Tribe Games founder Charles McGregor appeared at GDC Summer today to talk about how would-be game creators can better fuel their creative fire, and perhaps turn a hobby into a profession.
“Before I even start, I do want to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting to just be a hobbyist developer, or a hobbyist at anything in life,” McGregor said. “You don’t always have to try and make a living off of everything that you do. Doing things just for you is valid.”
His goal was to share some advice with fellow game makers about how to best overcome that feeling of always starting new projects, but never finishing them.
Notably, McGregor brought a fresh perspective to this common problem; he’s a young game developer still in the early part of his career, and he described a childhood full of passionate attempts to learn how to design, code, and flesh out his own games.
After years of never finishing anything, he stumbled across a Unity forum post with some advice for would-be game devs who are struggling to make headway: scope out a small project, set a reasonable deadline, and ship it. Even if it’s not great (and it probably won’t be), the act of finishing a game will propel you to finish more projects.
McGregor said the post goaded him into taking on a small project: develop a game for an upcoming school fair where clubs would be showcasing work.
Deadlines are important
“The catch? I had two days to finish it,” said McGregor. He buckled down and managed to ship something; “it was rough, but it was completed. I showed it off at the event, and it went amazingly; sure there were some bugs, and it wasn’t the most amazing game out there, but it was something that was actually finished.”
Elated, he decided to release it to the public and gave himself a strict two-week deadline to get it out. It took two months and a few added features (“discovering that adding in polish took that much time really helped put things in perspective”), but at last McGregor released his first game: a 2D twin-stick shooter called Glitch in the System.
Releasing Glitch in the System opened up the “floodgates” of opportunity for McGregor; he ported the game to mobile, did some public talks, won an award, and got his first paid contracting gig because of it.
More importantly, he says, he began to see how game production works, and how projects can sputter or spiral out of control before the finish line.
“I started to understand what went into finishing a game, because I now had the experience of doing it,” he said. “It was no longer a hazy area...I was able to start working on projects that were much more reasonable in scope, and I better understood what caused my games to bloat.”
McGregor continued to make small games, taking part in game jams and making games with friends in an effort to learn more and experiment with new mechanics.
After two years he’d finished 8 projects of varying sizes, a “stark contrast” to what he’d accomplished before. At some point he was asked to speak in front of a class, and had four days to design a game for the presentation, so he scoped out a game (that would become HyperDot) that he figured would take about four days to finish. It ended up taking four years.
“So...yeah. It doesn’t always work out perfectly every time,” he admitted. “The difference was that I had much more experience dealing with each part of the game.”
Another key difference is that HyperDot is now for sale across PC and console. It’s a well-reviewed minimalist arcade action game with a $20 price tag, and it shows McGregor’s skills have come a long way since that day he was browsing the Unity forums for inspiration.
When you're stuck, focus on shipping something
Releasing his first game was the big push that helped him get there, and he exhorts fellow devs to do the same thing when they’re feeling stuck. Release it anywhere you like: on a storefront, on a forum, among your friends or family, anywhere.
“When you feel like you’re getting nowhere in your projects...when you feel like you aren’t making progress...when you want to take the next step, try to finish a game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how small you think that idea is; go through the process of releasing a game.”
Limit scope by setting time limits, not game design goals
McGregor also recommends you use time to limit your scope, suggesting it might be easier to tell yourself “I’m going to make and release a game in one week” or “one month” instead of trying to tell yourself you’re only going to make a small game. Small projects often balloon, but deadlines are only ever met or broken.
Break big game ideas into smaller, more manageable game projects
If you have an idea for a game you’re really excited about, but it seems too big to tackle all at once, great! McGregor recommends you try and break that big idea down into smaller, more manageable game projects you can complete in reasonable amounts of time.
“That way, when you do go back to that big idea, it’s more refined...and you have a better idea of how the entire game will be scoped out,” he said. “The big game will be better in quality.”
“It’s okay for whatever you make to not be the greatest thing,” he concluded. “Glitch in the System wasn’t the greatest thing ever...but I learned from the process of making [it], and you can learn from the process too.”
Ultimately, McGregor hopes this talk can be for others what that forum post was for him: a good reminder, and a kick in the pants to take the next step and finish that game.