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To Collaborate Or Go It Alone

My personal experiences of the good, the bad and the ugly of working on a game both on my own and with a friend.

Intro

This is my 4th year making an Android mobile game during my Christmas break from full time work as a web dev /designer. The first 2 I made on my own, then last year I worked with an old friend, then this year I went solo again. Doing it all again by myself brought up a lot of memories so I thought I should write about my 2 very different experiences

2 Man Team

I thought for a change I would reach out to an old uni buddy who I had worked with on group projects and is a fantastic artist with a really great painterly style. So we chatted on Facebook for a while to catch up and then went for dinner to speak in person. I had an idea of building on the previous games code and making a 2d side scrolling shooter but wanted to see if my friend had any other ideas or anything else in mind. So we hung out and caught up on all sorts of things and actually didn't spend as much time talking about the plan for the game as I would have liked but we had fun.

Time went on and it seemed we weren't really getting anywhere with a firm concept so with the break coming up when I planned on doing all the work, I decided to go full steam ahead with my side scrolling shooter idea and started prototyping.

From here is when things started going down hill. I'm not sure my partner ever really understood the time constraints I was working under and may have been annoyed by my decision to go ahead with that kind of game. Our first big argument was about which side of the screen the player would be on. Per my previous game I had set it up on the right of screen next to the hardware buttons as I felt the main hand being the right was natural with normal phone use. My collaborator however was pretty adamant it went against all gaming standards and may not have realised a switch would mean a lot work redoing the code. Again time was limited so I shut the conversation down and got back to work.

The next day I apologised for being such a jerk and tried to explain the time constraints and that I didn't want to be bogged down by constant arguments on things and that was impacting my enjoyment of making the game (after all this is supposed to be my holiday, it was starting to feel like work with a client breathing down my neck). At this point we had a really long phone conversation where we decided to split everything up separately so I would be in charge of the game and game play and my collaborator would purely do the art work

So I continued coding and working on the game and sending through asset requirements, going back and forth on the art work etc.

Then the next argument, I got the first rough boss artwork and it looked great but I couldn't tell which way was the front so we argued about that and how the turret placement would work if we left it as intended and how it would be really hard to fit on the screen that way. We actually had this same argument over 2 of the boss designs arguing for convention, fit and readability vs creativity

We begrudgingly moved on and continued having communication failures and arguments all the way through.

I was so far ahead of the art, I had actually started to add extra features which I think were really the strongest aspects of the game including a challenge mode which tackled the main levels in a different way with strict limitations on the player that added a huge degree of difficulty  and pretty much expanded the games content length by a multiple of 4.

The biggest collaboration issue actually came late in the game because the enemy designs had not been made square and I had already tested all the levels based on square enemies. This meant the enemy positions started overlapping and all the finished levels I had tested endlessly needed redoing and re testing.

All the art finally came in over time and I ended up launching the game with no sound (my partner was also in charge of sound) as it was so late and I was back at full time work and honestly sick of the whole thing. It ended up taking 34 days for what was planned and discussed as a 10 day endeavour.

In the end I think it was still the best game I had made so far, the art looked great and people enjoyed the challenge mode, but it didn't really have much success finding users. It currently sits at only 134 total downloads while my previous game is at 2093.

One Man Band

This year I decided to keep it simple and build on all my previous concepts combing them into one mega game. It also turned out to be the first time I ever fully finished one of my games in the allocated schedule and was probably the most fun I have had in the creation process so far. I also decided to move from JS to C# (in Unity as I had always had trouble getting plugins working with JS as it seemed everyone else had moved to C# and I was still hanging on to the less supported language).

Granted I did start a little early doing some tutorials and testing before full production began, but probably no more than usual. I learnt a lot and actually didn't have too much trouble moving to C# - probably should have done it ages ago! The unity tutorials are fantastic and I learnt all about the sprite and animation system which I hadn't really used up until now (previously I used 3d models/animations  made from 2d planes or just static sprites).

Everything went smoothly and I could just do what I wanted. I didn't have to argue with anyone, I didn't have to defend any decisions and if I wanted to add something else requiring art, I could weigh up the schedule with the requirements myself without needing to consider someone else's timeline. I just got to program, draw and animate and it was really fun.

It is mainly getting favourable reviews so far out of the very small number of people playing it (currently 36 installs after 2 weeks or so) but there was also a lot of criticism about the controls - more so than I've had before. I have since updated the game to try and make the controls clearer and more understandable, but I think I may be the only one who thinks the controls are the most intuitive for this kind of game and many comments are saying they'd prefer a joystick because that's more common. This is the same underlying control system I've been holding on to for my past 3 games, so it seems in some contexts it works better than others - who knows.

So with that back story in mind, here are some thoughts on working with others:

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Collaboration

The Good

Challenge
If you are used to working alone it's a challenge working with others and they may not hold the same opinions so you might end up with a better result in the end. You may even find some of your skills are better brought out by working with others because you are always trying to one up each other which brings out the best in the team.

Sharing the load
If you're working with others it means you have more time to work in the areas you are strong in, especially when you have complementary skills. In my case I essentially outsourced all the art work so I could focus purely on programming the best game possible, planning levels, coding and testing way more than I could have if I also needed to make all of the art work.

Extra set of eyes
Unfortunately this wasn't really the case for me as my collaborator didn't have an Android device he could test on. In general though, simply having someone else involved means another opinion on what you're doing and this can go through all areas. Showing other people work in progress can help highlight issues earlier and in my case this could have helped correct some of the issues causing negative feedback before it was put out to the public.

More reach
When you are just a "hobbyist" the main audience for your work are mainly people you actually know. Sure, you can get a few random via good search terms and social media (and of course luck), but the base are people you can talk to, count on for reviews and feedback etc.

By working with others you are extending that audience by also including their family and friends which when no one's ever heard of you can be quite a decent bump.

To be honest in my case, I'm not really sure that happened as I think the relationship got so bad that my collaborator wasn't really interested in putting it out there much.

The Bad

Working with others can be hard, especially when you're used to doing things alone. Decisions now need to be run through your collaborator, discussions need to be had, arguments break out, timelines are busted and things can start to spiral out of control.

I think you need to find someone who doesn't always agree with you but is at least on the same page and understands the constraints you are working with to ensure the discussions are productive rather than destructive. You need to find a balance between letting go and standing your ground.

Accountability can be a problem. If you have set time limits and deadlines, then a delay on one side can throw everything out and this can effect motivation and morale which is important when working hard on something for long periods of time, especially when you come across a bug in the code you can't easily track down. You can also run into huge problems if basic specs are not followed as was the case in my experience

The Ugly

The more you argue and find yourself on opposing sides the tougher it all gets. Deadlines slip, things are cut and not only does the end result suffer but also the relationship with your collaborator.

 The communication gets snarky and I found myself dreading contact from my partner even though I was desperate for the final assets to get the game done. The conversation regressed into sarcastic barbs and sly insults by the end which is definitely not the best environment for getting creative work done.

 

Wrap Up

I recently heard Matt Carter talking about collaborating on his podcast "Break It Down" and he really hit the nail on the head. There are definitely lots of upsides working with other people no matter what you're doing (he was speaking directly to music but many of the same points apply). You can check it out here: https://soundcloud.com/break-it-down-podcast/band-breakdown-2 (from 39:25)

If you want to check out the games discussed you can do so here:

"SHMUP: A Sidescrolling Shooter" (with collaborator) - https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.PixelationStudios.ShmupASidescrollingShooter&utm_source=gamasutra 

 

Thanks for reading,

Rohan (AKA Pixelation Studios)

You can follow me in all the usual places:
https://www.facebook.com/pixelationstudios/
https://www.instagram.com/pixelationstudios/
https://twitter.com/Pixel8onStudios

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