7 Of My Worst Game-Killing Assumptions, And What They Taught Me

7 Of My Worst Game-Killing Assumptions, And What They Taught Me

We’ve all heard the age old philosophy that if you learn from your mistake, it isn’t really a mistake. But what if you don’t learn from it? What if you continue on doing it because you thought it was the right thing to do, and no one told you otherwise? If everyone else is doing it, can it still be a major mistake?

Nobody likes making mistakes. And worse, most people are very resistant to changing their ways when they find out they’ve made one. But hopefully, if you’re reading this, you’re not one of those people. My goal with this article is that you can read some of the things listed here, and reflect on your development. Hopefully, you can learn from your mistakes and change your behavior to become the ultimate developer that I know is inside of you.

So here are 7 of my worst game-killing assumptions, and what they taught me.

 

#1 – No feedback is valid

Sometimes, I can be really egotistical. Like sometimes I will have a conversation with someone and just think to myself “This person has no idea what they are talking about and nothing they say is valid”. I label them as a dumb ass in my brain, and I put them into the auto-ignore category. Yeah, I’m an asshole.

And sure there are some people that really do deserve that label and the up front dismissal. Their are some shitty people out there. But for the most part, I’ve found that this is a very damaging thing for me, and my ego and high confidence in my knowledge can lead to some very humbling moments. I’ve had to work very hard to consciously try and really, truly listen to people when they try to talk to me about things. Especially when those things are one of my creations.

When I first started making games, I thought that I was such a brilliant dude that I didn’t really need anyone’s feedback at all. Maybe that was a defense mechanism at the time to prevent me from facing possible rejection. Or maybe I really did have a high-horse problem and just thought I was better than anyone else. Either way, my lack of interest in feedback led to me making some really shitty games with obvious mistakes. And when someone would give me unsolicited feedback, I would double down against them and defend my decision rather than humble myself and admit that they might be right.

Don’t be me! If someone gives you feedback, try to listen to them and separate what they are saying from any emotional connection you have with the work. That’s hard, I know, but great games are the result of multiple minds. Even if you’re a solo developer you still need other people to see the things you cant see. Also keep in mind that this works best with strangers, as friends and family often have no idea about development, they have an opinion about you, and they have an ulterior motive (such as making you feel good, or in bad situations, the opposite). This can lead to some bad results, so stick to people that have no additional intentions other than to legitimately give you feedback. It’s better, and it’s easier to take. Finding a development buddy to trade feedback and testing is also something that has worked really well for me. Try it!

 

#2 – All feedback is valid

After my super ego phase, I went through a period of quite the opposite: questioning everything I thought I knew. I know this sounds weird, but for a while I decided to just listen to other people. Everything I was doing wasn’t working, so I figured that for whatever reason, other people might have the answer. I spent months just getting pulled in various directions because other people thought I should head in them.

I remember one game I made specifically. It was the first platformer I had ever made, and I was inspired by the old SEGA Sonic: The Hedgehog games. I wanted to make a game similar so I set the character speed extremely high. I knew it was high, I specifically made it that way. And the first piece of feedback I got was that the character moved way too fast. And the second. And the third. The vast majority of feedback that I got told me that this character moved to fast. So I slowed it down.

But then something weird happened. Everyone immediately had different opinions. One guy told me it was too slow. One guy told me to make it slower. And one guy literally never talked to me again. WTF dude?

Now sure one right answer might be to slow the character down. I could have made a great but different game with a slower character. But in game development there is never only one right answer. I wanted to make a game like Sonic: The Hedgehog, so I should have taken the character speed feedback to mean that for whatever reason, my game wasn’t built correctly around my core mechanic. It was likely a camera issue not showing enough of the upcoming obstacles, or a level design issue not being set up properly for the high speed. The point is, I ended up with a game I hated and not remotely what I wanted because I thought all feedback was valid, and I tried to listen to everyone. That game will never see the light of day because I didn’t listen to myself enough.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. If you artistically disagree with someone’s feedback, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re an ego maniac like me. But it is your duty to make sure that you are being as objective as possible, and that you are going against that piece of feedback because you really, truly believe that it would impact the game negatively…not because you worked really hard on that mini-map that they say sucks, or it took you 4 days to write the code for that feature they don’t like. A good way to get great feedback by the way is to simply not ask for any. Watch people play your game silently, don’t tell them anything and don’t ask questions…just watch what they do. If you can have them narrate their inner thoughts as they play (YouTubers and streamers are GREAT at this), then that’s even better.

 

#3 – Finishing a game is easy

By far the biggest incorrect assumption I ever made was that it was going to be easy to finish a game. I swear on the helmet of Spartan 117 that for whatever reason, finishing my first game was the hardest thing I ever did. And to be honest I don’t really know why. I think because of my upbringing, sharing a completed piece of my soul with others to be openly judged never subconsciously seemed like a good idea, and finishing would mean the judging would commence. Maybe the people around me just always quit at 80% and so I picked that up as a habit. Either way, it was ridiculously unpredictably hard.

Technically, there are a LOT of things you have to do to actually finish. For example I completed my first game after 10 YEARS of abandoned projects…and after all of those thousands of hours of development, I had never actually made a main menu. I never made an in-game pause menu ( or a pause system…HOW THE HELL DO YOU BUILD A PAUSE SYSTEM?!). I had never built a save/load system. I had never built an APK for Android, or went through the ridiculously frustrating and utterly stupid Apple publishing and review process for the App Store (and had to “rent” a mac in the cloud to pull that off). All of those things and so many others will come up in the last 20% of game development.

And it turns out that they last 20% is actually the last 80%.

You have to be prepared for that last epic mountain you have to conquer before the celebration. You also have to be prepared for the boring, grueling and unrewarding work that comes at the end of development. The shit is boring AS HELL, and is the farthest thing from fun you can imagine, but it is part of the process.

Mentally, it was even harder. There’s something about piles of unrewarding and boring work that just doesn’t excite or motivate me. Like I mentioned, it could have been my upbringing or it could have been fear of rejection holding me back…but for some reason I was unable to get past that roadblock for YEARS…until I decided to do it and ended up pulling it off in 2 weeks. It’s crazy but mental barriers, as imaginary as they seem, are very physically capable of stopping you if you let them. It takes major dedication and relentless obsession to get through that phase as a solo developer. Teams help a lot, but the dynamic is just as real.

Learn from my mistakes here, and prepare yourself. If you’ve never completed a game before, anticipate a large load of unrewarding work that has to be completed. Anticipate the cycle of ups and downs you will experience. You can be having the best development day ever and the worst most depressing one will follow it. Game development, especially solo dev is one big manic depressive high and low cycle that is all too common. Just know that you are not alone. If you’re feeling down, tweet me! I’ll try to send you 140 characters of encouragement because I’ve been there and I wish I would’ve had someone to tweet to.

 

#4 – Launching a crowdfunding campaign is marketing

I remember when Kickstarter first started, I would visit the site daily and tickle myself with amusement at how many games were making thousands of dollars.

“Hey! Here’s the game I wanna make! Give me thousands!”

Yeah I thought that’s what they were doing and I thought that it was that easy.

From the outside it looks that easy. I was so confident in fact that I actually convinced a client of mine at the time to do a Kickstarter campaign, and I would help them with it. I did a ton of research, I talked to what seemed like hundreds of people. My partner did the video with a cute little story and intro. I helped everywhere I could , so proud to be a part of something successful.

And then we launched. Piece of cake right?

But as I know now, from the outside everything always looks easy. And I don’t think I have to tell you that the campaign failed miserably. We lost the trust of the client, and we destroyed the potential launch of an awesome product, and I shattered my own self confidence. I started to question everything because I was so 100% positive that we would be successful I was blind to all of the things that stopped us from making it.

I thought that when you put up a Kickstarter campaign, Kickstarter we could get a ton of exposure. People would share it everywhere on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. And even if we failed the campaign, a lot of people would still hear about us!!! But that is not at all how to works. Little did I know…I was responsible for the promotion. Kickstarter only promotes you when what you have is exceptional and there is already a good chance that your campaign will succeed in the first place. If they don’t think it would work, they won’t promote you. They’re a money-making company, remember? They’re in it for the cash.

What the hell was I thinking? Of course you need your own audience. Kickstarter isn’t a magic money-making machine for people with ideas. It is a Kick-starting platform for capable entrepreneurs. And part of a capable entrepreneur skill set is marketing…actually getting people to see the things they create. No matter how you see it…if you likely couldn’t make that money on your own, you likely can’t make it on Kickstarter. Remember that. I learned it the hard way…with someone else trusting me and me letting them down.

 

#5 – Game portals send you gamers

When I clicked the “Publish” button in the Google Play Developer Console for the first time, I was so excited. Google told me that it would take a few hours for my game to go live, but that didn’t stop me from constantly refreshing the search on my phone and the analytics in the console. I was prepared for Flappy Bird-level success. I even had a plan on how I would handle all of the support emails when people started emailing me in mass. I was prepared for a million downloads at least.

What I wasn’t prepared for, was zero downloads.

And as a dude that built and sold a marketing company and made well over 7 figures for clients…this is obvious to me now. It wasn’t then. I was confused as shit. And it hit me deep too. Straight to my self worth. If no one wants to play my game, then my game is worthless. If my art is worthless, than I must be worthless. Geez….It’s embarrassing to even talk about, but that’s how I felt.

In reality game portals are very similar to Kickstarter in the sense that they only promote the things that help them look good or make sales. If your game is the first to use a platform-specific feature, they’ll be more likely to feature it. If your game is selling really well, it is a lot more likely to get featured and continue selling well.  Game portals like Steam, Google Play, and the App Store all take a percentage of your game’s sale, which means they are invested in your success. But that doesn’t mean that they will make you successful. As a company, it makes much more sense for them to promote Clash of Clans for example, because that game is making  $300,000/day. What are you making them? Probably much less.

When I came to this conclusion I realized that like Kickstarter, I was responsible for my own traffic. And I was responsible for getting people to see and buy my game. Me and only me. Not Google, not my game, not the Indie Game Developers Facebook group…just me and me alone. Publishing was not promotion, and my game was a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. It is my responsibility to let people know that I exist.

 

#6 – Developers are your target market

Holy shit this one hit hard. So the second I realized that Google Play wasn’t going to sell my game for me, I panicked. I had to get people to see it. I racked my brain and tried to figure out how the hell I was going to get people to see my game. This game that I was so proud of deserved to be seen, and I had done it a massive disservice by overestimating my reach when I published.

My first instinct? Share it to all the game developer Facebook groups and subreddits I could find. I even posted about it on a few of the developer forums I frequented for good measure.

And I was pretty proud of myself at that point. The groups I shared it to had over 100k people combined…and the subreddits always had hundreds of people looking at them. I couldn’t go wrong. After all this is how games go viral right?

Dude was I wrong. I couldn’t have been wronger (If that’s even a word?).

You know how many likes I got? 6.

You know how many developers downloaded my game? 2.

What I realized then, and I hope you know by now…is that game developers are not your target market. Game developers may be your support system, they may be there when you need help with math that hurts your brain, a few of them may even play your game and like it. But game developers ARE NOT your target market. The slim margin of game developers that actually download or buy your game didn’t do so because they are game developers, they did so because they are gamers interested in your genre. I found out the hard way that it is a lot easier and much more effective to skip the middle man and get your game in front of large groups of gamers interested in your genre. The return on investment for promoting your game to developers is not worth it for the vast majority of games.

This is one of those things that can be a little bit hard to understand at first but look at it like this: If you posted an epic RPG on an RPG lovers forum, what kind of reaction do you think it would get versus posting it on a general developer forum? If you posted a cool new puzzle game in a community of puzzle fanatics, how do you think that would do over something like /r/GameDev? Assuming you can just post your game in developer communities and make enough money to stay afloat afterward is like jumping off a 3 story building and expecting to walk away right after. Is there at least a slim chance you can? Probably, in some version of this infinite universe. But does that make it a good idea? Turns out the key to marketing is RELEVANCE. It’s connecting the right message/product with the right person/people. Game developers may seem like a good choice because you know how to get your stuff in front of large groups of them, but you need to train yourself to get your stuff in front of large groups of gamers interested in your genre. THAT’S the secret, and THAT’s how you do marketing right. Don’t be like me and do it all wrong.

 

#7 – Launch day is game over

Ahhhhhh I hate to even write this. It brings up my cringe-worthy memories of the days I dreamed about clicking “publish” on a game, leaning back in my chair with a sly grin, and watching my bank account grow by the second. It makes me remember publishing a game and getting so much of a sense of accomplishment that I just moved on to the next one assuming I had a runaway hit. And worst of all, it brings back the feeling of being such a worthless, incapable human being that I wanted to hide from the world when I launched my heart and soul on the internet and not a single member of my species thought it was worth $0.99.

Yes, at one point in time, I believed launch day was game over. I thought that if I could just get past that damn finish line that everything would be good. I thought finishing a game was so damn hard that it HAD to be all down hill from there. And I thought that if you failed on launch day, your game failed, and you were doomed forever.

Again, maybe I’m just a little crazy. Maybe my psychological issues are just a little bit deeper than most of my fellow developers…but I’d be willing to bet everyone has an imaginary fountain of youth in their life. Something that they lump into the “IF I CAN JUST ________ THEN EVERYTHING WILL BE OK” category. For a lot of people, it’s getting rich or famous or something. For me, it was launching a game.

But launch day came and went.

I realized first that NOTHING in life makes everything OK. And only SOME things make SOME things OK. Second, I realized that the real work, the stuff that makes or breaks a game or developer’s success long term, happens after launch.

Launch day is absolutely the most important day when it comes to marketing, and you should absolutely build a community while you build the game and build hype culminating at a launch. But that doesn’t mean that you ignore everything else, or that if you don’t have a successful launch you won’t have a successful game. One of the lessons that I think only time can teach you is that people will discover you at their own pace. Marketing efforts aim to accelerate that discovery sure, but you can’t reach all of your customers all of the time. And a customer 2 years from now may not necessarily be a customer now.

Don’t be like me and assume all of your sales come from day 1, then abandon your project after it disappoints you. Anything that goes on the internet is there forever. You have to keep in mind that if you want to be a successful at the business of making independent games, you have to look at this business long term. You have to understand that when you put a game for sale, it is live and for sale for the next several YEARS until you take it down. You are building assets for sale, and if you can maintain sales over the longer term, you can do much better than the guys that go viral or nail the launch.

Speaking of thinking long term, I don’t just mean to look at the sales of a single game long term. I mean that if you look at game development as a business, everything becomes long term. I mean that you can also improve the game over the long term and make it better and more attractive to buyers. I also mean that you should think beyond completing a single game, and look at this like a business with multiple products. The 80/20 rule says that 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your activity, and I’ve found this to be true in many aspects of game development. And with that philosophy and some basic math, you would have to make 5 games before you see one do really well.

Can your 80% come from game #1 or #2? Sure. But there are so many things you learn by shipping. There are so many things in polish, completion, motivation, support, marketing, monetization, and countless other subjects that you learn by just going through the process of completing, publishing, and trying to sell or monetize a game.

Launch day is not game over. Launch day is day one of your game’s life. Throw it a birthday party, but get back to work and grow it into something awesome. Maybe make it a sibling or two.

 

Conclusion

I’ve learned a few things over the years. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and a lot of assumptions that were way off base. I hope You’ve learned a few things. I hope that building a game is art just as much as science, and you have to get good at receiving and rejecting feedback at the right times. You’ve got to learn that finishing a game is hard and it is up to you to acquire the skills to work past the lows and make the highs last as long as you can. You have to learn that starting a Kickstarter doesn’t get you exposure, and it can actually hurt how people receive your game if you fail. No matter what, it is up to you to build an audience and get eyeballs on your game…no one will gift them to you and it will never be easy.

I hope that I was able to convey the fact that while fellow developers may play your game, it doesn’t really make sense to promote to them and think you’ll do well. And lastly, I hope that you leave this post ready to give your game the post-launch time and effort it needs to blossom into something amazing.

I really hope I was able to help you just a little bit with this post. Some of this stuff kept me going in circles for YEARS before I realized some of these mistakes, and I hope I was able to help you along, even if only a tiny bit.

 

I’ve shared mine, what do you think was *YOUR* worst game-killing assumption? PLEASE share it below in the comments! I want to hear from you.

Tim Ruswick

Tim Ruswick is the founder of Game Dev Underground and the author of the Game-Maker's Manifesto.

  • Gradir

    Where is the link to the game! 😉

  • Krajcáros

    Man, what a great article. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    • Thanks for the comment! Hope it helped 🙂

  • Paulo Sousa

    Tim, the cooliest thing is how all these situations are similar to a startup. Certainly there are a lot of startups cases which could be applied too.