Many of us are driven to create video games. It’s hard, long, and stressful, but damn it, we just can’t help ourselves. There are plenty of devs (myself included) that need to scratch that creative itch in their spare time, and it’s very easy to get lost in a world of late nights and frustrated significant others.
Astro Attack was developed in my spare time, over about a year. During that development, I learnt a few hard lessons about how to create a game while also maintaining my sanity, and the relationships of those around me.
Here are a few things I learned making and releasing a game in my spare time.
Know that effort is a limited resource.
You might think you can just work a full time job, and get everything done in the evenings, but humans don’t work like that. There is a finite amount of effort you can put into things. If you work too hard on one commitment, the other will suffer. Everyone has different limits, so find yours. Once you have a good idea of how much productive time you have, then you can start to figure out how best to spend it.
Run short, regular, beta tests.
Getting people playing your game gives you amazing feedback, and keeps you motivated. People love seeing their feedback make its way into you game too, so create that feedback loop. Schedule a release every couple of weeks, and stick to it. The commitment will see you working on the stuff that improves the player experience, rather than what’s fun to make. Make sure to be very clear in your patch notes what’s changed, and what you want feedback on for the next release. Without that people will lose interest, and give you unfocused feedback.
Use part time to your advantage.
Unlike running a big studio, you’re not burning through cash to make the game happen, it’s just your precious free time. When you release a beta update, especially anything to do with gameplay, let it sit in beta for a week or two before making any decisions on how to address it. Being too reactive to feedback can lead to bad decisions that don’t solve the problem. Make the most of your lengthy development process.
Be considerate of others when you’re being anti social.
You will need weekends and late nights to make your passion project happen, and that means you’ll have less time to spend with other people in your life. If you’re working from home, you might think you’re still being social, but you’re actually checked out. My partner said having a conversation while working on the couch is like knocking on the office door.
Keeping everyone in the loop when you plan to work, and when you’ll be done. It lets other work around it, and manages their expectations. Most importantly, when your time is up, stop.
Don’t be afraid to say no to social events, but don’t neglect them all. It’s ok to tell someone you’re not going to the movie because you’ve set aside Tuesday night to work on your game, but make time to spend with them later.
Your game isn’t as important as you think.
You spend a lot of time on your game, and you’re committed to release beta updates. You need to hit those dates to make progress and realise your game dev dreams. The more time you spend on it, the more important the project will feel, but when all's said and done, it’s a project you’ll work on for a while, then move on. The relationships around you will (hopefully) last longer than the development time of a single project.
Making a game in your spare time is a long, hard, and exhausting process. One of the biggest challenges is making the game while also maintaining the rest if your life. It’s challenging, and you need to make some tough decisions, but with honesty and communication, you can make it work. Balance isn’t just for games.
Do you have any hard lessons you've learned when making video games in your spare time?