The room is covered in silence. Eyes, an army of them, fixated at a large screen. Even the tiniest thought about any form of sound and the universe will implode, that’s how tense it is right now. And why? It’s a level review gone sour. Everyone in the room anticipated this to be the level of awesomeness… but instead it is the moment of disappointment. The level is not working. And no, the level isn’t even finished or final yet, there is still a lot to do: The placeholder art needs to be replaced with the final assets but they are not due for another two weeks; sound effects go in next week, the enemies haven’t been balanced properly yet… but still, the prototype mockup was so much more fun. And even with all the work still to go in there should be some indication of fun by now… and not this frustration that dunks everyone into heavy thoughts: Why is it not working? Where is the fun? What do we need to improve? Is it the concept or the execution so far? Will the final assets bring the fun? Should we panic now… or later? Should we continue to work on it? Or should we just cut our losses while we can, throw this level away and restart? What shall we do? Why has everyone a different opinion of what to do? Who dared hijacking the awesomeness?
I’m pretty sure every game developer has (or will) experience the aforementioned one way or another. Be it a level, script, part of the game or a combination. The often vast amount of roadblocks and building sites in a game can take their toll and make it difficult to imagine the finished product and to see awesomeness instead of all the construction wire. Then panic ensues and it becomes hard to keep faith and focus. But there are ways to cure the situation and to lure back the awesomeness of fun. Because more likely than not, everything be fine anyway. Just stay calm and carry on. Take a deep breath, think it all through, and your turd of desperation will morph into the diamond of complete awesomeness.
And don’t worry, you are not alone. Here are a few guidelines to help you through the dark times.
1) Don’t panic.
2) Have people who work at the backend of production in your review meetings / playthroughs (e.g. Audio / Cinematics / etc).
The members of your team who have to wait the longest for assets to appear and settle in the game, and who are used being dependent on lots of different assets, often have three amazing abilities: They stay calm, they can always imagine how the final product will look, sound and feel like and they see through all the building blocks and construction sites. Where we see problems, they see opportunities.
So reviewing and playing the game with them will give you hope… or an indication that something really is wrong if even these guys start to panic.
3) It’s easy to get a first version together quickly but much more difficult to finish it to final quality.
The closer you are to final quality, the longer it will take to finally get there. So just remember that because the steps of progress might be tinier than in the beginning, it doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your cool.
4) Trust the people you work with.
Of course, very obvious. But in the heat of the battle when everyone tries to dissect why something isn’t working, everyone will have an opinion, one that – according to them – is the one that matters. But the more problematic the situation, the more these opinions cross lines of expertise. And suddenly the artist tells the programmer how to code, the programmer in turn knows best which music to use… and it all gets ugly. Opinions are fine, but trust people and their expertise.
5) Try to understand which type of change can be done quickly and which one is expensive in terms of time and resources.
Some things are easier to change than others. And often it’s not the obvious stuff. It also depends on a project’s toolset, pipeline, content and code schedule.
But in situations of panic knowing what can be changed quickly often calms the situation down. Also, if something cannot be changed or replaced, see if you can turn it off as it is often easier to do. For example a single irrelevant placeholder sound effect or very badly balanced enemy encounter might destroy the whole experience of a level. This might help you isolate the problems.
6) Don’t forget that throwing away is starting from zero.
Restarting is often very tempting. Especially if things don’t work and the reasons why are unclear. But every new beginning has its own set of problems. Restarting really should only be your last resort.
7) If you throw something away and start from the beginning then you probably won’t make it better but just different.
8) Have a good proof of concept or prototype, one that proves that the component actually works and is fun.
Prototyping is double-awesome… it allows you to try things out quickly and in isolation. Use whatever toolset has the lowest usage barrier to prototype. And if the prototype is fun then there is a very good chance that the final component in game will also be fun.
But watch out: With prototypes you are often very much aware that you are working with placeholder assets, so your imagination turns on the filter of awesomeness. This is good. But don’t forget that when you implement what you’ve learned from your prototype into your game, your imagination will probably turn off the filter of awesomeness… so any placeholder assets become cumbersome and wrong because you are expecting final assets.
9) Make decisions.
Often the hardest thing to do. Making a decision means committing. This can feel very uncomfortable, especially if it is difficult to pin down what exactly is wrong.
But the worst thing you can do is to do nothing. Stagnation often means certain failure. And if you try to make a clear and objective decision, based on ratio of large impact but minimal effort, then you can always reverse it if it has made the situation worse.
10) Quick turnaround can cause as much damage as it can help.
Because we live in world where we expect immediate reaction on every action, we often become very impatient. If we don’t see positive results right now then we lose trust and anticipate failure. Be patient. There was a time when you had to wait for days for photos to be developed.
These are only a few guidelines and do not guarantee awesomeness or protection from failure. But maybe they help to make first steps.
I’m sure everyone, who has been through situations like these, has a few more guidelines or different approaches to add, so share if you want!