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Is it done yet...?

Posted: 04 January, 2016

Ship It Before getting into the games industry I really didn't have much of an idea as to the effort involved in making a game, or the attention to detail that's required to polish it to a good, shippable state. Call me naive, but I was only expecting it to be a little bit more difficult than some of the large software that I'd previously shipped, when it's probably closer to an order of magnitude more complicated. It was a bit of a shock, for me, to suddenly be part of a 50+ person team, working 100 hour plus weeks, just to hit a mid-production milestone... Sudeki - my first commercial game - was a baptism of fire to say the least (the fact a fellow dev referred to it with Vietnam stare over twitter says it all) but all the commercial games I've worked on have had deeply intense periods. Shipping a game is an act of will.

I've seen quite a few junior devs come into the industry and have the same shock reaction that I had. Games are never 'finished', even though they've shipped, which is something people on the outside tend not to realise. There's always something you can do that would improve some aspect of the game. There's always some part of the balancing that's not quite right, or could be tweaked to please more people. There's always just one more bug to squish. Developers [often willingly] do crazy hours because of the desire to improve the game, to make the best thing possible. No one tries to make a bad game.  Entering into this madness, especially straight from Uni, is a culture shock. Hell, anything after Uni is a culture shock, but some people get through a couple of milestones and very quickly decide that game development's not what they expected, and not for them.

I get a lot of satisfaction out of making stuff, but there's definitely a part of me that thinks working on big games (ie: AAA) is something for the young 'uns. I've been close to the edge, post-alpha, on quite a few projects. There have been tears. There has been anger. There's been the post shipping depression. The milestone flu. The 2 stone of pizza and curry flab to lose after 10 months of crunch. Hell, I had alopecia, trying to crunch and deal with splitting up with a girlfriend. There's only so much you can do, even when you're young.

Because of all this I have the utmost respect for anyone that ships a game no matter what its Metacritic score is. Now I'm doing one on my own, I completely bow down to the people working solo, or in micro-teams, especially the old guard that have done so for years. You guys are hardcore.

I've been out of the AAA side for a while now - nearly 3 years - and I've tried to work as sanely as possible on Lumo, but even then, solo game development is not without its stresses. Working on your own means you get to keep your own hours, but it also means you don't have the support of a team of experts around you. The majority of the work I've produced for Lumo is stuff that I've never done before - I've never animated, never skinned or rigged a model, not had to write save games or leaderboards, nearly all the mechanics are 'new to me' etc. etc. - so every day is a school day. On the plus side, that's a really rewarding place to be when things go right. On the downside, where my talent and ability doesn't match the scope of my ideas, shit can go horribly wrong. There's no one to whinge at. No coder in shining armour coming to save me.

I'm currently trying to ship my game - it's basically content complete as I type - so I have a big list of things to fix, integration stuff to do, builds to make and in between all that find the time to balance, test, balance, test. It's by far the most stressful period of the whole endeavour. I'm aiming for a date which isn't all that far away and I know that I can't have downtime. Any time I'm not head in the game is time I could be spending making it better in some tangible way. Everything is now some weird balancing act between having enough energy to do good work, and avoiding snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by not giving it enough just when it matters most.

It's cool, I'll get it done. I know this is part of the process and I know I'm near the top of this mountain. Very soon it'll all be out of my control as Lumo hurtles to release in the hands of my publisher. Obviously there're parts of the game that are a little shonky (where my ability couldn't match my ideas), there's stuff that I could do a bit better, but all of these aspects would involve significant changes to fix, or outsourcing to someone with the right skills, or just add more months to the devtime. I can't afford any of that, and tbh, it wouldn't really shift the needle enough to warrant it.

As I'm learning, when it's all your own work, decisions around shipping or slipping are just as tough to make as when there's a budget and publisher breathing down your neck. Only now, it's slightly more personal.

Games may never be 'finished', but Lumo's already gone much further than I ever thought it would. I can ship this.