What I've Learned

As the new year quickly approaches, so does the one year mark for when I started actually getting into gamedev.  I started in January with a basic RPG tutorial in XNA, and here I am now, 4.5 projects later, and I would like to reflect on some of the most important things I've learned over the past year (about gamedev, that is).  I'm a big fan of lists, so let's get this thing started right.

1. Your code will get ugly

This might not be true for some of the more experience devs out there, but as a recent grad (not even a comp sci one), one of my biggest hurdles getting into gamedev was worrying about how clean and perfect my code was.  Reusability is huge in object-oriented programming, and I was eager to keep everything separated into their own chunks of functionality.  This soon took its toll, however, as I would often get paralyzed trying to do things in the cleanest possible way.  Nowadays, I spend a couple minutes thinking about a good approach, and then I dive right in.  I could sit around coming up with the most efficient code possible, but at the end of the day I need a working game before I need an efficient one.  "You can't edit a blank page," so the saying goes, and the same goes for coding.

2. People see the product, not the work

When you release a game, it's important to remember that nobody sees the amount of work that goes into it, only the final result.  This was a big misstep that we took when releasing Spell Bound.  We had all worked hard on it for 2-3 months, and we focused too much on being rewarded for the hard work, rather than being rewarded for the finished product.  We released it as a paid app (much to the chagrin of Mike) but thanks to the single review we got, we quickly saw the error of our ways, and made it free.  It may have taken 3 months of hardly ever missing a day to work on it, but it was simply not up to par with similar games, which were mostly made by larger studios of more professional developers.  It's important to note, however, that we did receive payment in a way in that we learned a LOT from Spell Bound, and gaining knowledge when you're as novice as we are is often better than gaining money.

3. Don't overplan

Planning is a great thing, especially when you're working in a team of more than one.  However, overplanning can start to be a problem when it gets in the way of getting work done.  Case in point is Shibe Warz, our current project, in which I tried to move more to a production role than a developer one.  I set up all the tasks for everyone, made a gantt chart, set up perforce to (semi-)work with unity, and all the things I could think to do to make everyone else's job easier.  This went great for a while, until I realized that with me in a production role, we were only down to one developer in a team of 5-6, and we were quickly getting behind schedule.  Everything I did production-wise was probably helpful to the rest of the team, but not nearly as helpful to the project as a whole as if I had dedicated all my time to developing.  As the team gets bigger, a producer will definitely be a more beneficial addition than an extra developer, but with as few people as we have we aren't quite there yet.

4. Keep It Simple, Stupid

This is something you read about time and time again, and anyone who has started (and probably given up on) their first game project is already well aware of this, but it's absolutely vital.  Keep your first games simple, plain as that.  Development is hard, game dev is even harder.  Things pop up that will take extra time that you hadn't even thought of before, like the GUI, a tutorial of some kind, options, the list goes on.  It's easy to skip over these small details because we take them for granted, they aren't what make a game fun but they are what make a game polished.  To date, the most polished game I've made has been Lightmaze, a simple puzzle game and definitely the simplest of the games we've made.  We had a month to do it in, I finished all of the gameplay in the first week and spent the rest of the month adding GUI, menus, music, special effects, everything.  Calculated Risk is our second-most polished game, and that is another very simple concept, which again took us a single month.  Spell Bound, which took us 3 whole months, is nowhere near the polish of either of those games, due largely to the fact that it is so much more complex.

5. Don't reinvent the wheel

This may be personal preference, but I see it as simply being resourceful.  There are countless resources out there, many of which are free, that you can be using to build your game.  Gone are the days when you need to build your own engine from scratch, now you can pick up Unity Free and get something semi-professional going in just a few days, with a little help from the asset store.  There is a cost with utilizing all these resources, however, and that price is that you don't actually learn how to make them.  But I don't think that is always a bad thing.  If you are looking to land a job in industry as a programmer, write your own engine from scratch.  Trying to get into the industry as an artist? Learn the ins and outs of modeling and texturing.  But if your primary goal is to make a game that people want to buy/play, then use as many resources as you can to achieve this end.  There's still plenty of learning to be done using this approach, as the resources typically need to be tweaked to all be fit together, which requires at least a basic understanding of how they work.  A perfect example from me personally is on Shibe Warz: I am not a GUI programming and I never want to be, so I picked up DaikonForge GUI on the asset store and it has enabled me to produce a much more professional GUI much quicker than I would have otherwise.  I'm not learning the ins and outs of GUI programming, but that is not my goal.  My goal is to make a fun game that has a nice, clean GUI, and by utilizing outside resources that goal is achieved much quicker, allowing me to focus on other, more important aspects of the game.

That's it from me! This ended up being much longer than I wanted it to be, but it was nice to get all of my thoughts in writing.  Hopefully this will help someone out at some point, as well.  Time for me to get back to what really matters: developing!  Thanks for reading!