You have been staring at that email for a few days now. Is only 4 lines long, but boy, you are at a loss on how to reply. This has never happened to you before, and no quantity of coffee ingested today, visits to the barista of the day, or cookies stolen from the grasp of old ladies in the grocery store’s free samples isle has helped at all. Is like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. You can see your 3 options at the bottom of this page: send (another) polite response, ignore it, or make fun of it on Twitter. But years of practice looking pages ahead tell you all these are going to resolve in a really short paragraph followed by a centered, 14 point, Souvenir Bold “The End”. And you hate Souvenir Bold. The email reads:

NO!
I am in love with #nameOfCancelledProjectHere#!
Can you send me a .app or .ipa so I can play it?
I am seriously so mad right now!!!!

There you have it. A true fan of your work. Somebody that got really excited about a 1–day prototype by just reading about it somewhere online and looking at some awful screenshots of programmer art. If you compare it with the crap your friends are giving you lately about your projects this person is the best thing that ever happened to you! And he is seriously so mad right now. Not with one, or two, but with four, four exclamation marks! He was your best fan, but now he is so pissed he will forever be your worse detractor.

You can see it now. Anytime you post in a forum, join a new social network to avoid the friends that followed you to the last one, or do your taxes online, there he will be right behind you, yelling what an untrustworthy dirty rat you are. And you know what you did wrong, you knew it was wrong even before sending him that fateful email. You told him you have cancelled the project.

Why did you shelved this one? Why did you cancelled his favorite thing ever? To tell the truth you have quite a few rules you follow in the hopes of actually finishing something. Let’s just look at three. Your projects need to be…

Small

You are just one guy. You do it all: programming, art, sound, QA, customer support, testing, accounting, marketing, or any other ungrateful job required to make your game happen. Would it be easier if you worked with other people, contract some of these things out, have a team? Yes, but the crude reality is you don’t have money. You know how difficult all these jobs are, and jeez, what kind of person would ask anybody, even friends, to do all that work for free? No, you are on your own for now, and that means you have to be careful about the scope of your projects, cause you cannot spend years working without income… even ramen costs money these days!

But you know what? Keeping projects small is difficult. It always starts with a simple idea like, I don’t know, a hamster running around the screen. But soon you need to add some variation and interest, so you build levels, and different enemies, and weapon upgrades, and to make it more appealing you write a story line and start planning animated cutscenes, then figure out you may as well add vehicles, and… at the end it seems like your Hamster on a Hover Board idea has grown out of control. It was probably ahead of its time anyway.

You need to shelve anything that even smells like scope creep… were you having dreams of building a new MMORPGs? Forget it! Not on this shop!

Fun

You are making games, and the elusive fun factor is always your main goal. But you have noticed how “fun” means different things to different people; the barista of the day can be hours arranging formations of flying quesadillas into bunny heads; but your best friend laughs every time a quesadilla he shot down spits out cheese all over the screen. Now I could tell you about target markets and what not, but I think there is a more fundamental thing you need to do to make a fun game, and that is having fun making it.

When you are having a blast, when you are so delighted by your creation that it keeps making you smile, when you are loving to tweak it, and even the boring tasks are made bearable by just thinking how damn cool your game is, then you are on the right track. Your users will enjoy it cause its sheer awesomeness will exude all the enthusiasm you put into it into their little fingers. It’s so difficult to stay motivated and pull a project through to the end… if you are not having fun, is not going to work. So the moment it becomes too tedious, it gets shelved!

Seamless

You are creating games for iPhone. Not for Windows, not for the XBox, not for the Nintendo DS, and obviously not for free for a website. Each platform has it pros and its cons, and the quickest way to fail is not embracing what the platform offers, or not accepting what the platform is. Who uses it? How? When? What can it do, and what it is not designed to do? For you working on the iPhone this means your game needs to be:

  • Playable in short bursts: pick up and play for five minutes while waiting in line to buy your lotto tickets.
  • Made for a small screen: a reduced version of the experience in your computer screen doesn’t work.
  • Controlled appropriately: trying to simulate buttons and d-pads? Better if you touch the objects on the screen directly, move the thing around, shoot photos, connect to the internet… in summary, do the things iPhone handles best.

Seamless is the best word you can think of. You know some of your game ideas are too rooted in your previous experiences in other platforms. They just don’t work that well on the iPhone. Does it feel forced? Are you going in circles trying to find an interface that fits your idea? It just may not be the right idea to begin with. So shelve it.

Is difficult, but is all for the better

At the end putting a project to sleep is a difficult decision. You have the best intentions for all your projects at the beginning. And after you have spent months working on something it is even harder! All that time weights like an iron ball attached to your foot. You think, “is not working that well, but… I cannot just trash all this work and start over!”. Don’t get married to your projects that fast. Keep re-evaluating them. If you have to cancel them, at least you have learnt what didn’t work! So if it’s growing out of control, if it doesn’t feel right, if is not fun to work on it anymore, make yourself a favor. Brighter ideas, exciting things that you can actually finish, are right around the corner, waiting for you to pay them some attention. So shelve that puppy and get cracking with the next one!

9 Responses

  1. Great stuff. It’s terribly easy to lose sight into what you originally wanted and turn it into something deserving (or not) of an academy award for gamedev.

    Keep it simple… and fun.

    David McGraw; July 21, 2010, 7:25 PM

  2. Very nice post, you’re pretty good at this (ie. don’t shelve your blog) :)

    BOb; July 22, 2010, 1:21 AM

  3. Nice article! Though I suggest if you already have a playable prototype that you’ve worked on for weeks and decide to “shelve it”, you might as well release it for FREE. Somewhere, somehow, someone will still enjoy your prototype–other than you. :)

    Erick Garayblas; July 22, 2010, 5:08 AM

  4. Great (and sad) post. The corollary to all of this is, make sure your prototype is short and razor sharp. If you’re going to kill (shelve) a game, do it as soon as possible.

    I should write a blog post on my prototyping process one of these days.

    Noel; July 22, 2010, 6:51 AM

  5. @Erick You are not the first person to suggest this. But I still don’t see how to do it on the iPhone without releasing all the source code and requiring people to compile their own binaries. For an ad-hoc binary download to work I would need to add anybody interested to the provisioning profile… not practical, especially since I can only have 100 people there

    Miguel A. Friginal; July 22, 2010, 7:39 AM

  6. Good post, in-our-face advice about something that’s hard to do. I do have a comment about the “once it’s no longer fun, you should shelve it” part… Any game project will come to a point where it’s not fun any more; that final 5% — bug squashing and polishing before release can be extremely frustrating and tedious. One of the biggest problems new indie devs have is never actually finishing a project, for this exact reason. A newer idea comes up that seems a heckuva lot more fun than buckling down and finishing the current project, etc etc. So yes, combine this with a +1 for Noel’s comment about making sure your protoype is solid, pick a good game to work on, and make sure you finish it! :)

    Mike Berg; July 22, 2010, 7:55 AM

  7. @Mike I could not agree more. It may seem like I am advocating abandoning a project at the first bump; not at all! Maybe I should have made more clear that “actually finishing something” was the goal. But if thinking how cool your game is doesn’t keep you going while doing the boring parts, then there is something else wrong with the project.

    Miguel A. Friginal; July 22, 2010, 8:51 AM

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