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Shipping Is a Muscle

The game industry values people who can ship projects because it's a difficult thing to do. Like with physical exercise, the only way to improve is with practice.

Ben Serviss, Blogger

February 25, 2014

9 Min Read

This article originally appeared on dashjump.com.

Copies of Jason Rohrer's Diamond Trust of London. New copies of Jason Rohrer's Diamond Trust of London.

Finishing things is hard. For all the brand new conveniences and leisure distractions available today, the harsh reality is that the world only values you for what you produce. This is largely true for game development – unless you’re backed by tycoon money or are able to live frugally for extreme periods of time,you need to produce if you’re going to get anywhere.

Shipping games is hard. Triple-A games routinely measure development cycles in years. Even among more nimble studios, indie stalwart Vlambeer is an aberration, having produced 18 games in just three years – and with a core team of two - no small thanks to the developer's experience finishing projects in development spurts that last just a matter of hours.

For small teams and soloists, similar short term development-focused events like game jams, Ludum Dare, One Game a Month and others afford opportunities to buckle down and get something out the door. If shipping is a muscle, it stands to reason that it must be exercised.

Well, so what? None of this is new information. Even the muscle metaphor isn’t new, though it remains apt. So why write about a problematic dynamic that’s already understood?

Because even if you intellectually know how to do it, actually shipping something is really, really hard to do - with special regard to small projects with no bureaucracy to hide behind, or way to escape the inherent personalization that goes into projects released by small teams or individuals.

First, there are the self-imposed doubts, fears and worries that make the possible seem impossible, frightening, or even dangerous, a few being:

Fear of inadequacy. That creeping dread that tells you whatever you put out into the world will be terrible. It’s related to imposter syndrome, but in of itself is more of a defense mechanism to protect your ego from being damaged. It’s the fear of embarrassment, of being deemed unworthy, of being judged poorly by the outside world.

"A failure to me reflects directly on my self worth as a human being and a contributing member of society. For example, failing at something such as Game a Week causes me to think: 'Wow, you can’t even accomplish one measly prototype in seven days? You are a terrible game developer and will never be successful at anything ever.'"
Adriel Wallick

Anxiety of not knowing where to start. The sense of being utterly overwhelmed when faced with starting a new endeavor you don’t totally understand. Here, the gap between where you want to be – standing proud against a photogenic wind, with a finished whatever in your hand, gazing into the sunset with the satisfied glow of all the hard work lying safely in the past – and where you are, at square one, with no clue where to begin, let alone how to do the nuts and bolts of the thing.

Fear of choosing poorly. The queasy worry that the reason you’ve never done anything good in this field is because you’re simply not meant for it, that you never were and that all your time spent pursuing it has been in vain while your true calling as a rock salt salesperson waits for you to put the pieces together. The sense of second-guessing all your efforts, even as you struggle with the fears and anxieties mentioned above.

The best advice for handling these kinds of traps is simple in theory, but not in practice: There is no advice. You simply have to do it yourself.

The truth is, you can read all the blog posts on the internet about how to learn to ship projects, but if that’s the kind of content and help you’re seeking out, odds are it’s an indication that you’re still not ready to jump in and start completing projects.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there comes a point when you know, deep down, that you have all the pieces necessary to get on your way.

Read enough material to know what Unity/GameMaker/Construct 2/UDK are? Download them and mess around. Don’t wait, don’t read another article, just do it. Totally baffled yet? Good – start looking for help, one step at a time. This is how The Stanley Parable was born.

Zoe Quinn answers a question on ask.fm. Zoe Quinn answers a question on ask.fm.

Struggling with a half-finished concept that never seems to get any traction? Take a hard look at the core focus of your game, refine it, and start cutting everything else until the raw kernel of that game is evident and workable – and then release it and move on.

Jam It Out

Here’s an example. I had long heard about game jams and how fun they were, and was curious to try going to one, but I was held back by fear. Up to that point, I had only worked in teams on bigger projects and was scared that I wouldn’t be able to contribute in a small team on a 48-hour dev cycle.

In November of 2012 I went to one anyway, still afraid that I would be totally useless… and lo and behold, we ended up making a decent enough jam game. Ever since, I’ve grown more and more comfortable going to jams, even when the project doesn’t exactly pan out, because I realized that the fears that gave me pause were bogeymen I had made up.

Shipping is a muscle. It can be learned through practice, but nobody can flex it for you. When faced with the uneasiness that comes with taking on a new project or finally finishing an old one, the key is to do it now. You are never quite ready to start – but you are always ready to begin.

Ben Serviss is a game designer and producer at NYC indie developer collective Studio Mercato. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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