INDIE GAME DEV: INDIE ARCHETYPES
I've created a few fictional indie developer archetypes to help devs identify ways that they can get better at finishing games.
I've created a few fictional indie developer archetypes to help devs identify ways that they can get better at finishing games.
Trying to finish a video game. (Image: The NeverEnding Story)
When you're starting out, it's easy to think about game development as only the skills required to create the game, like art, music, writing, or programming. As an indie game developer, you might have all those skills yourself! But finishing a video game, especially a commercial title, requires more than that - aside from the very smallest game projects, most are grueling ultramarathons with lots of unexpected twists and turns. Sure you can do pixel art and code... but can you do pixel art and code on the same project for multiple years even though you thought it would only take 6 months?
If you can reach the finish line, you'll learn a lot about yourself and your limits, especially in areas you might not be familiar with, like scoping and project management. But releasing even one video game is hard and most devs will find themselves stuck at some point, either in one long, neverending project or a pile of unfinished prototypes. Such is the nature of creating artwork that has very few natural limits to it. So what do you do if you're in a situation where you'd really like to release a video game and you're having trouble with it?
It's a complex problem and the solution can be multi-faceted and personal. Identifying where you're having the most trouble is always a good first step. Most likely, other developers have encountered similar challenges and figured out some techniques for overcoming them.
What I've done below is taken some situations where I see indie developers get stuck a lot and created some fictional indie dev archetypes out of them. Archetypes are easy to identify with and my hope is that interested devs will be able to recognize their own struggles in them. These are struggles that I think experienced developers can also relate with, but have already identified and overcome with personal strategies.
While reading this article, you may find that you identify strongly with one archetype or another - keep in mind, though, that they are 1. entirely fictional and 2. designed through the relatively narrow lens of finishing an indie game project. So use these archetypes only as a tool to think about improving your skills in that sense. Developers who are already happy with their own progress should just keep doing what they're doing!
Our first archetype is the Daydreamer! The Daydreamer has ideas, lots and lots of ideas... and enthusiasm, too... but they aren't quite sure how to turn them into reality. Their ideas "live" in notebooks, text files, or other documents. They may revolve around a singular fantasy universe that has gradually accumulated more and more detail over the years. Since Daydreamers don't have a lot of practical development experience, their game designs tend to be either grandiose and meandering, or based around a lot of high concept ideas that are hard to systemize. If a Daydreamer decides that to limit themselves to a word processor, they may become a dreaded Idea Person, stalking the internet for unwitting artists and programmers to make their dreams come true. These projects very often fall apart at the seams because Idea People do not understand the practical aspects of game development and lack the discipline to rein in their ideas when necessary. Also, artists and programmers with the requisite experience to finish a big project have almost certainly learned to avoid Idea People over the years.
Note that someone who has shipped titles successfully on a team may still be a Daydreamer, and once they leave that structured environment they may struggle, having taken for granted their teammates or their budgets.
That enthusiasm for world-building inspires others. If they can embrace the practical part of game development and surround themselves with pragmatic people who can rein them in when necessary, they can drive the creation of great games. If Daydreamers learn some technical skills and are willing to get their hands dirty it will help them understand how challenging game development is and make them better partners.
Overscoping, Feature Creep
The Inventor loves building nice-looking prototypes because they're enamored with the thrill of new ideas, but they quickly lose interest once they have to expand on the idea by creating content. At some point in any game project, the game more or less knows what it's meant to be and the majority of the remaining work is just executing on that vision by making lots of stuff - that's the point where Inventors get bored and hear the siren call of something new.
To be fair, not many people love that middle part of development, which I like to call the Swamp. It's a place where you tend to get the least amount of mental reward for your work. In the beginning, every day brings new innovations. It's like the Big Bang: you start with nothing, an empty universe, and before long there is life... moving, colliding, interacting, etc. The first iteration of a new mechanic is full of promise and is fun to play around with.
And skipping far forward, to the very end, there's a "Golden Hour" period where all of a sudden, everything comes together to become a finished game. That's when small changes hook together massive systems in a very satisfying way. That vast midsection, though? When you're in it, your most recent memory is the excitement of the first phase, now gone, and the finish line is imperceptibly far into the future. The slog has begun. And not surprisingly, it's a very easy place to give up and start a new project (or restart the same project over and over again).
Inventors tend to front-load projects and start polishing very early on. Most likely they have a lot of very nice-looking prototypes, first levels, and/or "test arenas" laying around. My recommendation is to save more of the psychological rewards for later - instead of eating all of your metaphorical candy in the beginning, parcel it out as treats to help you get across the Swamp. In other words, focus on creating an outline or rough draft of the entire game as quickly as possible (in gamedev parlance, this could be called an "alpha"), taking breaks periodically to polish, experiment with mechanics, etc.
The Burrower is called such because they love burrowing deep into a challenging technical problem, forgetting about (or ignoring) the bigger picture. Coders are susceptible to this, because in code it's very easy to find hard problems that never feel adequately solved. Text boxes, for example, are a tempting "hole" for a Burrower to dig into, because they're surprisingly tricky and offer lots of opportunities to explode in complexity. It starts with spending a little extra time getting the text to display character-by-character and break properly between words... before long, the Burrower is working on their own scripting language (with its own unique name) that allows text to appear with different fonts, colors, speeds, etc. It's not uncommon to see unfinished games that have only one or two levels in them but extremely nice text boxes!
A lot of this work is justified by Burrowers as a way to speed up development in the future. "If I write my own bespoke system for handling this," the Burrower thinks, "it will save me much more time later on!" Unfortunately, such systems tend to increase the overall scope of the game, so while time might be saved, extra work is also created. A fancy tool may enable faster creation, but it also adds the expectation that what's created has to be more complex. And this spreads to other parts of the game that now have to keep up.
Burrowers may also plan for their fancy system or tool to be reused in future games or by other game developers who are trying to do something similar. This rarely pans out, however - their tools are too specific and personal for other skilled programmers (who enjoy writing their own bespoke tools!) and too complex for beginners and generalists. But regardless, whether code can be reused in the future is mostly moot if it can't be used in the first place.
Pixel artists can also find themselves drawn to burrowing, because pixel art is arguably the visual artform that is most like code, with its grid structure and its "rules". The combination of creativity and strict rules is what makes writing code and making pixel art fun... these activities offer limitless amounts of optimization. In that sense, it's like playing video games - without discipline, you can easily find yourself engaging with them longer than you'd like.
A Burrower's path is probably similar to an Inventor's in that they'll need to save some of the fun work for later and focus on reaching a rough draft, alpha version of the game as quickly as possible. The phrase "good enough" can be really useful tool for Burrowers, because they have a hard time letting a problem go unsolved, even temporarily. They find aesthetic beauty in good solutions as if they were paintings... as they should! But for the sake of the project as a whole, some compromises need to be made behind-the-scenes.
Rabbit Holes, Death Loops (Polishing)
The Wanderer would love to be a professional game developer, but they have trouble finding creative inspiration outside of being a fan of games. They probably don't have a strong, singular skill or focused interest to lean on yet, and even though they've heard many times to start somewhere (anywhere!) and build something small, they're still searching for a magic bullet that will make everything easier for them. So instead of working on their projects, they can be found asking experienced developers lots of questions about what's the "best" way to do things, hoping that they'll be able to move forward once they have the best of everything... when really, the issue is deeper and more personal. Because the "best" tools, algorithms, etc. are the ones that get the job done, and what gets the job done depends very much on the person using them.
It's hard for Wanderers to find the motivation to overcome the many obstacles that make game development so challenging. Daydreamers, Inventors, and Burrowers have trouble finishing games, too, but at least each of those archetypes has one or two things that they really love about it that they can lean on.
A lack of motivation is common, but it's also hard to diagnose. It's possible that the basic, day-to-day work of game development simply isn't fun for the Wanderer, in which case, maybe being an indie game dev isn't the right career path for them. But maybe they're just setting their expectations too high or unfairly comparing their own work to their favorite games. Maybe they're too tired, stressed, or anxious to feel motivated when they have free time to work on their own games. Whatever the issue is, it rarely hurts to scale back on project scope and focus on personal growth as you figure it out. Asking questions is great, of course, but they're not a replacement for practical experience. The questions that Wanderers should be asking more of shouldn't be to other developers about tools or specialized techniques, but to themselves about what inspires them and how they can feel proud of their own progress, no matter how big or small the final product is.
Waiting for Inspiration to Randomly Strike
What does someone who is good at finishing look like? The thing is, like any other skill, you get better at finishing games the more of them you finish. That's one reason why experienced game developers always say, "Start small, start small, start small..." It's important to see the entire process through so that you understand the unique challenges at each stage of the project. Climbing the first 100 feet of a mountain over and over again won't prepare you for the summit... the key is to start by summiting a boulder, then a bigger boulder, then maybe a hill, etc. Finishing a game is a success in and of itself - it feels good, and the memory of that good feeling will help you move forward in the middle of development, after the initial excitement of starting the project has worn off. Make that memory for yourself as quickly and as early as possible.
Finishing as a skill overlaps a lot with project management as a skill. It involves looking at the bigger picture and keeping track of things like scope, scheduling, and budgeting. It can easily be an entire job on its own, so don't feel bad if you're struggling with it - we all do! In the course of figuring out what you enjoy most and least about making games, you may find that you would rather finish a game with someone else who has a high aptitude for finishing... someone who can push you forward when you need a push and watch the project from a higher vantage point. There's definitely nothing wrong with that. Most games involve teamwork.
Also, there's no such thing as finishing a game for the sake of finishing one. Games are art and entertainment. A good game will need some of the Daydreamer's inspired world-building, the Inventor's willingness to experiment with new ideas, and the Burrower's excitement for solving tough problems. So while the other archetypes may have trouble finishing games, they're also the creative heart and soul of them. I put extra emphasis on finishing as a skill, however, because in the indie game community, it seems like it's in shorter supply. Maybe because it's the nature of creatives to struggle with finding an end to creating.
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