Game Development: What To Do When You Have No Idea What To Do

Game Development: What To Do When You Have No Idea What To Do

I was staring at my computer screen like a senile old man stares into space. I was clearly looking at something, yet my focus was not present. I was lost in my head, thoughts and ideas racing past me like a cat that just saw a cucumber.

I had no idea what to do.

I was in the middle of this massive project. So many pieces, so many things to do…yet I had no idea where to begin. It started out great. I just jumped in and worked on the fun parts. But all the fun parts were done, and now I was dealing with the aftermath of getting slapped in the face with the big fat fist of reality. My project was bigger than my head could handle at this point, and it was driving me psycho. My brain felt like it was ruining my life, like a deranged vault dweller with a Fatman.

This had to stop.

Coming back from that feeling was significantly harder than it sounds. It’s easy to dismiss the severity when you hear others talk about their feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s easy to tell them to just suck it up and get their shit together. But when you’re waist deep in the shit your brain throws at you, it is no walk in the park to escape.

As shitty as it was, going through the those feelings, not knowing what to do, and not knowing where to start helped me become a better person and a more well-rounded individual. Living in the trenches for a while has a huge benefit when you are a general later on. I managed to climb out of this horrible feeling, but I know it is not an easy subject for many. So when people ask me what to do when they have no idea what to do, this is what I tell them.



1) Take a second to breathe

First, just chill out dude. Seriously, if you feel anxious, overwhelmed, nervous, scared, whatever…just take a second to breathe.

If you’re not alone at the moment, get that way. Go to the bathroom if you have to. Once you’re alone, turn off your computer, your phone, your TV, your iPad, EVERYTHING. Just turn it all off and stop distracting yourself from the issue.

A big problem for me when I felt this way was that I was procrastinating. Or I was constantly distracting myself from my work because I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept jumping from social website to website, notification to notification.

Step one is always breathe. Clear your mind. Shut everything down and face the beast. Deal with your shit.

I promise you, in 20 minutes it will not feel as intimidating as it does now, you just have to trust the process.


2) Figure out what you’re trying to achieve

Once you’re free of distractions and you’ve had a second to yourself, focus on the thing you’re trying to achieve. The big picture. The thing you want to tell people about having completed.

If you’re new to game development, this might be actually figuring this game dev stuff out and finishing your first game. If you’ve been developing or coding for a while, you may just want to complete your current project. Or maybe you’re trying to figure out how in the hell you deal with indie game marketing. Think about what specifically you want to do and focus on the specifics of what you are trying to achieve.

For your first game, maybe you want to have it live on the app store…in that case you’re not focused on getting it done, but your focus is actually publishing the game.

If you’re working on your latest project, maybe its bigger and more complex than you thought…but don’t think about that. Focus on what ticks the goal checkbox. The action item that you’re trying to complete. Maybe that for you is a technical challenge.

The best kept game industry secret: no game designer ever actually considers their published games finished. They’re just “finished enough to publish”. So if you’re just thinking about finishing, life may take you for a ride and keep you in the Dev Cycle of Doom.

If you’re trying to figure out this whole indie game monetization thing and actually make money from your game, your focus should be something like making your first $100 from your project.

You need something concrete, tangible, and actionable. Something that is binary, either it is complete or it is not, and you can very clearly tell the difference.


3) Break it down, find the highest-impact chunk

Now that you’ve got that goal, that big thing that you want to complete, or do, or make, break it down.

If you’re trying to finish a game, this might be broken down into something like mechanics, level design, art, UI/menus, publishing, etc. If you’re trying to get players, you might break it down into marketing channels like forums, social media, bundles, etc. For monetization it might be ways that you can actually make money, for example, selling the game, ads, in-app purchases, etc.

Whatever the big picture is, you can break it down into component parts. Every big thing is made up of a bunch of smaller things.

Once you’ve gotten it broken down into categories, identify which one of those pieces, if complete, would make the biggest impact on the completion of the project.

For example, if you’re trying to publish your first game, getting the gameplay down might be more important than level design or UI. Those things can usually be added later with ease…but if you tackle level design first and then change the gameplay afterwards, that could be a problem. For marketing, you might identify which channel lets you reach the highest quantity of and most relevant eyeballs. For monetization you might choose which method, or which pieces of that method might help you reach your goal the fastest, like buying coins versus something like paying to remove ads.

Think about the impact of each piece of your game as a pie chart, which piece of that pie chart is the biggest? When missing, what part of that pie chart makes the game unplayable?



4) Make a list of action items required to complete it

So now that you know what you are trying to achieve, and you know the piece of it that will make the most impact to your project, you can get into all the fun little details. Now, you want to take out a sheet of paper and just start listing actionable things that you can do to move yourself toward that goal.


Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to listing action items:

  • Action items should be SPECIFIC. If you list something you can’t actively DO RIGHT NOW, you’re not listing them right. “Finish the game” is not an action item. “Modify player jump so that they can BARELY make the cliff jump in the game’s intro” is much better.
  • Action items should be SHORT. If the item on your list takes you more than an hour or two, you need to break it down into more pieces. For me, I find 20-30 minute pieces work best. You may have a longer or shorter attention span, find what works for you.
  • Action items should be BINARY. They are either complete or they are not, there is no room for debate. If you take your action item to a friend, and show them your project, they should be able to tell you a definitive yes or no on whether or not it is complete. “Get players for my game” is not binary. Because technically you and maybe your mom have already played it, that would mean you’re done right? Or does it? Instead pick something like “Get 10 people from the RPG Facebook group to play my RPG.” No one can argue with numbers, and there is no debate on how to mark that item off your list.

Just like everything else in life, you don’t always get this the first time, but breaking down tasks into action items is a skill that you need to learn over the long term. Even if you struggle with it now, keep at it, because it will come in handy many times over in life.


5) Start right now on list item #1

So now you have a list of things you can actively do. Start on #1.

DO NOT think about it. Don’t prioritize. Don’t try and change your list around. Don’t second guess if you did the whole process right, just start on number one and get it complete. Do not wait for the motivation, just do it.

See most of the time, feeling overwhelmed comes from too many options. It’s weird but in a world where you can do anything, most people end up doing nothing because they are paralyzed by choice. There are so many times where I have opened up Netflix with like a Pizza or something, and my Pizza is gone by the time I even pick a movie. *IF* I even pick a movie, sometimes I just quit after 20 minutes of shitty search. The problem isn’t lack of options, it’s TOO MANY OPTIONS. I’m overwhelmed with options, and instead of comparing a cool movie to no movie, I compare every movie to every other movie and that crashes my brain-powered CPU.

That’s why you don’t give yourself a choice, you just do. You pick the first item, and you do it. You put that Nike motto to work, it’s that simple.



If you still feel lost, pick something and do that

Even after an entire heading and multiple paragraphs on how you should not overthink things here and just pick the top thing on the list, there are some of us that will still sit here and overthink it. I know I’m crazy like that, I’ll know exactly what I should do, and still sit there and not do it. Don’t be me.

If for some reason you are having second guesses about your goal, your pieces, or your list, do yourself a favor.

Pick something.

If you are obsessing over which item to do, it doesn’t fucking matter. Just pick something and do it. Your state change as a result of you completing something will take care of everything beyond that. All you should be focusing on is simply moving forward and doing. You have the entire road map now. You have a list of action items you should work through, you know the chunks you should tackle next with your action list building skills. Those chunks are even in order by impact.

You have an entire road map sitting in front of you, do not hesitate whatsoever. If you have ANY DOUBT at all, any questions, anything, just pick something and go.

Here is a word of wisdom: It is MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE to pick and do the wrong thing, then to sit there and do nothing. The wrong decision is ALWAYS better than no decision. Pick something, do that.


Whatever you do, start now

Now this is the most important part of this whole post. The longer you sit and ponder, think, or obsess, the harder this gets. In fact, thinking and obsessing is what got you into this mess in the first place. And despite the popular saying, you cannot fight fire with fire, you just end up with a bigger fire.

Starting right now is the most important action you can take, not just to solve your problem now, but to be successful in life. Not doing anything, and thinking about all the stuff you have to do only amplifies the overwhelm. Do something, start now. Everything else falls into place after that.

Think about everyone that you admire in life. Maybe you admire your dad, or Steve Jobs, or Tony Robbins. I guarantee you that anyone you admire is a doer. And they succeed because they do stuff. The only way to get ahead is to move, so move. You don’t even have to take massive action, you just have to take the first step and don’t stop.

So take the first step, right now.


What’s got you overwhelmed? What was the piece you decided to focus on? List them below in the comments!


Tim Ruswick

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