Development Workflow – Chapter 5: Discipline & Demotivation

Can I start by asking a hard question? How many times have you started a project and lost interest at some point down the line? If you are anything like me, it’s more than you can count. I have hard drives filled with artwork, sketches, sprites, animations, music, sound effects, stories, plans and much much more that have never featured in a fully realized game fit for public release. If this is also the case with you, please don’t be ashamed or upset in any way. I would consider this practice a right of passage for the budding game developer. Only by failing multiple times can we learn and improve upon ourselves bit by bit and build on our personal knowledge to the point at which we can finally release our first finished game! 

Here is the thing though, I’m not talking about any old knowledge. I’m not talking about learning the in’s and out’s of coding in GB Studio, or the skills necessary to draw a great sprite or background or how to write a great piece of music or story. I’m talking about learning about yourself. About your own limitations as a person and about what works best for you when it comes to your own workflow.

I touched briefly on discipline in Chapter 3 – Prototyping your Game but  I’d like to explore this subject in greater detail as well as some additional mental challenges the development cycle never fails to throw at us. Specifically, we will be discussing the issues of self-discipline, de-motivation and one more thing I’ll save for the end. These are extremely important subjects; as the ways in which we approach these challenges will often mean the difference between completing or abandoning our projects. While learning about how you work as a person is largely a private journey, we can still explore strategies that will assist us with building self discipline and working through periods of de-motivation together.

Feeling Demotivated is Inevitable

Experiencing feelings of de-motivation is inevitable in all projects worth doing. That sweet honeymoon phase where you seem to have unlimited energy at your disposal will soon vanish and some aspect of the project will turn into work. Whether it’s some troublesome coding issue, or a tedious play-test session or otherwise, it’s just a fact. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can work on overcoming this problem. 

As I mentioned earlier, this is a personal journey. So I thought it best to list a whole lot of ways to get through a rut, a kind of shotgun approach if you will, and leave you to try out whatever you think may be applicable to your own sensibilities. What works for one person, may not work as well for another. Furthermore, what works for one person today, may not work for that same person tomorrow.

  1. Work for just 5 minutes, even if you limit yourself to making a single thing. Draw a single sprite, write a single line of code… anything! The simple act of starting may snowball into something positive and you will be back in the flow of it. But if not, don’t fret, you can try another five minute stint tomorrow. Which brings us to…
  2. Take a break! Sometimes I have burnt out from spending too much of my time on a single project. Working at a breakneck pace is unsustainable so don’t forget that some fresh air or switching to another project may be just the thing you need. 
  3. Play Some Games. Sometimes, all you need is to reignite the passion. Try playing some games of a similar genre to the one you are developing. At worst you will have a nice time enjoying a great game, at best you will find the creative juices flowing once more. You may even find yourself adding to your research document or naturally brainstorming ideas for your own game. In that case, you’re already back in development.
  4. Pivot your Idea. It can be depressing working on an aspect of a game that you feel uninspired by. Perhaps you were inspired at some point, but the realization that what you are building just isn’t as engaging as you initially hoped sets in. If that’s the case, admit it and begin re-focusing towards something that does excite you. Try to pivot your idea rather than scrap it entirely.
  5. Cut Content if you find yourself becoming burdened under time constraints or heavy work loads. Sometimes the perceived mountain of work in front of us may cause us to feel overwhelmed and push us towards procrastination. Lightening the workload or breaking it up into smaller, more manageable chunks may help to reduce this. Be utterly ruthless if you have to, you can always expand the scope of your project later if you are feeling confident enough. 
  6. Shift work to another aspect of Game Design. This will get your head into a new space and remove it from the space it was struggling with. If you are bashing your head against designing levels for example, switch to writing the story, do some artwork or even designing mechanics – then you can come back to level design with new ideas and the mental block may have disappeared.

Self-Discipline is a Learned Skill

No one is disciplined straight out of the gate. Of the dozens of games I have started, I have completed only a handful. It took me years (and years) to finally complete a game I was happy with and felt I had explored to the best of my ability. Like a game of Tetris, all I could see was my mistakes piling up. This is a counter productive way to look at it though. Instead, I realized that these failings were actually a road that would ultimately lead to success if I just kept trying. So here are a few ways to help you stay on that path to victory.

  1. Keep things small (at first). A small scope will make it easier to finish a project. As a beginner, starting with a large open world RPG for example, is simply too much to expect from yourself. You will learn far more by completing several bite sized games rather than one huge project – especially if that project is never completed. Slowly expand the scope of each project as your confidence in yourself and your ability grows.
  2. Enter Game Jams. By definition you will be completing small projects and releasing them for public consumption. This means you will be getting better at completing aspects of your games that you are not particularly motivated to do or are good at (at first). It’s easy to get stuck in to the artwork if that’s your main passion, it’s another thing to do all the coding or build levels and so on. Keep at it, the more projects you complete, the easier it is to work on what you consider to be the less interesting aspects of game design.
  3. Collaborate! If you really want to focus on a few aspects of game design (or even just one), then that’s fine too. Why not collaborate with others in that case? Working with other developers is also a great way to stay motivated because you can feed off each other’s enthusiasm.
  4. Take your time and plan. Pacing yourself and taking the time to properly plan will help break the development cycle into more manageable chunks. It’s easier to commit to work when you know you need to climb a hill that day, rather than a mountain.
  5. Explore other hobbies too. I remember a time when I couldn’t finish an oil painting no matter how many tiny canvases I started. It took patience and persistence to get to the point where I am now, and even then I am still trying to finish painting something larger than a couple of square feet. Setting goals outside of game development and completing them will go a long way no matter what you do – it’s all building on this one skill.
  6. Know when to quit. Ultimately, you don’t want to end up forcing yourself to do something you just plain don’t want to do. Do your best to understand your own limitations and what caused you to lose interest. But most importantly – don’t be too hard on yourself. If you need to move on from a project, then so be it.

The Developer Blues

The last thing I want to touch on in this article is something that we, as indie developers, struggle with perhaps the most. And that is what I’m going to call developer blues. It takes a lot of work, patience and perseverance to finish a game. And one of the most upsetting aspects of the indie developer struggle is seeing our hard work go unnoticed. Exposing our games to a general audience can be very difficult – particularly with something as niche as Game Boy development. We spend countless hours pouring our heart and soul into something we care deeply about and sometimes, no matter how hard we market ourselves and our projects, it can seem like a hopeless enterprise. I have had times when I cannot understand why my games aren’t getting the attention I believe they deserve, and I know others feel the same way. Even those who I feel have seen the most success and who produce the highest caliber of work in the Game Boy scene, they too experience the developer blues. It’s important to manage our mental health when developing gets us down, so I’d like to spend a moment discussing some strategies that will help when we are feeling depressed.

  1. Talk to other developers when you need support. Your struggle is shared by many, and I’m sure you can find some words of wisdom or good old positivity when you really need it on the GB Studio discord.
  2. Share the work of others. What better way to curb the blues than do something good for another developer. Why not sing the praises of someone you admire or someone who needs some exposure of their own. The indie scene doesn’t need to be a competition. We are all in this together!
  3. Stop counting numbers. Twitter points, itch analytics, dollar signs and all those sorts of things don’t matter in the end. All that matters is you are enjoying the process of Game Boy development and expressing yourself creatively. 
  4. Get flashy! It’s often best to share the more exciting aspects of your game. A great splash screen, or a single highly detailed cut-scene image (or GIF) will often grab the public’s attention more than a complex show of game play. Spending time on the more aesthetic aspects of game design is a great way to blow off steam as well.
  5. Manage your expectations. Above all else, this one is key. Your work is important and well worth doing. Under-exposure can hurt but be patient, and keep going. Eventually you can get there – especially if we offer support to our peers.

How we apply motivation and self-discipline strategies and even our attitude towards developer blues tend to crossover much of the time because they are all tied to the same issue. That is, understanding how we as an individual operate. The process of trying, failing and trying again is just a pathway to your very first finished game or, if you have already achieved that amazing feat, a pathway to that dream game you always wanted to make. In any case, it’s up to us, as individuals, to understand how we think, when to start, stop, keep going or slow down. Only then can we build on our mistakes and complete what we set out to achieve.

In the next Chapter, we will shift gears back into practical game development, and discuss how best to present visual information to the player – the subtle art of readability.

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