Robin Gather

How to succeed in game development

If you've ever had a video game idea and want to start developing your game, this article is for you. I share three keys to succeeding in your game development journey.

Game development is hard. Succeeding in game development is even harder. In this article I go over three keys that will determine whether you’ll give up or succeed in making your game idea a reality.

These three keys don’t just apply to game development; they apply to any creative undertaking, such as successfully writing a book, making music, and more. And if you don’t like any of them, discard the advice. Pick and choose what works for you.

Stop planning, start doing

When you first get your idea for a video game, it’s easy to spend your days fantasizing about how fun the game will be. You daydream about all the mechanics you’re going to add and about the massive success you’ll have in the future.

Thinking is easy

Everyone has ideas, just like everyone has opinions. “If I were making a game, I would do this,” is a common thought among gamers. If you are reading this, you want to do something with your ideas.

Imagine in a future social gathering, a friend of yours said “Hey, you know what I did last month? I made this little platformer game.” You don’t want to be the person who responds, “Oh I had an idea for a game once too.” Then seethe with bitter jealousy, knowing your idea was far superior than your friend’s.

But your friend did make his game, however small. He took daily steps to accomplishing his goal. Thinking is easy; everyone does it. It is the doing that sets you apart.

Forget about your goal. Take the next step.

After a week of fantasizing, if the idea hasn’t left your brain yet, the thought of actually sitting down and starting your work will seem daunting. You have to get the game out of your head and into the computer.

Instead of worrying about the future, about your the massive responsibility of your grand undertaking, focus on what you can do right now to get a little closer to your goal.

This doesn’t just apply to game development. With any creative goal, whether it’s making a game, writing a book, or producing a new beat, thinking about the end product can stall your progress.

Instead of worrying about how you’re going to sell your game or whether you will be able to tie together your book in a grand narrative, forget about these large goals and focus on the next step you can take.

Forget about the art style. How about making a sprite for the first enemy? Forget about the resolution of your love triangle. Start writing the first paragraphs of your character’s introduction.

Success comes from taking consistent small steps in the right direction. You have your direction: the goal you want to reach. From that you can construct a path of small increments.

Even if the plan changes, you will have moved from non-action into action and you will have gained information to further hone in on where precisely you want to go, what precisely your goal is.

“We do the best that we can by the light we have to see by.”

Julia Cameron

Take care of yourself

Once you start a creative project, you may become a bit obsessed. Creatives often become enamored by their current work. You may feel like you want to spend every last minute you have on your project.

Know that this is a sure path towards destruction. Creativity rests at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

maslow hierarchy of needs with creativity on the top
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, image from The School of Life

You may rebel and argue for the romantic images of starving artists, of the people who gave everything for their craft. While the notion to give everything for your craft is noble, if you give up your health and well-being for your project, your priorities are misaligned.

On the notion of sacrifice

To give everything means to sacrifice that which you love most. It’s to sacrifice your baked goods for vegetables, to sacrifice Netflix for a classic novel, to sacrifice podcasts for a quiet walk in the park.

It’s not sacrificing your health, your relationships, and your well-being. Doing so will only lead to your creative output diminishing, as its source is not in bountiful health but in gray depression.

If you really want to work hard, then sacrifice correctly. Sacrifice that which interferes with your creative efforts by taking care of your whole hierarchy of needs, from the bottom up. This means eating healthy food, fixing your intimate relationship, ditching toxic friends, etc.

You don’t have to do any of this of course. This section only serves as a guide to channel the need some creatives get to submit their life to their art. If you’re killing yourself for your art, you’re not going to be able to make a lot of it, and the art you do make will be as barren as your decaying life.

Take breaks

You don’t have to finish your masterpiece at the speed of light. Sometimes it’s good to let it sit for a day or a week or even a month. When you come back you’ll have a fresh pair of eyeballs, and you’ll be able to see your work from a more detached point of view.

The first people who play your game will have no idea of internal mechanics, code dependencies, or notice the bad pixel art you want to replace. They just see the surface. So too, you must relearn to see the surface by forgetting about the depths.

Breaks are also useful if you are stuck. Rather than banging your head against a wall, consider stepping away from the problem. Let your unconscious mind ruminate on the issue in the background. When you resume your work with renewed energy, you may just see a way out that was just beyond your purview.

Show your work

Humans are prideful. You have a perfect idea in your head, and you’re working to turn it into a reality, making concessions where you must. When someone asks to see your work you might say, “But it’s not finished yet. Just wait a few more weeks and I’ll have something that’s good enough.”

This tendency to hide from the world, to go to the mountain top and only come back once you have something substantial to show, is another tendency that we need to manage in order to be successful in our creative endeavors.

Are you sure you will reveal your grand work at the end to finally be recognized by the world as a game developer, a novelist, a director. Are you sure you won’t make a lateral move halfway through and write a screen play instead of a book? Are you sure people will like your game if no-one besides you played it?

Feedback

As you might have guessed, when you show your work to people, they’ll get an opinion of it. If you’re sharing your project with strangers online, you might get some unfairly negative reactions. This is to be expected. Still, in the negativity may lie a kernel of truth on which you can improve.

If you share you game with friends, you can see live how they navigate the UI, what they intuitively try to do, where their attention is at, etc.

When you’re wrapped up in game development, it’s easy to forget that what is intuitive to you may not be so obvious for others. You’re the one who worked for months on your creation. They have never seen it before.

Be open to feedback. Take notes. Improve on what you have.

Yet, if all you do is focus on the feedback, you may start thinking you’re not any good and become disillusioned with the project. That’s where the other side of sharing your work comes into play.

Encouragement

Your good friends will most likely focus on the positive aspects of your game. Those who have never thought about game development themselves will just be impressed above all, and maybe a little envious.

Take the encouragement to heart; don’t just focus on the negative.

Even the internet has friendly people on it. Some good people out there encourage creativity in every form. If your work is interesting, they’ll find it and they’ll tell you.

Serendipity

Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

When you show your work, you also open yourself up to serendipity. Anyone can stumble upon your work. Maybe even someone who will offer you an opportunity to work on a project together.

When I was making my game Any Journey, I had a public changelog going on my own website, as well as sharing a weekly video on YouTube about my progress.

I remember sitting on a bus, worrying about how I’ll make the music for my game, since all good games had good music, right? I didn’t have much musical talent, and definitely didn’t have the tools.

When I checked my email that day, I found a message by an up-and-coming producer who liked my game and wanted to make the music for the project. I checked out his Soundcloud profile and found that he was the exact right match.

If I didn’t share my work, I’d never have received that email.

“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!

Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. You’ve been working on a video game for three months now, but you’re not a game developer, you’re an accountant, right? I say that your actions, not your thoughts define your identity.

If you develop a game you are a game developer. If you write a page a day, you’re a writer. If you pick up the guitar regularly, you’re a musician.

Still, imposter syndrome is a foe that can crush the self-esteem of aspiring game developers. Sharing your work can treat this syndrome.

If you’re by yourself in your room working on your pc, your successful game developer dreams can seem so far away. You’re just a person in their room. You can just walk away from the project like it never happened.

If instead, you share what you’re doing with the world, the world may reply back to you with affirmations of your identity as a game developer. You’ll have an audience that validates your identity. You’re not just an accountant, you’re also a game developer. 🙂

Summary

Go work on your project right now. Stop living in your fantasy and start bringing your ideal down to reality. See what works, discard what doesn’t. Even if you go in the wrong direction, you’ll know where not to go. If you miss the mark, you’ll be closer to the goal regardless.

Make sure not to overwork yourself. Creativity can only be expressed on a healthy foundation of having your needs met. Consult Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and the needs that you need to focus on will grab your attention.

Share your project with people, online and offline. Play-test your game, make demo’s, or keep a changelog. The feedback you receive will allow you to improve on your game. The encouragement will keep you motivated. And the act of sharing will open you up to future opportunity.

If you want to read more about the reality of creativity, I suggest your read the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Show Your Work by Austin Kleon.

Final Words

You don’t have to adhere to any of the stuff I’ve written here. Rather, pick and choose what works for you. Creativity is not about sticking to a strict set of rules of military discipline; it’s much more a process of going with the flow and seeing where it takes you.

My name is Robin Gather and I help people level up their creativity by providing information, resources, and encouragement to get you closer to your creative goals. Subscribe to the Newsletter and I’ll try to be an encouraging voice in your inbox.

Now go and create something beautiful.

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