Random game production tips

This article was originally posted on Gamasutra

Here is a set of game dev tips presented in a random order, and learned “the hard way” – I hope they help!

Think about localization early

Localization is a tedious task that often appears trivial and uncreative, which is why it’s often postponed, placed on low priority or, worst, not thought of at all until it is too late. That’s a problem because it IS a rather tedious task to begin with, and it becomes a monster when you realise you hardcoded the English text in most of your buttons and interfaces. And you contemplate redoing everything – at least a few times over. And then you realise that words differ in length from language to language and that we as humans have been very creative when it comes to letters and even reading direction. And you realize your game has to change, and sometimes it changes drastically.

 

Don’t put yourself in that situation. Think about localization early  – preferably before you even start- and integrate an easy way to treat the text in your game and have a painless translation process that allows you to easily change text when needed (and it WILL be needed). This process will also allow you to contemplate where you want your game to be. Think about the hard languages such as Russian, Chinese or even Arabic, which requires you to mirror many functions of your game to accommodate left to right orientation. If that is tempting, understanding those markets and how to get there is another big challenge in itself. Remember that English is only the third most spoken language in the world, after Mandarin and Spanish, that the European Union has 24 official languages and that Spanish is a must in many parts across the US. Be aware of the industry standard EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish) which is the minimum language support that should be fully featured at launch. And in case you plan voice acting, offering that in multiple languages is not a trivial cost.

 

“Pro” tip: Versioning & collaborative translations – keep track of the versions you have per language, since if you change a button in English you have to know which one was changed and reflect that in all languages. Not an easy task when you have thousands of lines of text. Also include comments on what a button does, as you will make translators job much easier.

 

Always consider controls as a core feature

You may have evolved as a gamer with a gamepad in your hands (if yes, which one? 🙂 ), but I like the keyboard and mouse far more, and the younger people I watch playing today might have a preference for touchscreens. No matter how we grew up, controlling a game should not be an obstacle to experience the gameplay, so don’t ever assume that everybody will play your game the way you do – in fact, its best to assume the opposite and design a comfortable way for your players to interact with your game. It’s a difficult task to master, but it is crucial for the success of your game, so design and implement controls early and give yourself time to polish out that barrier and allow the control of your game to feel intuitive. It’s OK to limit certain types of input, but it’s important to be aware of that early, be open about it with your players and make sure you offer the best possible support for the controls you do plan to offer.

 

Think twice about hard limits such as not allowing to remap certain actions. Consider your keybindings menu and how it will look & feel. It is really hard and sometimes technically challenging to have a pleasant keybindings menu, but if you want your player to be focused on the experience you are offering instead of being frustrated that he can only move clumsily in your world, or that he never reaches a critical button when your game requires it, then think of controls as a core feature and prioritize it early. Remember that gamepads, keywords and other input devices come in many shapes and sizes, and that not everyone has an English keyboard or a gamepad around.

 

And if you ever felt like smashing your keyboard or destroying your screen while playing a game, try to remember why. More often than not, it was because the game was not giving you the outcome you were expecting by performing a simple action on your input device. Don’t do that to your players; take the time to eliminate that frustration from the time they spend with your game.

 

“Pro” tip: Bring people in for a quick try, and bring them often. Especially bring people who you do not consider part of your target group – anyone should be able to interact with and within your game, even if its not their cup of tea.  

 

You cannot have a game without menus and especially HUD

The first thing a player will see of your game are your menus; most games cannot exist without menus, and the HUD (heads up display/ in-game interface) is the language you invent to communicate with your player in an experience you created. Yet menus and HUD are also tasks that are often left towards the end of the project, even though they are essential in defining the experience your player will have.

 

What good is it to have an amazing world if your players gets lost in the absence of a map? No matter how wonderfully balanced and well crafted, how great can a battle be if your player does not have any feedback and finds himself dead with no explanation? The presence or absence of HUD elements contributes greatly to immersion, so the feedback you are offering is perhaps one of the most iterative, polish-demanding tasks you will do. You need early feedback on how players interact with your game, so don’t left out from early stages your only way to communicate and aid your player.

 

Menus might seem impossible to innovate upon, but they offer lots of screen space to promote your game from the very moment your player has started it, and also ample abilities to let your player know where he can find help and guidance. Your players will spend a lot of time seeing the menus you create, so why not make that a pleasant experience?

 

“Pro” tip: Menus = large screen space ready to expose your artists’ work. Menus include loading screens, even larger spaces to let your creative people express themselves.  Menus and HUD are great tasks to solidify your team.

 

Leverage industry events to be prepared and to focus your team

You might not know when your game is ready, but you can know well in advance when important industry events such as GDC, GamesCom, IndieCade, ComicCon will happen. If you want to be there and use the occasion to make your game known, don’t place yourself in the situation of writing presentations, preparing pitches and collections of artwork the night before you’re set to go. Above all, don’t prepare your build that night – you’ll likely fail, and badly.

 

Set the events you want to attend to as important milestones in your plan and work towards them. Set those dates in your plan as early as you can, even if you have no idea whether you will afford to go there or not. Think way ahead of time what you want to take there and what opportunities you will have to present your self and write it down. Include tasks such as “a collection of 5 artworks”, “a batch of 20 screenshots” or “contact these important people and set meetings” in your plan, and make them visible to your team so that everyone can think and collaborate towards those dates.

 

When the event comes, you will enjoy the cozy feeling of being prepared. You will have lots of other things to stress about, so prepare the things that are in your control well in advance and eliminate whatever internal stress you can. Industry wide events are tiresome even for a simple visitor, you will be tired, and lots of other external factors will generate chaos, which is where the cozy feeling of having a prepared presence kicks in.

 

If you have prepared but ended up not going, you got yourself and your team working towards a date you cannot change, focused, and now you also have a collection of excellent material you can use in many creative ways. It’s easy to to focus on game development and push marketing as a distant goal in the future of “when the game is ready” and when deadlines are set internally without consequences of not respecting them, it’s easy to slip. So any external factors to work towards, such as these industry wide events, can become great points of focus and drive.

 

“Pro” tip: Many industry wide events have press zones with designated areas for marketing material. Have something short and wonderful printed out, that you can just leave there. Include quick action items if possible, such as QR codes that leads to your Twitter feed so people can instantly follow you.

 

Have a solid plan

There are many debates regarding how game development should be done, but only one crucial necessity, and that’s to have a solid plan. It can be a sprint based plan, a waterfall plan, you may or may not use SCRUM – those are details that you need to test in order to discover what works best for your team. But whatever you do, have a solid plan. What’s that?

 

A solid plan is one that is Written Down and does not change drastically based on feedback from external factors. If you start by creating a single player adventure game and, 6 months after, you find yourself working on a free-to-play shooter, you probably do not have a solid plan.

 

So what IS a solid plan? It’s that sentence called elevator pitch that expresses the core of your game and makes it unique, and the work needed to make that happen. It’s the pillars of your game, and the game elements needed to support those (like the HUD and menus). Its the statement that energizes your team and commits it to the game over long and financially uncertain periods of time. It’s a few sentences that can get anyone from your team out of a creative block, because they hold the answer of what your game IS and what your game IS NOT.

 

A solid plan is one that can easily be accessed and understood by any member of your team and – preferably – also anyone outside your team, like a potential investor. It should allow you to compare what is left to do from your game against a deadline (such as GDC), and draw red flags if you won’t meet all your goals. Its should constantly reflect “the light at the end of the tunnel”, what you are working towards, the likeliness of your success and an approximate answer to “when”. A solid plan evolves and changes as you realize what you have left out (like localization) but if it reflects the essence of your game, it should act as a guideline regarding what must be done and what is a Nice to Have.

 

A solid plan needs constant work. Planning a project has a bad reputation, but it is a crucial work that can also be very creative and rewarding. A solid plan is what keeps your team together, its the boat you can rely on in this ever shifting ocean of game development, and that distant lighthouse you row towards.

 

“Pro” tip: PostIts have a way of falling from the wall and getting lost and Excel is not really a planning tool. The history of your solid plan will give you amazing insights about your team, the whys and hows of failure and success, so make it digital, collaborative and trackable.   

 

Launching is not the end – it’s Party Time!

You’re done. Everyone on your team agrees that you are ready to launch. You’ll sit together and push the red button. Time for rest now, right? Wrong!

 

Launch and post launch are the most important times when you must be there for your players. Watch the reactions, stay tuned for support, and be ready for a patch with bug fixes. Be everywhere, communicate with everyone and be approachable and open – you might just turn the angriest of your players into your biggest fans, if you are present and ready in that particular launch and immediately post launch time.

 

This is the moment when you set your game free so be ready to act and react. There is only one thing to be very worried about, and that is the lack of reaction – anything else, no matter how hurtful it may sound, is a Wonderful Thing, because it means people are playing your game and react to it.

 

So welcome everyone – its party time, you worked for ages to prepare this party and now it is time to entertain your guests! It’s probably stressful and intense for you, but the success of your party depends on how good your guests feel, right? If people look bored, spice up the atmosphere, change the music, ask them why and point them to the buffet and the drinks!

 

Whatever you do, be ready for this moment and make sure everyone in your team will be ready, too. Talk about negative feedback and how you should react internally (don’t be discouraged, feedback is a good thing!) and externally (be human, reach out, ask why and figure out what you can do to help). Do not dismiss negative feedback, because those are people trying to help you, communicate with you, and tell you what stresses them so you can improve your game. Capture every opportunity to thank for feedback and use that for internal strength, too. Be ready for work, and if your game has problems, let your players know your are working to fix them. Let them know that you value the money they spent and that you are working diligently to provide the value you promised. Good will will always generate good outcomes so love your players, especially those who seem the angriest.

 

“Pro” tip: Plan for discounts and “long tail ”- when will you offer discounts and how much, if you will include your game in bundles and when, if you will give it for free and in what occasions, and especially if you can perform work that prolongs the life of your game.  

 

Think about the why

I did say these are random gamedev tips of equal importance, but I think this tops them all.

 

If you have a team and make a game, think about why you are doing this. As Simon Sinek puts it, start with why.

 

Is the game your end goal? Or are you trying to build a company, a sustainable way for you and your team to survive and prosper by doing what you like? It’s OK if you aim for just one game, but if you aim for a company, contemplate your not-so-close future. Where do you want to be in 3 years, or 5? How much money do you need from your first released game to turn a profit? What backup plan do you have if your first game does not turn a profit? Do you think everyone in your team can stay together, motivated, even if you have discouraging sales?

 

Sinek said another thing that really stuck in my mind: a team is not a group of people that work together; it is a group of people that TRUST each other. And trust is a precious feeling, one that is so hard to build and so easy to break. Do you want to build long term trust as the foundation of a sustainable company?

 

Is this part one? Tell me if you want more 🙂