The four phases of game development
Since February this year (2015) I’ve been working on my next game, that’s 8 months with a release date planned for January making it a total of 11 months. Those months can be split up in four phases, from the extreme fun moments of game-development to the harsh reality and stressful release window.
I’m currently in the third phase of game development on my new game: A turn-based-arcade action hybrid roguelike set in space. There’s my elevator pitch for you! (www.spacegrunts.com).
Fun fact: originally I had planned to have the game finished and released in July / August.. possibly September.. It's now October, and the release date is set on January 2016.. for real this time! (really!)
I’m guessing these are very recognisable steps for any one-man (indie)developer or multi-person teams, but let’s put it in writing!
Phase one: Prototyping aka The fun part
This is always the fun part, and it can be so much fun that many game developers don’t get out of this phase. You basically try anything! Starting with some interesting thoughts on game mechanics, or maybe just some funny animations, in all cases it’s a very rough idea of what you want to make.
It’s basically the reason that game-jams are so popular. Anything goes, no limits, and if something doesn’t work, you start all over again with another idea.
Now if you are actually living from game-development, there is a point where you have to stick with one of the prototypes, or go the alternate route: take an idea that has worked before and create that game because you need to generate revenue pretty soon.
If you are doing game-development pure as a hobby or at least not as your main income, then prototyping might take months and months without ever getting any results, but it’s the most fun part of game development, so who cares!
For Space Grunts I pretty much had a prototype going in the first week as my plan was clear: create a turn-based game set in a sci-fi world. The problems started in phase two since I had no idea what makes a turn-based game good or bad since I never play them.
Phase two: Streamlining the concept, and setting deadlines
Being full of enthusiasm and adrenaline, this phase is basically working to try and turn the prototype into full game.
You’ll imagine creating the best game ever (it won't be) and all the awesome stuff the game will have (most of which won't make it) and that all the work should pretty much fit in X amount of months (at least double that).
With every game project there comes a pivot point where the game is either a game or a failed project. This can be a hard thing to actually get right, because sometimes a failed project just needs a few changes in key places to make it a game, and sometimes a game is really just a failed project wasting too much of your time..
With Space Grunts this pivot point came pretty fast, I think after two months, where I finally fixed a few key elements to the gameplay and the game was suddenly playable and just needed a lot more content to make it completed.
Phase three: "the big doubt" monster looming
Once your project becomes a game in the previous phase, you will find yourself in the long, long, very long road of adding more content and features. This is where deadlines break and you start adding weeks and months to your game development time. It’s also where that well known monster Feature-creep is around every corner..
There will be bugs, there will be big features taking days of work for barely noticable changes, and this is where many developers give up on their game. Phase three is the hardest to complete, and you will also run into “the big doubt”.
For Space Grunts I’m currently in the end of phase three, still some features left to implement, but the doubt is kicking in: No matter how many people have already bought the game in pre-order and early-access, and are enjoying it and telling me its awesome.. the big doubt: “is this game worth the investment” is looming over my desk everyday.
Is this game really worth the time I’m investing into it? I’m already a few months past my original deadline, and also a few months over my “max allowed dev-time” threshold. The trick is to not become too depressed about the thoughts of having this game bomb on release.
Sadly the last few months we’ve been bombarded with negative “indie-pocalypse” stories that games are not selling anymore and indie developers shouldn’t do this full-time or expect to make a living from it.. way to inspire other people guys! It's depressing for sure, but it's also something I shouldn't be reading during this phase cause I'm at the point of no return!
Phase four: Hide, run, crawl under your bed, and hope for the best
That leaves us with the final phase: release day. If the previous phase didn’t get you depressed into a “never get out of bed again” state, then phase four will.
You need to release this game into the world, people will be throwing rocks at it, picking it apart, and telling everybody else how terrible it is on a scale of 1 to 5… but that’s only if you are lucky! It could just be that nobody wants to talk about your game at all! Months of work and nobody gives a shit?!
There are again many articles talking about releasing, and they all come with a huge amount of tips on how best to release: which day, which time, who to contact, how to contact them, what the best platforms are to release on, start marketing on day one, and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on.
The funny part? none of that will help you! Sure it’s all very nice and most of it is indeed something you should do, because all these articles have the best intentions after all.
Those articles are often written by someone who released one, maybe two, games at a specific time of the week or day or year and it happened to be picked up and people started talking about it. But guess what? that time has passed!
We are now months further down the road since that article was created or that specific game got released, many game-reviewers or news-writers are probably not even working for the same websites or magazines anymore! Other games are being released, and people might all be busy trying to complete that huge AAA game that was released last week.. it all changed!
Let me tell you a secret, don’t tell anybody else, but the main reason those articles exist? to promote that specific game or persons work… that’s it! Heck that’s the reason this whole article exists, to promote my upcoming game Space Grunts. It’s how the world works!
Releasing your game is really just hoping for the best. The best you can do is try to be smart about when to release - think about things like when do people have money, is that the end of the month, or the start of the month? Is there currently a game being hyped or is it very much quiet on the game release front?
And of course: contact EVERYONE, and their mother. So 99% of the time that means that hardly anybody picks up your game. None of the big sites or big youtube people will talk about your game.. but that 1% chance they will? that’s where you make it rich.
It’s a nerve wrecking phase, a very depressing phase, and you will survive the phase.. and then you start all over again with phase one. Welcome to being an indie developer!
Wrapping it up
So as I’m wrapping up phase-three, I’m already contacting press, mailing youtubers, writing articles (like this one) and telling people on a daily basis about my “turn-based-arcade-action” hybrid molded into a roguelike set in space.. I can’t go wrong on this one I followed all the steps to success! ;)
And, if you like to throw stones at my game, or tell the world not to think twice about the game in either a negative or positive way, just grab it on Steam Early Access: http://store.steampowered.com/app/371430/ and pick it apart..
I’m in still in phase three, I can add features! I can move the release date!