Hey everyone! I’m Elif. The game designer of Swaps and Traps, which is an upcoming 2D platformer for PC. This post is about balancing the ups and downs of game development process based on the past three years of our lives with Swaps and Traps.
In addition to being a developer, I’ve also worked as the program manager of a pre-incubation center in Turkey, which supports indie game developers only. My personal experience with hundreds of developers and dozens of teams showed me some common patterns in all of us. Here are the major ones, including how we handled them during the development of Swaps and Traps.
Does your team have a roadmap? Do you all have the same vision? Are you sure if you are all moving forward to the same game?
I’m not just talking about design details. I’m talking about the overall progress.
When you decide to go for it, sit down, have a cup of coffee and have a piece of paper for each team member. Noone else is allowed in this session, it’s important to have the team members only. ;)
Without checking each others’ answers, fill your opinions to below questions:
- Our game’s genre is: .................
- Our game should probably have ......... hours of gameplay.
- A gamer playing our game should feel ...............
- We should publish on these platforms: ...................
- It should probably take us ............ months to finish our game.
- Our team’s strongest quality will probably be: ...........................
- Our team may have problems about ....................... but we can solve it by .........................
After answering the above questions, see which ones you agree on, and which ones you think differently. This will walk you through the inital setting of a healthy project. You don’t have to know each detail on your roadmap. But be sure to have one.
Business Partners vs Friends
This is one of the first things you should talk even before you call yourselves a team of developers.
You don’t have to be a corporate entity or a company to have an agreement. You don’t even have to have a team name. But it is important to accept and express that you are all working together with common goals and mutual responsibilities. It just takes a couple of minutes but trust me, it saves years:
- Sit down and have a cup of coffee with team members only.
- Have a piece of paper. Nothing fancy.
- Write down your names and note the things you’ll say below under your name.
- Each one of you should tell what you are responsible from. Don’t just say “I’ll design”. Be more descriptive. Prefer: “I’ll be responsible from the overall game design of Swaps and Traps. General design, controls, level design are all on me. But most importantly, I’ll be the one responsible when you all have a question about game’s design. Feel free to ask me to check, fix or decide about all the things under game design.”
- Listen to each other. Know how your teammate express her/his responsibility.
- Agree on your common rules. Even have keywords for situations. Some examples:
- We will not personally take offense at each other’s comments when we talk about the game.
- We will not personally attack each other when we talk about the game.
- We will warn each other honestly when we get lazy, become nonresponsive or lose track.
- We will call “Hamster Dash” whenever we feel like not working. If Hamster Dash is called, we will let each other to take a break.
- We are friends, but we will be partners/shareholders/owners/cofounders/whatevers if and only if we fulfil our responsibilities.
When things get rough, it is possible to lose sight of our partnerships. And you won’t of course have a copy of this “agreement” whenever you have a problem. It doesn’t work like that. But this exercise is not about the future. It is about beginnings that set the right direction. You will feel better, communicate better and progress better if you talk to each other and know each others’ expectations. Writing is necessary just to ensure that you won’t cut it short and you all shape the same dough. If you do this, you won’t hesitate to communicate when time comes.
We get mad at each other. We sometimes get angry when one of us delays a task or does the job poorly. But we never let it become a silent issue that just drags all the team down. We talk. Whatever you do, talk. It will solve your situation, but above that it will save your friendship.
I witnessed more than enough teams breaking up, and friends falling apart just because they didn’t talk. They talked to a lot of people, but not to each other. Ego avoids confrontation. We feel exposed. We take it as a personal attack. Take care of this as early as you can, or you might probably end up talking about unfinished games over and over again. I have the perfect exercise for this in the last section. ;)
Tasks from Hell
If you talk to other teams, you will probably learn that they tried different methods and tools to manage tasks. And most of the time none of it works efficiently, or as expected.
You can define deadlines, put milestones, have weekly sprints and daily stand ups. You can use whiteboards, advanced management software, casual apps, stickers on walls.
These are just tools, and will never work if you don’t “manage” the process. We were all working in different full time jobs for the most of Swaps and Traps development. It is highly difficult to keep track of your tasks when you spend most of your day with other things in your mind. But this is the key. Your job is to manage the team, not the tasks. Your priority is to lead the team to the right direction in order to check more tasks on that list.
Here are some tips based on our process:
- Deadlines: They are necessary to have a common calendar tempo. You will change them probably, but don’t let that become a loophole. Everyone has a different tempo when working on a project, but the harmony will keep you in sync. That comes from deadlines. Depending of the scope of the game, have weekly deadlines for each team member saying “I’ll finish ................... this week.”
- Dailies: If you are working in the same place, then you should have a daily stand up each morning. This is not for you to say “well, it’s the same, you know, whatev...” You should all tell what you finished the day before and what you’ll finish that day. If you feel like this becomes obsolete at some point, you should stop immediately and wear your management hat. You are probably dragging a problem. Is someone in the team not working efficiently? Is someone going through a personal situation? Are you trying to solve a technical problem but don’t have the knowledge for it? Is one of your members waiting for some other task but cannot say it publicly? It can be many things, but you cannot solve it by doing the same daily stand up over and over again. If someone’s daily answer is same for more than three days, it is time to handle the situation and find out what is wrong. If not, your dailies will become boring weeklies where all members get affected. Don’t let that happen. And remember: you are managing the team, supporting each member for the sake of completing the tasks. Focus on the solution, not the problem.
- Weeklies: If you are not working in the same place, at least have weeklies. If not at the same place, then do them online. Keep them brief. What have you achieved during the last week. What haven’t you and why? How can you solve that? Don’t let the weekly end before you have a solution plan or a clear roadmap for the following week.
- Tools: Use the tool you are comfortable with, but make sure everyone can see thier tasks as well as the tasks associated with their own. You should be able to know who is doing what every day, and spot the blockage if someone is waiting for a long time for another task to start hers/his. If your team members forget to use the tool or cannot use it properly, be prepared to try another one. Never force a tool to others. You loving it doesn’t mean that everyone else should love it, too. :) Find the one with the necessary features and ease for everyone.
- There will always be tasks that we stall. I know it is a though thing but you will be the golden manager if you can spot that and act on the situation fast. :) Talk to the one who is trying to avoid the task, putting new tasks and excuses to have another day. Your job as a team member is not to make someone confess, don’t try to get “yes I am stalling”. You should support one another, and solve the situation rather than feeding your own ego with it.
Everyone Has Problems
This is not just some regular generalization. We all read, watch or listen to other developers sharing their stories. We always try to learn something from each other, mostly just because we don’t want to live what they’ve gone through. We sometimes tell ourselves “we are a better team” or “pffftt, that’s rubbish, just focus on developing”... But that’s not life, is it?
I think the most important thing to get from each other’s story is the simplest one:
Everyone has problems.
Game development is not a theory. It is not just a value chain on paper. It is an ambitious process of enthusiastic people who are not robots. Not at all... So, it is very important to remember day by day that we are not just developing games, but we all have lives. We all have feelings, thoughts, reactions. This may seem too romantic for some, but this is one of the earliest things we lose. We get lost in the construction of our game’s world as the builders, but still live in our world of daily chores and interactions. This mostly results in motivational problems.
I’ve seen so many (maybe too much) videos and articles on “how to avoid losing your motivation”. I don’t think that is a proper problem description and I don’t think there is a right answer to that. And I strongly think the problem is not the motivation loss itself but the fact that we ignore the reality of it.
All teams lose motivation.
During Swaps and Traps, we lost our motivation like a million times. The key is we knew this would happen and we didn’t try to avoid it or stop it in advance at all. We experienced this before, so, when one of the team members or sometimes all of us lost the motivation to develop a gorgeous and challenging platformer, we just kept in mind that this was ok. We are a team. You don’t avoid motivation loss, you heal it.
- There are different tools for different teams. Maybe your team needs a break, another needs more time together. Sometimes leisure fun works, sometimes change of scenery. Whatever it is, your job is finding yours. Stop worrying about the situation and getting angry about how this is someone’s fault and this will be your doom and such... which just makes it worse.
- If you cannot find your key to get back your motivation, talk to others. Try different things. The stamina that you will need is the simplest reminder, again: Everyone has problems. You can’t ignore this. Everyone also has a motivation trigger. Learn yours. Learn your team’s.
- I know you don’t have much time. You have to develop the game as quickly as possible and publish it immediately. I know your life depends on it. And I know that these voices in your head are not telling you the truth. :) Don’t believe them. Be patient. Be peaceful. Remind yourself you are not a robot. Your teammates are not robots. You are a team. Be one!
Developing Swaps and Traps was not easy. It never is, is it?. We all had problems, obstacles, things that we had to take care of. Some financial, some psychological, some other... We sometimes had to wait for another for months to heal. Always supporting. Never blaming. Knowing who is having a problem right now is a different thing than blaming that person. We know, but we never blame. So, we always came back stronger, being a better team rather than a bunch of people drifting away.
Yin and Yang Again
While developing Swaps and Traps, we learned more about each other although we’ve been friends for ages. We are all different, and being different is maybe the best thing you can be in a team. :) It may sound a bit weird but once you see that your traits complete each other, you’ll feel safe. You can start a project anytime, with anyone, for any reason. But you can only finish a game when you know you have your teammates to catch things that you cannot even see. You have your teammates to argue on things that you cannot even imagine differently. Your game will be your top performance when you are different but not disconnected.
Here is my final exercise for you. Of course, with a cup of coffee. ;)
(This was one of the first things we did when we started the PC version in 2015. We knew each other for years but this was a milestone moment.)
- Take turns and tell one thing you like and one thing you dislike about other members of your team.
- Everyone must tell one like-one dislike for each member.
- This must be about members as developers. Don’t go telling things about your character or other stuff. Don’t say “I like that you love Star Wars, too.” or “I dislike you because you don’t shower regularly”
- Take your time. Think about it.
- Expressing dislikes is a though one. Hearing one is no paradise either. But you must learn to do this if you want to start and finish a project together.
“One thing I like the most about you as a developer is your enthusiasm being infectious.”
“One thing I like the most about you as a developer is you keep being cautious as rest of the team is going bananas .”
“One thing I dislike the most about you as a developer is you tend to ignore what others have to say about our decisions.”
“One thing I dislike the most about you as a developer is you work messy.”
- If you haven’t done this before, it will feel weird. If you feel personally offended, someone else might feel that too. Don’t be shy, talk it our loud:
“This feels weird isn’t it. I mean I know you don’t mean to attack me or anything, but I feel an urge to defend myself.”
You should do this one often. Do it once a month. Twice a year. Whenever you feel a shift in the force. Trust me, this will be one of the best things you’ll do. It will show your power as a team, heal your communication channels even though you didn’t know they were broken and bond you like no other excercise.
Balancing the game development process is like balancing the difficulty of your game.
When you see a challenge, just get ready to learn your new skill.
Be sure that you can overcome this one for sure. You just need to practice and find how it works.
You are a team. This is co-op all the way, don't get competitive!
That's A Wrap!
This has been a looooong post, but it has been a looooong journey for us. :)
Swaps and Traps is now finished and safe, walking the plank towards Steam launch on February 12th. If you feel like you want to check our game, feel free to witness my shameless promotion right here:
We feel excited, tired, happy, emotional...
We feel surprised, weak, sensitive...
We feel incompetent. We feel superior.
We feel everything... as a regular developer should feel. :)
We are not a bunch of robots, you know.
We are a team, after all... ;)