Where Shadows Slumber: Staying Motivated

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!

 

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“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.

 

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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.

 

Avoid Distractions

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Credit: xkcd.com

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.

 

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Scheduling

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.

 

Buckle Down

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.

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If Dishonored 2 Repeats This One Mistake, The Entire Game Will Be Ruined

All it took was one line of text to ruin the original Dishonored for me. And it could happen to the next game in the series without the developers even realizing it.

This post contains marketing materials from the upcoming title, Dishonored 2. If you want to keep yourself “in the dark” for a pristine experience, stay back!

The recent release of Corvo’s Gameplay Trailer (above) inspired me to write about what I believe is fatal flaw in the original Dishonored. It was merely a single line of text – and I’m not referring to programming code.

Let’s make something clear first, however. This is not a review of the original Dishonored for PC and consoles. Dishonored 2 has not been released yet as of this moment, so this post is not a review of that game either.

In fact, just to avoid any confusion, you should read this article as if I thought Dishonored was the perfect game in every way. No flaws, no bugs, no issues at all.

Except one.

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This is one of the loading screens you see before the game’s first level, Coldridge Prison. Do you see the problem? Blink and you’ll miss it. Read that line carefully.

A high body count leads to more rats, more plague victims and a darker outcome.

This single line of text, repeated ad infinitum, set the stage for completely ruining my experience with Dishonored.

A Darker Outcome

I started Dishonored on a pretty high difficulty, so the first few attempts at escaping my prison cell were met with defeat after humiliating defeat. But honestly, I didn’t mind at all! I was enjoying experiencing a new first person combat system that required timing and good reflexes. Dying constantly to the first few guards in the game was a pleasure.

Unfortunately, it also caused me to have to reload my save state numerous times. (Dying tends to do that.) I was playing the game with my older brother observing at the time. Every time I died, we would see the message in the loading screen above: Kill people in this game and it will end badly for you in the end.

Eventually, the long-term planner in me could ignore the warning no longer. I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting my time playing the game the wrong way. I tried to ignore it at first, but my brother and I both came to the same conclusion: since this is the beginning of the game, and I’m starting with a clean slate, I might as well “keep it clean”, right? It’s not like I already had a track record of murdering guards by the dozens – this was literally the first level of the game. I could be any kind of Corvo that I wanted.

And so, I made the fateful (terrible) decision to play the game non-lethally. Repeated exposure to the warning above had convinced me that, although being a violent psychopath might be more fun, it’s not worth it in the end! So I dutifully choked guards, stuck to the sleeping dart crossbow, and avoided conflict wherever possible. Whenever I messed up, it was time to reload my save. That meant I needed to save constantly, to preserve the tiny bits of progress I made as I tiptoed through the game.

The end result? I experienced the darkest outcome of all: a ‘beige’ Dishonored with all of the fun and controversy taken out. I didn’t even kill Daud, the man responsible for setting the game’s events in motion and murdering the Empress I was sworn to protect. I locked myself out of playing the revenge fantasy I purchased. And for what? It didn’t really feel like the game was designed for the non-lethal approach at all.

Instead, I felt like I played the game backwards. Perhaps I should have played it once all the way through as a violent madman, slaughtering anyone who looked at me the wrong way. Then, after realizing the terrible result of my actions, it would be time to play the game a second time with the added constraint of being an unseen pacifist. Guided by age and experience, I would be able to complete this more challenging version of the game – and be rewarded with a more peaceful ending.

This Warning Is Hypocritical

I have no idea why that loading screen message needed to be in the game. If all it did was warn you about the rats and plague victims, that would be fine. But warning me about the ending of the game set me up to police my own experience in a way that completely killed the fun.

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Dishonored is a stealth game that can be played in many ways, but it has so many more options for crazy stuff if you play it without worrying about the moral consequences of your actions. Most of the game’s talents didn’t seem usable to someone like me. A lot of the game’s new items were lethal by design and thus, useless. But the worst part is that by warning me about the game’s Low Chaos / High Chaos system, it caused me to never actually see it occur.

If I had been allowed to play the game and examine the consequences of my actions, I might have made the decision on my own to kill fewer guards or abandon murder altogether. But I never saw swarms of rats because I was always on Low Chaos. Plague victims were just a part of the story and hardly came up in the game.

The warning in that loading screen also flies in the face of the central thrust of the game’s marketing up until that point. Don’t believe me? Watch some old trailers for Dishonored. The game’s catchphrase before it released was “Revenge Solves Everything.” (The commercial I just linked could alternatively be called “3 minutes of people dying horribly.”) I counted a single (!) non-lethal stealth kill. After months of buildup through violent trailers, the perfect setup for a revenge story, and an intro cutscene designed to get your blood boiling… you tell me not to kill people?

The irony is, in worring about not wanting to “waste my time playing the game the wrong way”, I ended up doing exactly that. And I never returned to play through the game again, or purchase the DLC.

So the moral of the story is: if your game has a range of options, but one of those options is clearly the most fun way to play, make sure you encourage players to take that route. Sure, they might regret it later when they realize the whole kingdom falls to death and violence, but that’s the point! You want players to have those moments in gaming. It’s always better to give people experiences that confirm moral truths than to just lecture them.

Epilogue

Fortunately, I’ve already decided how I’m going to avoid this problem for Dishonored 2. Since the game allows you to play as either Emily Kaldwin and Corvo, I’ve decided that I’ll play as Emily first and do an “anything goes” run. That means I’ll start each encounter out as stealthily as possible, but if a fight breaks out I won’t hesitate to kill people or run away. I’m also going to refrain from over-saving, which is a bad habit I picked up from The Elder Scrolls that tends to ruin the flow of games. It’s going to be autosave only for me… the more things go to hell, the better! Then, if I really want to get the nicer ending, I’ll do that playthrough as Corvo. This way, I’ll get to experience Dishonored 2 the way it was meant to be played, and Corvo gets to retain my head canon of being a merciful phantom.

If you’re playing Dishonored for the first time after reading this article, my advice to you is just to play it your way. If you always play stealth games without killing everybody, go for it. Just don’t make that choice because you were pressured into it by the game.

And I have some advice for anyone on the Dishonored 2 team. Go and look at all of the loading screen messages your team has created – seriously! For each and every one of them, consider if they could pressure a player into changing their tactics in a way that makes the game less fun. Ask yourself: how is this game meant to be played? Does our marketing gel with the message players get when they finally get their hands on the game? Would I be happy if someone only played the game in Low Chaos and never got to see some of the crazy mayhem they can cause with bombs, spells, and guns?

If the answer is no, make sure messages like the one above are nowhere to be found. And for God’s sake, will someone patch that loading screen out of the original Dishonored?

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I’d like to hear from you. Is it just me, or did anyone else have a similar experience with this game? Leave your feedback in the comments below, and be sure to check out my gaming stream where I will one day re-play Dishonored… on maximum chaos.

Frank DiCola is the founder and CEO of Game Revenant, a game studio in Hoboken, NJ.