard to do, but I hope you’re able to put some of this to good use, and I wish you all successful, completed games!
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As always, let us know if you have any questions or feedback! You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.
Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.