Whether you’re working alone or in a group, the most important thing to have on hand is documentation. Enter the game design document (GDD). If you’ve been a part of any game development group, at some point you’ll run into a discussion about whether people should use a GDD or not. At this point you might be asking yourself the same thing. Do you really need one, especially if you’re a solo developer?
The answer is YES. You should absolutely have a GDD. It doesn’t have to be 100 pages long, but a good GDD is a lot more than just guidelines for your game.
Organize Your Ideas
Studies show that our memories aren’t very reliable. While this study focuses only on our recollection of events, it’s also true of our own ideas. You might have come up with an amazing idea in the shower, but as the days or even weeks go by without writing it down, the less you’ll remember. A GDD is an excellent way to keep track of your ideas on paper.
More importantly, it’s a way for you to reference certain features or aspects of your game. When you’re working with a team, a GDD provides all team members with a deep understanding of the game’s overview and how it works. This makes communicating between different departments much easier and reduces confusion and the amount of back-and-forth saving you a lot of time. If you’re a solo developer, a GDD is still useful because it serves as an excellent reference. No one’s memory is 100 percent so it’s likely you’ll forget some details. With a GDD, you don’t have to worry about that (unless you somehow delete it).
Keeps You Focused
Some developers suffer from feature creep while others don’t have enough features. A GDD could solve either option. In the case of feature creep, a GDD keeps you focused on your goal. All of the features you need are already in there and you’ve already laid out how everything interacts with the various systems. You can look at the GDD and ask yourself if that feature you want will really add to the overall game or if it’s fun, but unnecessary. More often than not, it’s the latter.
A good GDD can also reveal missing features and functions in the game. Perhaps you have a platformer game but you didn’t include a jump feature. Unless that’s part of a conscious design decision, it’s definitely something you should add.
The GDD should serve as your master checklist. Checking off the various items on the list can be hugely motivational because it means you’re one step closer to finishing your game.
Sets a Schedule
I used to just assign deadlines in Trello without a second thought about timing. But after looking over various sample GDD templates, I found they all include a schedule. When I tested it out, I realized setting milestones for each item forced me to really think how long a task would take and where exactly I wanted the game to be in 1 month, 6 months, a year and so on. It made me more conscious with the interaction of each separate task from art to sound to programming.
While not everyone will feel the same way, I think it’s worth a try, especially if you find yourself starting game projects but never finishing them. Really take a good look at all of the features in your GDD from the art assets to programming and honestly think how long each task would take. That means you need to factor in other things like your day job, family and other items, then give yourself even more time. If you think something will take one week, give yourself two or three weeks and so on. Development ALWAYS takes longer than you think.
Great for Marketing
When done well, a GDD is pretty much a goldmine for PR and marketing. It contains all of the unique features of your game, concept artwork, general theme and more. From it, you or whoever handles your marketing can put together screenshots, trailers, press releases and more. And since a good GDD generally has some information on the target demographic, you or your marketer should know exactly how to create these items to make sure it catches their attention.
As an indie developer, it’s all too easy to get off track with a project, especially when it’s something that you do in addition to your normal day job. It’s even harder when you’re not making any money currently on your game. So you let the days go by, and that turns into weeks then into months. A half year later and you realize you haven’t made any progress on the game at all. It’s demotivating. Even the most talented developers can fall into this trap. If you want to prevent your awesome game from collecting virtual dust in the back of your hard drive the best thing you can do keep a schedule.
Yes. I know. The advice isn’t earth-shattering. It’s common sense and probably something you’ve heard a hundred times before. Heck, maybe you’ve even tried a schedule and somewhere along the way it just fell apart. Or maybe you’re one of those amazing people who doesn’t need one to stay productive. If you’re the latter, then I envy you.
For the rest of us, creating a schedule might take the ‘fun’ out of game development. In the past, I figured I would just work on a project when I had a flash of inspiration. Unfortunately, this meant I’d often go months without touching the game because I wasn’t ‘inspired.’
It’s interesting that I fell into this trap with game development. As a freelance writer, I’ve always been excellent at meeting deadlines and working consistently. But for whatever reason, this habit didn’t transfer over, that is until recently when it hit me. Game development is just like any other creative pursuit. To make progress and improve you need to put in the work…every day. And as any good author would tell you, the best way to finish a book is to glue your butt to the chair and just write. The only way to do this is to set aside some time during the day to focus entirely on your work. Some of the best writers focus on word count or pages rather than the amount of time writing.
As I’ve come to discover, it’s the same with game development. If you want to get something done, you need to put in daily effort. It sounds easy enough, but it’s much harder in practice.
How Will this Help?
Besides moving your project forward, setting up a schedule allows you to focus entirely on one task at a time. Forget about multitasking. Sure, it might be necessary sometimes, but overall we’re less efficient and more prone to errors when we try to concentrate on too many things at once (there’s a cognitive cost if you switch tasks too often). Carving out blocks of time where you can focus on each task will help you be more productive and combat stress as you’ll be able to finish up more work than before.
Besides this, you’ll be more mentally prepared for game development when you create and stick to a schedule. You know exactly when you need to start working on your game at least 15 minutes beforehand so you can prepare accordingly, whether that means cleaning off our workspace, making some snacks and drinks or just removing all distractions.
Okay So About This Scheduling
A lot of us are resistant to schedules. I know I am. I hate having to follow a routine and have this idea that I’m better when I have unstructured time to work. While in some cases it might be true, for the most part we humans actually crave routine. It’s one of the reasons we end up picking so many bad habits. They become a part of our lives because we keep repeating them. There’s a comfort in routine and breaking it takes a lot of willpower. Luckily, you can use this part of human nature to your advantage with scheduling.
Okay, so how do you actually stick to your schedule? Maybe you’ve already tried it a bunch of times but it just never stuck. You bought all the planners and tried different tricks, but somehow you just fall off the wagon. So what’s happening? Are you just not meant for routine?
Create a List of Essential Daily Activities
What do you have to do everyday? For must of us that’s getting ready for work, commuting, working, commuting home, eating dinner, etc. Put all of this into your calendar and add in some buffer time for each one. If it usually takes you 30 minutes to get to work, list it as 45 minutes or even an hour in case you run into bad traffic. The same can be said for your day job. While most might be 9-5, there’s always the possibility that projects will keep you in work longer. Fill in the time slots generously so that you have a good idea of time allocation.
Add in Activities You Need to Do
This is where you add in game development, exercise, personal hygiene, shopping and chores. It will probably be the longest list, but it’s also the most flexible in terms of timing. In order to find the best time slot for your game development you need to know your habits and quirks. If you’re not a morning person, scheduling in game development for 5 AM might not be the best idea. With that said if you work in the morning, you probably shouldn’t schedule it for 1 AM. You need to find a good balance that works for you and allows you to also get in the other essentials.
When scheduling, make sure you honestly assess how much time each item takes and then schedule in some additional buffer time between the end of your task to the next in case it runs over. Make sure you also account for travel time. You might only spend an hour at the gym, but if it takes your 30 minutes to get there, that’s an hour you’ve lost due to travel time.
Schedule Time for Relaxation
You can’t be in go mode all day. Mental exhaustion is real and if you don’t give your brain time to rest, you’ll be burnt out in no time. Whenever you have some spare time, book that time for self-care. This might mean catching up on the latest episode of your favorite TV show, playing a game or hanging out with some friends. Even if you can’t find an hour for fun, try and squeeze in 10-15 minutes to practice mindfulness.
No, mindfulness is not just some woo-woo hippie word. In essence, it’s a way for you to clear your mind of distracting thoughts and focus your awareness on the present moment. You don’t need any special equipment to practice. All it takes is some time and space for practice. How do you do it? Simple! Just observe the present moment as it is without any judgement. Take notice of the sounds, sights and even the way your body is reacting. When thoughts bubble up in your mind acknowledge them and then let them roll by. The more you practice the more benefits you’ll notice such as better attention, less stress and better memory.
Take an Honest Look at Your Schedule
You can’t fit 100 activities into one day, no matter how much you try. If your schedule is packed, you might need to alternate the days you complete specific tasks. This might mean you do game development Monday, Wednesday Friday or maybe even just Saturday and Sunday and that’s okay. So long as you make progress and stick to your schedule you’ll still see forward movement. However, if every day is jam packed, you might need to honestly assess everything on your plate. This might mean dropping some activities, at least for the time being. It can be a hard call which task to drop, but ultimately you’ll be much happier with a little more breathing room.
Distractions can appear in any form from social media to text messages. When you focus on a task, try to avoid anything that might take away your attention. This might mean using a plugin to block offending sites, turning off your phone and even as far as turning off your router. Basically do whatever you need to do to make sure you’re completely focused on the task at hand. At first it can be difficult, with smartphones, social media and other sites it’s all too easy to take a quick peak at our profile. When that urge hits you, just tell yourself no and keep working. The longer you practice avoiding distraction, the better you’ll get.
Give Yourself Some Leeway
Even the best laid plans often go awry. No matter how much you schedule there’s always the possibility for some event that will throw you off track. If that happens, don’t stress. Just take a deep breath and move on with your day. If it looks like something that will become a regular occurrence, schedule it it.
Hopefully this advice helps you on your game development journey. The most important piece of advice, however, is this: Your schedule should be tailored to you and your life. While looking at other people’s schedule might help give you an idea of how to start, don’t copy someone else. We all have different lives, habits and quirks so create a schedule that’s right for you!
I had always had an interest in games. Like so many in my generation, I grew up with the the classic NES playing Mario, Tetris and Ninja Gaiden. I loved these games, but it never actually crossed my mind that I could one day be making games. There was always an interest in programming to some extent. I messed around on my Mac Classic first moving around a ball on the screen, then creating an animated storybook about a pair of scissors. It had Venetian blind effects and everything! Later on, I got into some HTML and, like many kids my age, started a Geocities page. Eventually, I even helped set up a website for my parent’s business.
While these were fun pass times for me, I was more a fan of stories. I loved writing. It not only provided an outlet for my creative energy, but it also gave me a sense of pride. I had created something that didn’t exist in the world before. While no publishing houses printed my work, I often showed it off to my friends and teachers who would provide feedback. A lot of my pieces was pretty silly and just meant to entertain, others were more introspective and still others, well, like all teenagers I had an emo phase.
It wasn’t until I got into college that I picked up gaming again. By then, the graphics had improved drastically, and many of the games I played had an actual story. Now don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of classic games that had a story (Secrets of Mana, Final Fantasy, etc.), but I had just never played them. At that time, it seemed like a revelation. Hey, maybe I could take my love of writing and make games. Then I immediately forgot about it.
Fast forward several years and game development just started becoming more accessible. It still seemed impractical for me to do, I had no experience with programming and wasn’t very good at art. Still, I loved the idea of working on them. As a writer, it offered a novel approach to storytelling. It’s built-in interactivity made people experience the story more deeply. Players can also shape the story based on how they play. The character takes on their attributes. Even in a simple platformer game, there are multiple ways to play it – speed running, finding all the hidden objects, etc. – it makes the connection to the character and game stronger.
Getting into the Industry
With a little bit of searching, I found a site that had job postings for people interested in game development. I applied to several and got my first gig as a writer for an MMO project. It was pretty awesome! I shaped the world. I created the entire history from how it started to the “modern” period. After that, I helped outline the webcomic and even helped create the plants and animals of the game. It was an amazing experience. Of course, like with all ambitious MMOs, it eventually fizzled out due to lack of focus and a small team.
After that, I joined another group as a writer. I was brought on to help flesh out the backstory of the world and the characters. It was a lot of fun coming up with a story that matched the title. Eventually, I spoke with the producer, and we decided to create a smaller game to help build up some hype for the larger game we were making. At first he acted as the lead designer, but eventually, he passed the torch to me as I had a greater understanding of the story and setting. It was pretty scary! Having never taken on this role, I had no idea what to do, how to communicate my goals and issues. Add on to that internal struggles, and it was a nightmare. But eventually, it did get done.
With each new game, I improve. It’s a learning process, and it can sometimes be painful, but it’s worth it.
Recently, I took part in a mentorship program where I created my first game from scratch. While it certainly isn’t a masterpiece, it proved to me that even without any art skills or experience with programming I could make something that was playable and had some interesting features. Learning more about these aspects also helps me a become a better game designer. I’m planning on putting some time aside to work on personal projects so that I can test out some mechanics that I might later include in other games to see if it’s any fun.
I didn’t become a game designer by following a traditional path. While I think there are benefits to getting a degree in game design from schools (connections, familiarity with game engines, etc.), it’s not for everyone. So, if you’re mulling over whether you want to jump into game development or not, give a try. You don’t need to study computer science in college to make a good game. What you do need, however, is perseverance to push through.
There’s nothing quite like a new year to really turn over a new leaf. There’s a lot we weren’t so great about in 2016, but 2017 is the year to take a step forward and make some changes. While you don’t need to wait a full year to up your game, it certainly does help to have a fresh 12 months ahead of you. So here are a few of our resolutions for 2017:
Game Development Resolutions
More consistent blog posts – we plan on posting twice a week. One of those posts will be a game development blog.
Finish up The Painter’s Apprentice this year! We’re pretty excited with how things are going and while we’re certainly looking for ways to improve, we’re also pushing ourselves to get the game out. Finger crossed!
Prototype faster. Hopefully we can actually get a steady game development cycle in place so it doesn’t take us so long to produce games.
Maybe take part in a game jam. I’ve been looking at the 1 game a month jam for a while now. No better time to start like the present.
Contract work. It’s something we’ve been looking into for a while and we actually got our first last month. If it goes well, we can go on to take on more work of this kind. Not only will it increase our repertoire, it also will help us fund future events and keep our company rolling.
Burn out is a real thing. Especially for indie game developers. I see a lot of people on the developer groups wondering what the point of it all is. They’ve worked hard for 5 years and haven’t seen any returns on their time or money investments. The same could be said about us. We’ve been working on The Painter’s Apprentice for the past two years after our day jobs.
There have been a lot of changes (and more to come) that have delayed the release of the game. People are burnt out on working on the same thing. A game that could have been completed in a couple months if done full-time has taken much longer than anticipated. It’s the same issue we had with Once Upon a Runner. As the months go by, it can be incredibly disheartening that the game still is not released. There’s the temptation to just put it out on the market because hey, no game will every be perfect. We did it with Once Upon a Runner and now we had to go back and redo the entire game because it just wasn’t up to par with other games on the market. I don’t want to make the same mistake with The Painter’s Apprentice.
It’s been a hard road. We’ve had artists and programmers leave mid-game so the project was put on hold for months while we searched for someone else to fill in the gaps. When we launched on Greenlight we had mostly negative comments surrounding our art. As it stands, we only have a couple hundred votes. All that work and our current product isn’t enough to get on Greenlight. It’s especially heartbreaking when you hear other people comment that any half-decent game will get Greenlit. It makes us pause and think – Is our game just not any good?
Battling Burn Out
So how do we stay motivated despite burning out and generally feeling pessimistic about our future? We look forward and backwards.
Forward to see where we want to be.
We have a clear deadline and goal to reach. There are some great highlights coming up that legitimize our company such as being accepted into MAGFest and being selected to showcase at the PAX Rising Booth in San Antonio. It shows us the potential that our game company has to reach a wider audience. There’s also the other game we’re working on (if you want to learn more, subscribe to our newsletter!) and potential partnerships that we may be able to leverage in the future if we play our cards right.
Thinking this way makes me realize that while two years is certainly long for a platformer it means we spent time to polish it. Are there going to be changes in the near future? Yes. We’re already looking into some options to make the game even better. It may mean we take longer to release, but I’d rather release a polished and amazing looking game than something that’s “good enough.” Striving for excellence takes a lot of time and work, but in the end it is worth it.
Backwards to see how far we’ve come.
I love Thursdays because that’s when I use the hashtag Throwback Thursdays. It’s a nice way to remind myself how far we’ve really come with the game. Our animation is much smoother, our gameplay is improving and everything is slowly coming together. When I compare our current build to the first time we demo-ed the game at PGConnects, there’s a world of difference. It’s hard to see the changes when you focus just on the past week or even month. It seems so incremental. But when you look at everything as a whole, there’s absolutely huge changes.
It’s also nice to look back at the positive feedback we’ve gotten at the various events we’ve showcased at. People love the idea and love the game. We’ve improved overall gameplay thanks to people who’ve tried our game these past two years and it’s better because of it. Many of the people who we’ve met have become supporters and even helped out our Kickstarter. For that we’re eternally grateful. Over the past two years, we’ve grown our mailing list by 200% and increased our follower count from 0 to 400+ on Twitter. It might not be the explosive growth many others see, but it continues to steadily rise.
In the end
We’ll continue to polish and hone The Painter’s Apprentice until we’re satisfied with how to it looks and feels. We want to provide the best experience for everyone. It’s challenging, absolutely. Some days are harder than others to really get into the game development mood. Some days I don’t even want to look at the game. But on those days, I remind myself what we have accomplished and what we plan on accomplishing. Then I get to work.
An indie developer’s life is far from glamorous. What the public perceives as a developer’s life and reality is very different. More often than not, indie developers have full-time jobs to fund their passion. Others might have someone supporting them whether it’s through a family member or crowdfunding. It’s not an easy job and so many aspiring developers give up because they lack the budget to create the game of their dreams let alone market it.
So the question becomes, how can you make games without little to no money?
Thanks to demand, many engines are free-to-use, with caveats. You don’t need to pay a dime into Unreal or Unity unless you actually start making money ($100,000 for Unity and $3,000 for Unreal). These free editions do have some limitations to them, but if you’re fine with it then you might as well jump on one of them. If you want something completely free then check out Godot Engine. It’s an open source software that allows you to make 2D and 3D games. While it uses its own proprietary language, if you know python you should be able to get the hang of it quickly.
There are several places you can download free assets but one of the most popular is opengameart.org. You can download almost everything from 2D sprites to 3D textures. While free, you’ll want to check out the licenses attached to the artwork before you make any changes as not all of artists allow you to modify their work. If you do end up using an asset from the site, make sure to properly attribute the artist in your game. You can also check out this article for more sites that offer free game art.
For music, there are a handful of options, but one of the best is Free Music Archive. You can browse hundreds of songs in 15 different genres. You’ll need to be careful when choosing which song to use as not all have the same licenses. If you intend on using the song for commercial use for your game, you’ll want to avoid CC-BY-NC-SA and CC-BY-NC-ND songs. These are meant for noncommercial use only. Like the art assets, you’ll need to properly attribute the artist of the song if you intend on using it for your game.
Sound effects can be a bit trickier to find. There are dozens of sites with amazing sound effects, but many of them require you to pay to actually download and use them. Freesound is a great resource if you don’t mind spending some time sifting through all of the user uploads. Look for sounds that have a Creative Commons 0 license as this means the creator waives all rights to the work and you can modify or use it as you please. It’s possible you won’t find exactly what you need here, but you might find something that is close enough.
If you want to try your hand at creating your own music, you can use tools like Tracktion 4, a powerful digital audio workstation (DAW). It allows you to mix or remix your music. This is a full DAW so you don’t have to worry about missing out on any features. If you’ve got the money, you can upgrade to the newest version which only costs $60.
If you’re an artist with no coding skill it might be a bit harder for you to find snippets of code to make your game. In that case, you might look into engines that have a drag-and-drop interface like GameMaker. The problem is that the free version of these engines usually don’t have as many features as the Pro versions. If you’re okay with these limitations then try it out. You might end up liking it so much you pay into it. Luckily many of these engines end up having a sale on the paid versions at least once a year. If you decide you want more features, keep a look out on Steam and the engine’s site for announcements.
If you’re not in any rush to push out your game, you can find plenty of free tutorials on YouTube that can teach you the basics of different engines. Unity and Unreal have great beginner tutorial series and even walks you through making your own games. If you can spare a few dollars, Udemy has some amazing online game programming courses that walk you through the basics from explaining the syntax of the code to how different code can provide the same outcome. Udemy often has discounts on their classes almost every month so jump on one during these times.
Adobe might be the industry standard for creating digital artists, but there are some free options you can check out. GIMP is the open source answer to Photoshop. If you’re familiar with Photoshop it might take some time to get used to GIMP’s interface. Once you do, however, you’ll realize it is every bit as powerful.
Inkscape is the answer to Adobe Illustrator. It’s a great tool for creating vector drawings and especially useful if you want to make create a voxel style game.
For 2D animation the Spriter free version has plenty of features to get you started. Rather than animate every frame by hand, Spriter allows you to rig up different parts of your character onto a basic skeleton and then move them via pivot points. It reduces the time you need to create a professional-looking animation. Just remember, you need to divide up your sprite into different parts in order to get the smoothest animation.
If you’re a 3D animator, there’s no better free tool than Blender. It’s powerful enough to create ultra-realistic renders and can do everything you can do in Maya such as: fast rigging, UV unwrapping, full compositor and more. It even has a full game engine, though you probably don’t want to publish anything you’ve actually made in there. With that said, it’s great for prototyping. The best part about Blender, besides being free, is its cross platform on Mac, PC and Linux.
Of all the necessary steps needed to successfully launch a game, marketing is by far the most time-consuming and hardest. This is especially true if whether you’re s solo developer or have a small team. Marketing requires forethought into your market and consistent, but friendly communication with them. You need to post something everyday on the right social media networks and interact not only with people who comment, like or follow you but with thought leaders and influencers. It’s a full-time job. The problem is most indie studios just don’t have the money to bring on a marketing firm or even consultant. If this sounds like you, there’s still hope.
The best way to stay organized and in the loop is to have one place where you can keep an eye on most, if not all, of your social media profiles. Hootsuite is a great service where you can do just that and the basic version is free. You can follow keywords that interest you, keep an eye on your feed and even respond to comments. Besides this, you can also automate your posts, which will save you a ton of time in the long run. If you don’t like Hootsuite, you can also check out Buffer, which offers the same service but also adds the ability to create your own image, complete with typography.
Besides social media, there are a few basics you should set up. These might cost you some money, but you’ll ultimately get much more by implementing them:
A website: this sounds so basic, but there are still many developers who do not have one. You can get a domain and hosted server for under $20 a month.
Business cards: you’ll want to carry some around to hand out. You don’t have to keep it limited to events. Hand it out to anyone you chat with. You never know what might come of it.
Development fees: whether you’re submitting to Android or Steam, each one requires you pay a fee upon submitting your game. There are places you can submit for free like gamejolt or itch.io.
So if you’ve been interested in creating your own games, but were worried about the cost, take heart! Creating a game doesn’t necessarily require a ton of money. However, if you do end up going the budget route, it will take you much more time.
It was a spur of the moment decision and, let’s be honest, last minute but with two days left in the competition Luminosity entered the Very Big Indie Pitch hosted at Pocketgamer’s PG Connects convention. And, what do you know, we were invited out there! We’re super excited to take part in the pitch. Not only because it can potentially lead to some very big ad spend on Steel Media (one of the leading online journals for mobile games and apps) but also because we’ll be pitching to other publications and journalists. It’s both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking at the same time. So if you’re out in San Francisco on July 7 and happen to be attending PG Connects, let us know! We’ll be more than happy to chat.
With this new upcoming deadline, we’ve decided to bring on another programmer to spread out the workload a bit more. We’re still looking for people so if you’re interested in working with Luminosity on The Painter’s Apprentice please email jasmine [at] luminositymobile.com [dot] com for more details. Overall, things have been a bit rough lately with people moving, starting new jobs and generally being busy but we have been making progress especially with the game design ideas. In our latest Twitch stream we discussed ways to make the levels match the different art styles not only for thematic purposes but also to keep the levels from getting stale. We came up with some pretty great ideas and we’re very excited to implement them. For example, in the Surrealism world, we can have the paths meandering with many leading to dead ends. In the Cubism level we can have alternate paths players can take to beat a level. You see where we are going with this. Plus now with the new tiles we can really make the levels exactly how we want.
Besides this, there hasn’t been too much going on. We’re still plugging along and with our programmers getting settled into their new abode, we should be making some headway in the upcoming weeks.