How to keep focus and motivation as an indie dev

Making games is hard. No matter the experience and size of the team, it is still a titanic endeavour that can easily go off track. The ever shifting demands of the market and the insecurity of commercialising a game add up to the danger of derailing. But what is perhaps the hardest is to make a game alone. And I am not talking about the substantial know how required in a myriad of disciplines, but instead about the ability to keep yourself motivated and on track over long, depressing, uncertain periods of time.

The pit of prioritization despair

When you work alone on your own projects, its very very easy to go by your feelings at the time instead of thinking about the big picture. How do you know what to focus on next? What do you prioritize? What is the most important?

Say you have three features: an easy one, a complex one and a fun one. How do you decide what order to implement them? Do you always start with the cheapest one development wise? Do you take on the complex feature you know will take a lot of your time and brainpower? Or do you focus on the one you think is the most fun to do? Or maybe just throw a dice?!

This is almost word by word a conversation I had with Dvoid, who currently develops Fejd, an open world online survival game about vikings. How to keep focus and motivation is a common and painful topic for many developers and especially for solo ones. In the midst of full production, it is difficult to prioritise in a way that moves your game forward productively AND keeps you happy as well. I have the same problems with my optimistic strategy game about travelling, freedom and changing the world, Heart. Papers. Border. But I devised my own way to cope with them. It is not a perfect way, but it works for me and it seems to have helped Dvoid as well.

Preproduction is key

Do you know what game you want to create and what makes it unique enough to drive you to finish it? A game idea is easy to come up with and almost anyone, gamedev or not, has one. Researching and refining an idea into a unique product that keeps you motivated is very hard. But I see the process of preproduction – creating an elevator pitch, designing a set of powerful game pillars and generating an MVP – constantly underestimated. I think these are the most important foundations of a game project. And as such, the hardest ones to finish, as well.

I interpret and use preproduction, elevator pitch and game pillars as control methods throughout the long production phase.

Preproduction is the period of time where you scrutinize, research and refine your idea.In preproduction I don’t believe in developing a production plan. Instead, my aim with preproduction is to generate three essential sets of questions that can guide me throughout the difficult production years.

The elevator pitch

The first result of preproduction is the elevator pitch. This is a very small paragraph that boils down the essence and uniqueness of the game. It is called an elevator pitch because, if you meet an important investor or publisher in an elevator, you should be able to sell the game in the few seconds you get to share that ride. So in just a few seconds, you need to create a memorable imprint of the game in that person’s head. Coming up with such a condensed and memorable phrase is extremely hard. However, as you refine your idea and understand its unique selling points, the elevator pitch starts to shine. A good way to test the strength of your idea is actually reflected in the quality of the elevator pitch: the easier it is to create a condensed, convincing pitch that feels right, the closer you are to really clarifying your concept.

For Heart. Papers. Border. it took me about four months and several iterations to refine and condense the elevator pitch. It contains the four core concepts of the game, which are strategy, travel, freedom and change. The elevator pitch itself is a control question for any feature that makes it in the backlog, because each feature must fit perfectly within this concept.

The game design pillars

The second result of preproduction is a set of game design pillars. These pillars clearly define the foundation of the game. Theoretically, they list the core features and might function as Unique Selling Points. I design them as control questions for those times I know I’ll struggle to focus and prioritize.

An excellent high level example is what makes a game a Paradox game. They focus on replayability, intellectual challenge, creativity, form that serves function, accessibility and nerding out. Any core feature of a Paradox game must confirm or, at the very least, not contradict these pillars.

In the case of Heart. Papers. Border., the core pillars are optimism, sense of achievement, curiosity, statement and balance. Any story in the backlog goes through this questioning: is it optimistic? Does it provide a sense of achievement?  Does it make you curious? Is it generating a statement about the world of Heart? Is it balanced with the rest of the game? And while a feature does not have to fit all these pillars, it should never go against any of them. That is why the imminent threat looming over Heart never made it in the backlog: this game is optimistic, so it is not aimed for players that need to save this world from a disaster.

The Minimum Viable Product

The third and final result of preproduction is a list of features that constitutes the minimum viable product. I think Wikipedia offers a great definition of Minimum Viable Product (MVP): “a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development.[…]  Also, viable means you can sell it.”

So, based on the elevator pitch and pillars, you can generate a list of features that constitute MVP, and any new story that makes its way in the backlog must answer one final question: is it essential?

In the case of Heart. Papers. Border., our set of MVP features is actually quite well captured in the elevator pitch. The strategy part is secured by the time and units system. There is travel and things to discover and write about. There are restrictions and limits in terms of visas and borders, that you can overcome. And there is a blog you can use to express your voice and influence change. There are a lot of added features that will eventually make it in the game, like a world events and news system, a birthday mechanic or a postcard collectible. But those features can only shine once the MPV is accomplished.

The results of our preproduction will help us answer the questions posed above.

The struggle between easy, complex and fun

Let’s say you are well in production and you have three features you can start on.

One feature is easy. You know exactly the outcome, and you have no insecurities regarding how to implement it. You can say with a high degree of clarity how long it will take you to deliver it.

One feature is complex. It is an important system that is fundamental to the quality of the game. You have an idea on how to tackle the issue, but no clearly visible path to accomplish it. You are uncertain how much time you will need to develop it.

Finally, one feature is fun. It can be moderately complex, and fuzzy in terms of development, but it is exciting and you itch to develop it. You have some sense on how long it takes, but it is a little bit shadowed by the excitement to just start creating it.

Which feature should you develop first?

The first step is taking all of them through the validation process:

  • Are they essential to the MVP?
  • Do they comply with the elevator pitch?
  • Are they strengthening any or all of the game design pillars?
  • Does any of them go against any of the design pillars?

If the elevator pitch, game pillars and MVP are well designed, these should all be simple Yes/ No questions that lead to an immediate result. If they don’t, then it is always wise to go back to the drawing board and clarify the core concept. A shaky foundation can have devastating effects.

Step two is to identify if any of these features has dependencies with other features. Dependencies automatically generate priorities. Take a moment to thoroughly consider the impact of each feature to the overall game.

Step three is to take care of mental sanity. This means to prioritize in a manner that lifts you up. Getting stuck in tasks is demoralizing. Finishing tasks is rewarding. A number of studies back up the claim that the brain processes about 400 billion bits of information per second, but that may not have awareness of all this amount of data. Even if we tackle one specific task, parts of our brain are busy figuring out other problems.

This is why, when prioritizing, I choose the easy task first, even if I might really itch to start on the fun one and might consider responsible to handle the complex one first. I know that complex tasks need consolidation and if I allow it, my brain will think about it until it becomes much more clear. I also know that fun features are never truly as fun as they appear the first time. The hype of creating a new and exciting thing has a way of overshadowing the overall scope of the game, so I am always suspicious when I experience that hype.

Starting with the easy task has two other advantages. At the end of the day, I can check something done. I have something ready for a build update. An additional feature brings the vision of the game forward. And this gives me marketing power. I have something new to talk about!

And finally, while in this satisfied state, my brain has a gentle way of turning the Complex into the Simple and turning the Fun into something that truly fits the essence of the game. So that’s it! I do easy tasks until complex ones become easy and fun ones become real and fit with my preproduction goals.