Hallo, my name ist Andail!1
I've got many a crappy game under my belt, so I thought it was high time to make something less crappy. As some of you may or may not know (or not care about), I'm a bit of a jack of all trades, which is a nice way of saying I don't excel at anything. But I've always been dependant on having a creative project to work on, be it music, art or writing, or building my own replica of a Mongol horsebow. Yeah I'm just all over the place.
This summer my significantly better half is away in Africa, so I have only myself to care about. High five! (Just kidding, honeybird.) So I activated warp drive and started producing.
Here are some advice I've compiled during my journey so far. Don't you just hate when people use the word "journey" figuratively like that? I sure do.
Before we start, let's make clear that these tips are for those of you who tend to get stuck and abandon your projects, not for people like Ben who spit out games like some kind of game-spitting Pez toy.
1. Divide your games into chapters. Not real chapters, idiot, imaginary! Of course, if it's meant to have real chapters, then fine. But even those chapters may need to be split up further. Point is, make sure you've got a limited amount of game-time to focus on at any given time. Then decide how much you will spend on that imaginary (or real) chapter. This is also a great way to test if you can meet your deadline.
Make the game playable, and beatable, up until that point. Just focus on getting all the puzzles solvable, the jokes enjoyable and the walkable areas walkable. Most graphics can be placeholders, except that the backgrounds should be at least so finished you won't have to draw new masks for the finished versions. Then when this chapter is playable, you can go back and touch up the graphics and add hot-spot responses and that kind of crap. This way you will always have a clear, tangiable goal in sight.
Without these mental milestones, you will inevitably feel like you're lost in a big thick jungle of tasks and problems, with no light in sight.
2. Set up a conveyor-belt kind of production, where you work on several things parallel. For instance, my process of making backgrounds starts with modelling them very crudely in a 3D-program, to get perspective and stuff right (and to experiment with angles and view-points etc). Then I paint them over in PS using my tablet, with rather big, transparent brushes. Lastly I re-size them to the proper size (320x240 in my case) and start touching up the details with tiny brushes.
However, I usually start up three or four models at the same time in the 3D-program and prepare them side by side. Then during the next phase, I work on all of them parallel. And then I touch them up, side by side, again. The advantages of this are:
* You work more efficiently if you're already in the zone, so to speak. The software is started up, you're quick with the controls, you have the short-keys fresh in your mind, the custom-brushes imported, the page with textures that you're gonna steal opened, etc.
* The artwork will be more consistent. If you create every background from scratch, one week apart, chances are they'll differ unpleasantly in style.
* You won't get bored or stuck as easily. Tired of drawing that old barn? Just jump to the interior-shot of the harpoon factory!
3. Don't over-plan your game. This goes especially for you amateurs out there. Yes, you! J/K. Design documents and mind maps are nifty and pretty to look at, but they kind of require you to hatch all those great ideas one after one in a steady stream of ideas. Designing puzzles demand a ridiculous amount of lateral thinking, and sometimes you just have to rely on serendipity. Sometimes heaven just gives you the perfect idea as a little token of goodwill, but that never happens while you're staring at an empty design document and so desperately need it; it happens when you're doing something else, like pushing pixels on that wondrous unicorn, or taking a shower. That's why whole areas of your design document must be blank, to accommodate for these sudden flashes of inspiration.
Secondly, imagine you have that huge, highly polished design document in front of you, all done. It's all there in ink, twentyeight pages of ingenious dialogues, brilliant puzzle layouts and hotspot-descriptions so spot-on it's almost silly, in classy Garamond size 11 and even an index page. Now grab the mouse and decide where to put the very first pixel on the very first frame of the very first character walk cycle. Feel the angst building up inside? See the mountain ahead of you? Get it that from now on, all the creating is about realizing what you've already designed?
Better idea: Unless you're Dave Gilbert and your brain has the precision and discipline of a Korean military parade, just make a rough sketch of your game, then plan each chapter more in-depth as you go along. It'll be more fun, and you won't feel the immense burden of your own plans weighing you down.
4. Inspiration. This point has more to do with working creatively in general. "I'm not inspired today," I hear someone think, "I think I'll just play Skyrim for thirty hours and check my facebook account repeatedly." Young man! If you have decided to create something, waiting for the right inspiration is comparable to a postman waiting for the right wind to deliver all the letters for him. A seventy-year-old millionaire living in Provence might get away with waiting for inspiration; the rest of us just work.
If you have set aside some days to work on your project -- or like me, an entire summer -- make sure to establish routines, or your brain will turn into slush. I never turn on the computer first thing I do in the morning. I have to properly "start" the day first; I make the bed, open the blinds, eat a proper breakfast, I go to the gym and work out. Then at noon I return to the compputer with a cup of coffee and I enter my zone.
5. Go away from the computer. This is actually a continuation of point 4, but point 4 was getting lengthy. Go out and get impressions! Most of my ideas come when I go for walks, or drink coffee in cafes and just look at people.
Ideas aren't Urukhais, you can't just pull one out of a big hatching pod whenever you need it. Ideas are the result of mixing random new input with old thoughts. Both poets and artists sometimes just throw words or paint in a big jumbled mess and then start trying to discern shapes and patterns, and from this awesome new things are created.
6. Finish something! Yes, you have sixteen awesome projects going on, all with mind-blowing animations and puzzles so clever they're almost sentient, but none of them are finished, and thus they are as useful as an umbrella made of magnesium. Meanwhile, your untalented hack of a baby-brother has released his first game "The revenge of the return of the light sabre", consisting of four rooms and a dozen frames worth of animations, but his game is fully playable, and people can enjoy it, and people pat him on his shoulder and tell him to keep it up, and he's learned a ton now, and he's really happy and goes on to make a sequel right away, "The next revenge of the..." yeah you get the picture.
Finishing songs means you can put them on Myspace and let people hear them. Finishing paintings means you can put them on Deviant art and let people behold them. Finishing stories mean you can have a collection of finished stories with your name on them. And that is awesome.
Now feel free to share with us your best advice!
1: Mods' impression of me.