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How To Bite Off More Than You Can Chew (GameDev Novice Advice).

In game development biting off more than you can chew is dangerous. It can cost you time, money and eventually the game you’re making. Here’s how I bit off more than I could chew, what happened, what I learnt, and the unexpected happy ending.

Okay just to be clear, biting off more than you can chew is dangerous; both in a literal and proverbial sense.

In real life you could choke (you already knew that), lose your house (“2 Mortgages seemed like a good idea at the time”), end up broke (“Look the shoes and the carpet matched, so I bought them both! Don’t judge me!”), end up dead (“I knew I was overweight, I just didn’t think I’d actually get a heart attack”), or worse… you could drop your sandwich (texting and walking at the same time, sigh).

In game development though, it can cost you time, money and eventually the game you’re making (whether you’re an indie dev or not, this still applies).

 


“A poor sense of scope is the number one reason why games fail.” Extra Credits (Youtube Channel).

 

With game developers, this happens a lot, and the internet would give you a number of reasons as to why.

Naivety, misguided passion, impatience, stubbornness, insecurity, inexperience, ignorance, being too serious, being too ambitious (Peter Molineux could tell you a thing or two about that), not to mention feature creep coz you tried to be the next Doom, HALO, Far Cry 3, Flappy Bird, all at the same time, all in the same package, all on your FIRST GAME! (okay take a breathe now).

As much as I hate to admit it, all of the above applied to me.

I bit off more than I could chew.

Here’s what happened, what I learnt, and the unexpected happy ending (… okay it’s one of those technical, “up to your interpretation, the journey continues” kinda happy endings, SPOILER ALERT).

The Idea.

I love and live for action games right? So the mission was simple (it always is).

Find the simplest kinda action game I could make, and make a small one (5 levels, nothin fancy).

I had just finished a Unity beginner tutorial, and had put together a nice little isometric shooter.

I felt good about my prospects.

 

Putting this together was fun!

Though I was inspired by other, bigger isometric games (Grand Theft Auto: China Town Wars on Nintendo DS, Undead Slayer, Eternity Warriors 2), I wanted to work within the scope of the tutorial and build something short and sweet.

To put my own spin on this, (and create something with a little more potential) I was gonna add the following;

  • Basic Melee combat (no combos, no depth, just two animations and a Quick Time Event),
  • A Metal Gear inspired mini narrative (based on one of my old comic book ideas),
  • A picture to picture based story telling mechanic (like the aforementioned GTA),
  • Jumping and a grapple hook,
  • & enemies that could shoot at you, not just zombies (coz I loved the Android game Suicide Squad and that had enemy variety).

That was all.

Of course my heart really wanted to be working on a community-centric FPS or Third Person Shooter like Team Fortress, Critical Strike or Battle Bears Gold, but I had read up all the noob advice of keeping things simple, and this seemed a good compromise. Maybe some of it would be tricky to add since I was still a novice, but overall it looked simple to me.

So I looked up a few more tutorials and began building.

Above is my place holder player character & below is  my cover system based on Tetris blocks.

It was a bit of a struggle for some stuff (mostly because I tried to wing it a lot. Y’know, so as to learn from experience), but being as obsessed as I was, I pushed until it worked. As I got more done, I really started to appreciate the technical art of the whole process (the process I had been wanting in on for almost my whole life). Every bug fix felt like that adrenalin rush you get from beating a tough boss, it was awesometacular, splendiforous, AMAZEBALLZ!!!

After about 1 1/2 months of grinding, staying up until 2 AM to write code, crossing goals off my checklist, I started to feel… invincible (I will NOT use the word addicted).

At that point, I felt like I could take on Goliath, break the internet, just generally take on anything in the game development world considered to be “hard”. With everything going according to plan, nothing could stop me!

Then this happened.

OOPS!

Where It All Went Wrong

 As I’m watching a tutorial on A.I that runs away, I noticed how the guy setup his player FPS camera by positioning it in a specific place and adding some movement code to the camera. Then I remembered how much I’d heard that third person shooters are hard as hell to build.

Out of a sense of curiosity (and rebellion to be honest), I decided to give it a shot, and rework the FPS setup to go third person.

As you can see above, I did…successfully.

As the saying goes, it all went downhill from there.

To me, top down cover layouts and third person shooter cover systems were the same,

so I figured that adding a non-linear world around my five levels couldn’t hurt.

Then I’d seen a video by Game Maker’s Toolkit on the benefits of building smaller open worlds.

 That’s when it hit me,

BUILD THE FIVE LEVELS ONTOP OF EACHOTHER!

This way the world doesn’t get too large and empty, and the structure of the whole game becomes unique and different.

As for the tropical look, well…it was winter at the time (which my skin is not a fan of) & uuh…(clears throat) I’m a Far Cry 3 fanboy.

I’M SORRY, but I just had to pay homage.

The three-month deadline was out the window & my obsession with measuring up to classic indie games had taken over.

Also trying to match or best mainstream shooters and open worlds, meant feature creep had me tight in its grasp.

  • I added Skyrim’s ability to switch from third person to first person (“As a gamer it is your goddamn right to switch!”),
  • Just Cause 3 was out & Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild had just been released, so a glider just made sense to add,
  • Fear 3 and Vanquish’s slow-mo mechanics eased tough gun fights, (that and I was feeling like a badass coz I’d figured out how to do it without Google) so I added it in there,
  • I messed around with the jump and sprint mechanic so I got some of that TitanFall, Black Ops 3 magic (sadly no wall run, just the jetpack),
  • I wanted your weapon inventory to be huge like in Doom 2016, so I added a weapon switching mechanic for it (left the actual weapon wheel for later),
  • I added wandering for zombies that hadn’t seen you yet (this was an open world after all) & patrolling for human enemies that hadn’t spotted you either (random and orderly patrolling, SWEET!),
  • I jotted down what I called a play script (like a film script or treatment that turns story into gameplay scenarios), & my original mini-narrative, had turned into a very different, anime + Overwatch, character driven, sci-fi – fantasy, blockbuster thing (damn it Blizzard, why did you have to make all those awesome story trailers! Now look what you made me do!).

By this time (5 months in mind you), I had looked at tutorials for making Classic Doom levelss and Counter Strike Global offensive maps, which turned five levels on a five floor structure into five regions in an open world map (a map which took an additional 3 to 4 months to actually design and build).

The other reasons for the big map, were the scale of the story and the price point I was aiming at. I wanted to give more content for $9.99 than other games at that price, so I spread the story (& levels) out.

Side Note: This only became a paid game after I failed to find a community centric free to play design for a non-multiplayer shooter.

When I Finally Stopped.

Months dragged on, more features were added (see the image below), the release date was pushed back again and again, I lost more and more sleep, & still, I wasn’t even half done.

Up top is my destructible environment (added 7 months in). Below is my Call of Duty inspired train tunnel which served two purposes, connect two regions of the open world & stage a badass high speed gunfight.

The train was actually the last thing I added before finally declaring a cease fire.

I was 15 months in and exhausted as hell. I’ve actually lost track of everything I added (I still have the game files it backed up though). Below are screen shots of some of the other stuff I added.

These last shots are my tech tests of third person mechanics with humanoid characters (which didn’t work for shooting mechanics even after 3 tutorials and 6 weeks of trying again and again), more of the built up world and buildings, and my two planned protagonists at the bottom (the female Scout and the male Soldier respectively).

Below is a gif of the gameplay I managed to salvage.

At the time of writing it’s been 1 ½ months since I shelved the project (it was code named Stitch by the way).

What I Learnt.

The easiest way to fail is a poor sense of scope, that’s one of the biggest lessons I did learn. I assumed that I wasn’t that typical overzealous noob because I didn’t just plan a whole bunch of mechanics and systems I didn’t know how to implement yet, I tried to actually build them all! No doubt I picked up a lot of XP and knowledge along the way (I mean coding is way easier for me now without using Google, which I’m proud of) but it really doesn’t serve me to be burnt out on an art form I love so soon into the learning process. Worse still, if I’m burnt out and I have nothing finished to show for it, what’s the point?

Interestingly enough, Project Stitch didn’t fail for me because it got too big too soon. I declared it a technical failure because I had nothing unique or remarkable in my main mechanics. I concluded that it wouldn’t survive in a sea of great FPS games or shooters in general. From a techno-artistic stand point, a unique mechanic like Doom’s Glory Kill, Overwatch’s multitude of awesome looking abilities, Titanfall’s wall run, or even SUPER HOT’S take on slow mo puzzle solving, would’ve just… set my soul on fire, given me pride in my work, purpose in life, heck, SPIRITUAL FULFILLMENT (sorry to get all religious on you, I just really really love this stuff). From a practical standpoint, because I did want it to stand out in the market place, I would’ve had a compelling USP (Unique Selling Point) to show the world, put in a trailer, talk about on podcasts etc. Didn’t get what I wanted unfortunately.

Conclusion/ Happy Ending.

I won’t discard the project in its entirety, with a lot of free time, a unique mechanic and some serious Design by Subtraction (there’s a Youtube video on this subject), I could build out the rest of this game and make it decent (wouldn’t aim too high this time around). For now though, I’m working on something newer, much smaller, much simpler, inspired by no open worlds or mainstream games (wait, are classics from the 80’s bad to reference?).

I’m not sure whether to call it Project Side-Gig or something weird like Project Monaco. Meh, I’ll figure it out later, I’m just glad that this one is refreshingly easy and quick to prototype (took me 3-4 days, give or take a couple hours), its main inspirations are not other games (not entirely anyway), and its main mechanic is unique and compelling enough to build a game around (Game Maker’s ToolKit did a video called Putting Play First that covers what I mean, it’s about Nintendo design principles). The Vlambeer Way (another Youtube video) and game design tips by David Reichelt (developer of Color Switch) will be my compass along the way this time around. They heavily emphasize that USP and small scope.

I’m even more excited by the fact that I get to design for some of the stuff I originally wanted last year (a free to play, community centric, action game). Of course my main concerns are building something simple but compelling (keeping my fingers crossed for techno-artistic awesomeness!), building the right systems for and around it, and getting into the industry in a tangible way (wouldn’t I just love an awesome player base!).

To anyone who may be in a similarly overwhelming situation as I was, just remember, even if you don’t get it right the first time, it doesn’t mean this isn’t right for you. Game development is hard sure, but its awesome! There’s so much to learn and explore, and that’s not changing anytime soon. Just don’t forget to start small and see where it goes.

 

As for me, my game dev journey continues and that I’m most proud of (feel free to follow along on my blog (https://monosoftgames.wordpress.com/ or https://medium.com/@MonoSoftGames) and social media https://twitter.com/MonoSoftGames).

With that being said, I’ll quote Jonathan Blow at the end of his 2007 GDC Talk (which you should watch in its entirety by the way, it’s pretty good advice).


“Your life is a very limited resource that you spend by developing games, so be really careful and picky about what you choose to do, and do a lot of prototypes (and throw them away) and pick the ones that are really really good.”

 

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