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Deadlines, an Indie Experience

Deadlines. Love them or Hate them. Evil things that demand overtime from underpaid artists and engineers, or the only thing produces use that nails down those creative types to actually deliver assets. Here is my experience with our latest project.

Block you menu screenDeadlines. Love them or Hate them. Are they evil things that demand overtime from underpaid artists and engineers, or the only thing producers can use to nail down those creative types to actually deliver assets?

I don't want to get into the pros or cons of deadlines, I just want to share my perspective as an indie, and how some deadlines helped us ship our latest free to play, iOS title, Block You.

As an indie developer, the 'It ships when it is ready' mentality is very prevalent. Not constrained by typical oversight, with costs less visible than normal (didn't get paid this week, won't get paid next week, so who cares if it slips a week), it is easy for an indie to keep plugging away at code and art assets, watching the days and weeks fly by.

That is exactly what happened to me on my first two games. Both missed their original timelines for over 50%. Sure, chalk it up to learning curves and feature creeps, but really, how can I plan a 6 or 12 months of releases and projects, if what I call a 3 month project really takes me 5 month to do. So here is my take at trying to set some deadlines, add some time pressure into my development cycles and see how I do.

Choosing the next project

In the last week of October, we had just launched Lab Bunnies (get it here or read my featured Gamasutra polishing article here), and an update was already in the Apple pipeline, so it was finally time to figure out what was next. We had been building our list of ideas, and prepping them for a month already, but it was now time to pull the trigger and start the next project.

Being the first week in November, seeing the holiday Apple shutdown a mere seven weeks away, I decided I would try a major deadline type project and choose the shortest project we had on the list, and guarantee it gets in the AppStore before the Christmas shutdown. My last two games had dragged on and on, with due dates slipping often, and so as a form of discipline and practicing working against deadlines, I pulled the trigger on making Block You (other options were a side scrolling runner that would take 2 month minimum, or a much longer adventure/story game, with massive art needs).

Working backward from 12/21, needing two weeks for app approval (just in case there is a big backlog), means I needed to submit the game by 12/7, just 5 weeks from when I green lit the project. I admit I worked a few weekends, but I didn't go overboard on the overtime. Normal 8 to 10 hours days, and just 5 of them each week.

Block You Build Timeline

Here is a quick take in what was done during this brief period of time.

Block you game screen11/12/2012 - First Alpha build went to out 10 days into development. Contained one play mode, with placeholder images. Used to test core game mechanic and touch input controls.

11/19/2012 - Second Alpha build. All three game modes implemented (timed, marathon and 2 player). Game graphics nearly finalized, control scheme tightened up. Sized for iPhone 5 and low-res images implemented.

11/26/2012 - First Beta build. Added items, and game store to buy them. Implemented IAP to buy extra coins, menus, and monetization points included. Game Center Achievement, Leader boards & Challenges added.

12/4/2012 - Second Beta (or only Release Candidate) build. Graphics polished. IAP flow improved. Tutorial and Help sections added. Sized for the iPad. Some bugs and layout issues addressed.

12/7/2012 - Shipped to Apple after a marathon, 7:30 AM until 11:30 PM, day of updating graphics for the iPad 3 (originals were delivered too small) fine tuning numerous parameters and double checking Game Center and IAP integrations.

To be honest, it all felt a rushed, and it was the most worrisome build I have sent to Apple for a release ever. I trust my coding to not deliver buggy builds, but when the pace is slower there is that time for confidence to build up so you know the build is really solid. But maybe that is why stuff takes so long, we wait around to be comfortable. But that is another issue I think.

Notwithstanding hitting the deadline, some features were cut along the way. This is another aspect time boxing development does to you. It focuses us on the core tasks, forcing us to make the hard decisions on what has to be removed if the deadline is looming. When I first drew up the task lists, of few of the chopped items I deemed very essential. But, here we are shipping a game without them.

In some sense, it might be good not to include everything in the first release. Gives the game a chance to be used without the distraction of a few more features.

What was cut from V1 (or what will be in V1.5)

  • Video recording and replay of timed games, with social sharing options (to brag about high scores)
  • Asynchronous challenges against Game Center or Facebook friends (client and server code was completed, but UI was not started)
  • Knockout leaderboard(s) for Asynch. play
  • Daily Challenges

Do I want to work under that kind of pressure every month, for 12 months? No, not ever! But there is a great sense of accomplishment in getting it all done, and shipped in the timeframe set. I have also prove to myself and a few others that games projects don't need to drag on and on. Having a drop dead ship date helped both motivate and focus the development process.

As mentioned above, the game wasn't quite complete, but I believe having the core game in the app store over the holidays was more important than adding in a few more features, and being out of the store for four more weeks. The major update will be released in mid January, and I am looking forward to setting some more, realistic, deadlines to help provide extra motivation and sharpen my focus.

Originally posted on my Tech Wanderings blog.

Get Block You now, free in the AppStore.

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