Established developers give new teams advice: what is the ONE thing they wish someone had told them?
The majority of stories about game development on the enthusiast blogs or mainstream news sites tend to focus on bigger developers who have established their place in the industry. The difference between “indie” and “AAA” developers can be slim, as both Mojang and Activision are just as relatable to a three-person team working on their first game. When you have an idea, you have equipment, and you have a few people willing to work on your game, what then? We talked to a series of developers about lessons they learned from their first games, and asked those developers to give starting teams the advice they wish they had been given on their early projects. We talked to some tiny studios, some larger studios, and some in between, but they all responded enthusiastically. Everyone likes to talk about their successes, but people are rarely asked how they messed up along the way, and what others can do to avoid those same mistakes.
Here comes the flood
Howard Tsao from Muse Games stressed the importance of fine-tuning your mechanics before adding more features. “The first game we sold was the original Guns of Icarus, and before then, we made a couple of games that we put up for free on our site for people to try. Guns of Icarus was a novel concept, blending shooting, specifically turret shooting, and time-management in the form of repairs. The one thing we wish we knew was to spend a lot more time to polish and test rather than developing new features,” he said.“We didn’t have much money, so the four of us gave ourselves four months. And we decided to create a multiplayer co-op mode alongside a small single-player campaign. In hindsight, that was pretty crazy. We could never have pulled off a good multiplayer implementation with our circumstances,” he explained. “We should have added a lot more depth and spent more time on visual polish as well as balance and progression. We proved that the concept of Guns of Icarus was interesting and fun, but the game fell short in a lot of respects that we should have addressed. The game was fortunate enough to have done really well on Steam and the Mac App Store, making our first game a profitable one. But the lesson we learned is to focus and spend more time to polish and test a simple set of mechanics and controls.” This is a note shared by Martin Wahlund, the CEO of Fatshark. That studio developed Krater and Lead & Gold. “I wish someone had told me less is more,” Wahlund told the Penny Arcade Report. “Our first project was a humongous project where we tried to include absolutely everything we could, we worked on it in a cellar for 2.5 years before we paused it started to work with publishers. Do I have to say the game never got finished? It was a great idea but we really should have put at least some limits on the project. I think it is still one of the most common mistakes in game development that you try to incorporate too many things instead of focusing on a few core features. It is done by developers as well as many publishers. Sometimes game development can be more of ticking of check boxes instead of doing games that are fun to play.” He also pointed out that ideas are easy, but turning those ideas into a fun game? Not so much. “Another lesson I think many new game developers need to learn is that the idea is seldom the problem. For every great idea for a game there are probably at least 1000 other persons that have thought of the same idea,” Wahlund said. “The important lesson is that it is all about execution. You need to be able to limit the scope, focus on the right stuff and also complete the game and the most important thing to make it fun to play.”
You can only polish so far, and you must be a relentless marketer
Shams Jorjani is a producer at Paradox Interactive, and he said that he wished someone had taught him the idea of something being “good enough.” At some point, you have to let go. “Sure a big part of development is taking a diamond in the rough, say a concept or idea, and then polish it until it's 'done.' But you have to chose your battles and everything doesn't need to, nor can it be, iterated a million times,” he said. “As a designer, I lived according to the quote from French writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery - 'Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.' But perfection in games and especially games design is a flawed concept or at least unattainable goal. Ultimately the end user molds his own experience, it's out of your hands, and you can only give players the tools and have them explore your world. And that's what makes games so great.” Aniol Alcaraz started BeautiFun Games, the creator of Nihilumbra for iOS devices. His advice? Gain experience at someone else's studio before starting your own. “I can explain some of the things that happened to us due to this lack of experience. For example, I'm a programmer myself and I had mainly worked for PC. I knew that iOS memory and performance would be slower but I couldn't imagine how much,” Alcaraz said. “We had a lot of memory and performance issues, but we managed to solve them at the end. Also, we found out that the design phase of the project is very important. We did make a lot of concept art and design before starting; it was just not enough. We had to design some stuff during the development phase of the project which should have been already done in the design phase. So for the next project we will take that in account. Nihilumbra ended up taking six more months than we expected, one year and a half in total. Finishing a game is hard.” He also stressed the importance of the work that goes on after the game is finished. “One thing I wish someone warned us is that even if you manage to finish the project, there is still a ton of work to do. Contacting press, getting reviews… It's really difficult to get your game known by the players. So pleeease if you enjoyed Nihilumbra tell your friends about it! Thanks!” Tyler Glaiel is the man behind Closure, a puzzle game on the PlayStation Network. “I wish someone had REALLY emphasized how important marketing is. Like, you hear it all the time, 'marketing is important,' but nobody really managed to express just how important it was, or they try and make it seem like 'just' making a good game is half the marketing,” he explained.“It isn't, it's a prerequisite, but even if you win awards and stuff, it's still really god damn hard to get press attention. All the indie devs that people perceive get 'free press' over the merits of their games (Fez, Super Meat Boy), it wasn't free. They had to work hard for it, and it is the worst part of the development process. We figured our awards, a Twitter retweet network, a couple of key press interviews and articles, promotions on Newgrounds and PlayStation blog posts, a Sony promotion, and some giveaways on reddit and whatnot would be sufficient marketing, but as it turns out it wasn't even anywhere NEAR enough. We should have been bugging every editor from every single game news site over and over until they posted something, we should have been doing that a month in advance, and we should have been feeding them things to say about the game and providing them video and screenshots and quotes about it just to make it easier for them to post about. Rami [Ismail] revealed presskit() recently, which would have been EXTREMELY helpful if it was available when we launched.”
Every game is created by people, and they have to work together
Kunal Patel from Phyken Media shared some notes about finding the right people, and why that's challenging. “We lost our initial artist to a higher paying gig, and for the next three months we used some outsourcing artists,” he explained. “They were good, but we never understood how difficult it would be to get the art the just way we wanted. Outsourcing sounded like the perfect solution, but we were not aware of the amount of time it would take to make the art that we needed. Once we got new in-house artists things were flying again. Sometimes you meet artists who just 'click' with you and then amazing amounts of art can be churned out very quickly but we certainly lost a lot of time in the process.” “When you start out, it's very easy to get bodies into the company. People come with wide eyes and talking about how they are ready to make 'Angry Birds money.' These are not always the people you want. We decided that we are trying build a game and a studio at the same time, so we needed the right people, not just anybody. Building our core group was the most essential decision that we have ever made because it helped our production in ways that simply go beyond talent.” “Regardless of the makeup of your studio, if you are starting your first title while also building a company, perhaps it would be best to start with a small and simple game. Most people underestimate how much work goes into releasing a fully polished game. Launching your first game is a major accomplishment that also grants you a ridiculous amount of knowledge.” Mark Venturelli is a game designer at Critical Studio, which is developing a game called Dungeonland. “The hidden truth about game development is that it is actually about people. There's just so many crazy people working together in drastically different areas of expertise - engineering, illustration, 3D art, sound, music, design, business,” he said. “Trying to tie all these loose ends together in a way that lets everyone collaborate towards a single result (without everyone wanting to murder each other in the process) is the most challenging thing about developing games.” One last note: all these rules might apply to you. Or maybe none of them do. Sergei Klimov, the Director of Business Development at Larian Studios, relishes the lack of dogma in modern game development. “I wish that some time like 15 years ago, when we were just starting back at our first studio, someone has told me that the games industry is so young, there are simply no rules yet. The thing is, I've moved into games from law, where the whole basis for the legal industry is the tradition, and the book of rules at any given law firm is thicker than the Yellow Pages of Manhattan. So the first ten years or so in the games business, I've been patiently waiting to meet a company, be it a studio or a publisher, that would 'know how to do it right,'” he said. “Now that I'm looking back at my experience, I can see that even in 2012, there's no way to do it 'right' for everyone… To anyone entering the games industry right now, I would say this: look at yourself, and at your partners, and try to work out the way of developing games that makes specifically your group of people the most efficient,” Klimov explained. “The bigger and older guys, for sure, know more, and have their own established processes. But those are for them, not for you. We're not making sneakers here, or Swiss watches, we're creating games, and looking elsewhere for the best way to run a games studio is like for a writer to ask about the type of table that makes Stephen King happy. Maybe Mr. King prefers white. And you like black. Well, go ahead then, get that black table, and start writing.”