7 min read

The #1 Difference Between Amateur and Pro Game Makers

There are many things running through an indie or student developer’s mind when working on a game. But as a Lead Designer who has interviewed many applicants to different studios, I've seen that there is aspect that makes them an amateur or pro material.

Photo: Moha’ Al-Bastaki

This article is cross-posted from The Game Prodigy, a site for students and parents interested in careers in games. Visit for resources and a free 29-page Complete Toolkit.

There are many things running through an indie or student developer’s mind when working on a game.  What fun ideas can we do? What will the game artwork look like?  Should we set up a blog to tell people about it?  Should it be difficult or easy to play through?  Who will be the main character?  When will we be able to just get started and make a game and play it?

These are all important questions, but the most important question that a developer should ask themselves is this: “Am I committed to finishing this game?”

“Why would anyone not want to finish a game, especially this fun game I’m working on now?” you may ask.  Well, one thing that many indie developers don’t realize, my past self included, is that the feelings of working on a game project are a bit like a rollercoaster – they change over time.  What was fun in the beginning may not be fun a month or two down the road.  And that is a situation to prepare for.

The indie game world is littered with unfinished games.  Projects that were once promising are abandoned, either because someone on the team quit, the developer lost interest or just got busier, or they decided that they couldn’t bring themselves to polish out those final bugs, and continually tell themselves, “I’ll finish it one day”.  The graveyard is vast and the consequences dire.

Thus, if you want to one day have a game that you can share with friends, with the world, and with game industry recuiters, it’s a good idea to plan to finish.

I was the founder of University of Virginia’s Student Game Developers, an organization still thriving today to help students work on game projects and find jobs in the game industry.  When we first started our little ragtag organization we had trouble finishing projects; we would start about 4-5 in a semester and then by the end they had all ended up abandoned.

So we realized that something needed to change.  Instead of focusing on doing massive projects that keep ballooning out of control, we tried to humble ourselves and stay smaller.  ”No one cares about an innovative game, a fun game, or a beautiful game that was never finished.”  That was the motto that we developed.  The number one goal for all of us young developers was to finish a game by the end of the semester.  That was more important than anything else; if we didn’t finish the game, then we failed.

So how did this turn out?  Since then, Student Game Developers has finished several high-quality, resume-worthy titles each semester.  Many alumni have found their way into the game industry.  And we can look back on our projects with pride, because we took them the distance.

There are a couple of things that a student or indie developer can do to finish their game.  Let’s run through a few.

Keeping the Momentum Going

Being committed to completing a game doesn’t have to mean that you need to be miserable!  There are many things you can do to keep the momentum going, to keep the fun alive, and still keep yourself productive.

One of the most motivating things that you can do as a developer is to tell other people about your game. Telling others about something you’re working on will get them excited about it, which in turn will get you excited about it.

Jonathan Blow, the often-discussed developer of Braid, spoke about how he presented the game to the larger game development community long before it was completed in order to get himself to continue working on it.  By showing the game to other people, seeing their excitement, and then promising them a complete finished product, he had locked himself in and motivated himself to continue working, even when times got tough.

I guess one of the reasons I showed the game at the GDC a few times — not only because it was cool and I wanted to share it — was because I knew from my history of getting burned out on long projects, I wanted to have at least some kind of communication with the outside world about this. Because otherwise, you just get nothing. You don’t get nourished at all for that entire period, and it becomes very depressing.

So how can you share your game with others?  There are endless ideas, but here are just a few:

  • Chat with your friends about what you’re working on
  • Post to your online profile telling people about it or sharing pictures
  • Set up a blog and periodically share news, or allow people to download prototypes

Deadline Versus No Deadline

As we’ve discussed in other posts, there are many different goals and reasons for making a game, and those goals dictate the development experience that you will have.  Depending on what you hope to accomplish with your game, you can take breaks and come back to your game project later, or you may need to stick to a strict schedule and deadline.  Both are fine, so long as they line up with your goals.

If the goal for your game is to complete it this semester in order to bolster your resume or job application, then you will need to push through and continue working on it, even when it isn’t fun.  If you’re working on the project at your leisure, then you can take a break for a few weeks and come back to it.  Be sure you understand the goals for your game so that you and your team can be prepared to make these kinds of calls.

Being Humble

Many developers like to plan out large, extravagant titles with tons of side quests, extra levels, many characters, and endless powerups.  Unfortunately, when coupled with poor prioritization, this can result in an abandoned project.  Things that seemed like they would only take a day take weeks, and before you know it, the semester is over.

Would you sign up for a marathon when you’ve never run 3 miles?  No!  Thus, when planning out your game, it’s often a good idea to keep it simple, especially if it’s one of your first titles.  No one starts game development by making  a 2 year game; they work up to it.  While you think you can make 10 levels, plan on making only 5.  You can still go ahead and make 10 if you have extra time, but focusing on the bare minimum will help to prioritize on what’s really important and focus in on finishing the job.

Push Through the Final Stretch

The last 10% of working on a project is the hardest, and that is definitely true with game development.  When most of the creative process is completed, and all that’s left is to squash and fix bugs or glitches, then that is the time to power through.  From big budget AAA teams to one man teams, this part is hard, takes a lot of focus and dedication, and really can’t be avoided other than just getting the job done.

But when you get to that point, try to remember how close you are.  Encourage your teammates if you have some.  Try to keep going and finish it out instead of starting a new project.  Because when you can finally load up that game and know that it’s complete, that is truly one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.

This article is cross-posted from The Game Prodigy, a site for students and parents interested in careers in games. Visit for resources and a free 29-page Complete Toolkit.

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