Drop the Weight and Finish Your Game!

A large unfinished bridge to nowhere.  How useful.

If you want to be a successful video game developer, and work your way up to eventually doing it for a living, you need to be able to do the following three things:

  1. Finish a game.

  2. Finish a game.


This is the single most important aspect of your entire development career, from birth to death, from beginning to end.  If you want it to be a career, then it needs to bring you money.  It needs to reach a market.  And in this case, no matter how you look at it, “it” needs to be a finished product.  Finishing a project is a vast and complex skill that needs to be built, honed, and perfected.  This is why project managers exist.  This is why deadlines and schedules exist, and no matter how romantic we may feel about all of our old, nostalgic favorite gaming experiences of years past, they were all built on time budgets by people who had dozens of projects under their belts.

The reason I’m writing about this right now is because, more and more, I’m seeing forum-post-after-forum-post from hundreds of hobbyist game developers asking for feedback on why they’ve spent two, three, sometimes four years on their first video game, only to have it sell extremely poorly on Steam or the various mobile app stores.  There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to respond to each of them, but take it from somebody who is making games for a living and selling them:


Ed McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Team Meat (Super Meat Boy)

Ed McMillen said it himself:  “The biggest and most devastating mistake that you can make when you’re starting [to make games] is starting on a big game.  Never... ever… start on a game that takes more than a few months to make.  Ever.  Because you won’t finish it, and it’ll be horrible because it’s your first game.  Your first game’s gonna suck.  Everyone needs to know that.  Your first game won’t be good.  And if it somehow magically is pretty good it means that you’re going to be a good designer eventually.  But you learn as you go.  And if you spend a year, two years, three years on it, that’s a lot of wasted time.”  (Source:  Ed McMillen Interview )

And Ed McMillen is right.  I have made exactly this same mistake at least three times in the past six years, and each time I bit off more than I could chew and wasted a lot of time.  I wasn’t ready.  My strength in this regard is knowing when to call it quits when I stop making progress, and going back to the drawing board with a project or cancelling it altogether.  Maintaining a time budget is one of the most important aspects of game development, because if we’re keeping in mind that game design is at least partially an art-form, then we must also remember that works of art are never finished.  They’re abandoned.  They’re abandoned when you know it’s time to polish it up and get it out the door so you can take some time to rest, process what you’ve learned, and move on to the next project.

Start small.  Give yourself three solid months to design, prototype, implement, re-design, polish, and release.  Learn to finish.  Learn to finish.  LEARN TO FINISH.

Back in late 2014, Nicholas and I decided to focus exclusively on our time management and ability to finish our games by practicing “12-hour game jams.”  We would wake up at 9 am in our separate apartments across the city, take our showers, brew our coffees, and then fire-up Skype with one another by 10 am.  We took ourselves through the entire brainstorming/designing/implementation process for the next 12 hours (breaking for one hour for lunch) and finish up by 11:00 pm that same night with a full game.  Sure they were ugly, sure they needed a lot of work.  But we’re both very proud of each and every one of them.  After doing them five times, once a month for five months in a row, we drastically improved our efficiency at many areas of game development and made sure that we fully understood the effort required in releasing a product.  In the year-and-a-half since then, we have reached the level we’re at now (with paying clients under our belt) thanks in large part to those earlier efforts.

Our Game Jams to-date, top-to-bottom/oldest-to-newest.  Work hard, learn hard.

In case you're interested, you can find those finished games in our "Game Jams" section:  http://synersteel.com/game-jams/

To those of you reading this who are interested in actually becoming a better video game designer, of reaching beyond the bounds of “hobbyist” and achieve levels you can only imagine right now, I implore you to ditch the massive burden of your lengthy multi-year project, and return to the roots of smaller projects.

Think “Mario.”

Super Mario Brothers.  Simple.  Elegant.  Timeless.

Think “Sonic.”

Sonic the Hedgehog.  Streamlined. Efficient.  Perfect.

Sonic the Hedgehog.  Streamlined. Efficient.  Perfect.

Think “Mega Man.”

Mega Man.  Small.  Deep.  Interconnecting.

Think “Contra.”

Contra.  Short.  Tight.  Endless.

Make small projects, learn how the cogs move and learn how to move yourself, and build your wall one small brick at a time.  Because believe me, your first attempt is your worst attempt, and you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Stay in the game.