I used to dream about how one day I would be able to make a game like Halo. I remember when I got my first computer out of the dumpster (yes, I was that dedicated!) and plugged it in at home, excited to start building my version of one of the best games of all time. I downloaded Blender 3D, I searched around for tutorials, and I began making the model of a cyborg super soldier that would be my master chief.
But I got discouraged almost immediately. This shit was hard, and my cyborg looked more like Awesomeo from South Park than anything bad ass like I had imagined. As I kept trying to make something epic and awesome to show my friends I got more and more upset. I wasn’t able to make the things I could imagine in my head, and it was getting to me. I saw these amazing worlds and awesome creatures in Halo and I wanted to make something just like that.
It took me YEARS to realize this, but I was not capable of building the game I wanted at that time.
I felt like a failure because I couldn’t make the next Halo
Yeah. It’s true. I remember actually getting slightly depressed because I had this epic sci-fi adventure all planned out in my head. I had entire notebooks full of level designs and character concepts. I even paid a concept artist to draw my main character for me and I framed it and hung it up on my wall. But no matter what I tried I could not bring that vision to life.
It didn’t matter to me that Halo costs millions of dollars and took 100+ dudes several years to make. Who cares? What mattered is I FAILED, and I suck at game dev. Maybe I should just quit and go try something else.
But in the middle of feeling sorry for myself, I started to get involved in online communities passionate about making games, and I started to see all of these tiny little projects. I also realized that I had fallen into the cliche trap that most indies make when they start out…they try to make the biggest most epic game they can think of. Once I realized that, I decided to focus on smaller projects.
So I put my AAA idea on the shelf and focused on mini-games
At first they weren’t even real games. Like, I focused on just getting a cube to spin. Or I tried to make a triangle follow the mouse. Super basic stuff. I started focusing on the process and learning a series of iterative skills. Things that would help me make games in the future.
I began work on some smaller little pieces of games. Almost like vertical slices of individual ideas I had. This taught me SO MUCH I didn’t even know I needed to know. Just the act of making alone is one of the best teachers out there. Sure it helps to read books or watch YouTube videos. But actually making the thing in your head will always teach you so much more on your development journey.
I never forgot about my AAA idea. I still have the domain name. I still think about it every once in a while. But I kept at my small little projects, each one building on the last. These little pieces of code started to turn into more complete projects as I progressed. And even though I got lost in the business world for a few years, I finally would complete my first game.
I spent 10 years on and off making prototypes before actually finishing my first game
I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I never started my marketing company and worked on my game development instead. I don’t regret anything because marketing is a fantastic skill, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. We we’re also a digital marketing company, so I built quite a few web platforms and applications in that time and learned a lot. But I still wonder.
My first game was actually super easy to finish. It was almost no effort at all. That’s how I knew I waited too long. I was a pro at the tools I was using, and I knew each approach I would take as we were designing the game. There was nothing I had to look up or wonder about, I knew exactly how to do it.
I also had quite a bit of programming knowledge and general software experience from building a ton of web apps. And although they weren’t games, I found all of the same concepts applied. The same struggles, the same difficulty, and the same obstacles were all present in software just like games.
In that time, I learned a few things.
Lesson #1 – Finishing is a confidence booster
I learned this both from software and game development. When you finish something, it gives you a boost of confidence and the motivation you need to start and finish something else. If you are going for quality and you are building a long term project, that motivation wears off pretty fast. But for smaller projects it is almost as if you can chain them together, working each time off of the high of the last. The more you build, the more you can build. The more you finish, the more you are motivated to finish.
90% of projects just never get finished. Straight up, I’ve worked with so many developers and engineers over the years and stuff just gets left unfinished most of the time. That’s how this works. But a lot of times the low finish rate is a result of too high of a scope. Smaller projects are easier to finish and keep you motivated for longer. Each milestone is a bigger deal on a smaller project.
So because finishing is a confidence booster, a great way to boost your confidence (and your skill!) is to complete a series of smaller projects rather than a single big one. The knowledge you learn on the path from idea to launch is EXTREMELY valuable, and cannot be understated.
Lesson #2 – Discovering mass appeal is easier (and cheaper) than designing it
Although any of my personal games have yet to generate mass appeal, I learned this working with quite a few development companies with dudes way smarter than me. When you have the budget, its easy to do market research and analyze existing games to design one the market will want. When you don’t have cash to throw at that stuff though, building several bare-bones games and letting the market decide what they like is almost always a better strategy. You cast a wide net, and zero in on the ones that work.
If you build 10 games in a year, you are 10x more likely to build something that gets shared and promoted freely than the dude who only built one. And the great thing about this approach is that if one of those 10 games does better than the other 9, you can iterate and develop the game further. Now I am not saying that this should be your whole marketing plan. Marketing is a huge part of a game’s success and should not be discounted. But marketing a great game is a hell of a lot easier than marketing a shitty one. And believe me, I would know. I was hired to market plenty of shitty games back in the day.
Finishing multiple smaller projects and seeing how people react to them is much more effective than taking a bigger risk on one larger project.
Lesson #3 – Iteration is a smarter way to work
Making something is almost always harder than making something better. It is a lot easier to improve something than it is to create it from scratch. In fact, play any of your friends games, and I bet you can immediately see an improvement just by picking up a controller. So just like in lesson #2, making a bunch of small things is easier than making one big thing. But this also allows you to pick the one you really like or the one the market likes and iterate on it.
When you start with a game that you know is fun and you know people like, its a lot easier to add more content or make some quality of life improvements to. Iterating and consistently making slightly better versions of something is almost always better than trying to build the big thing in the first place. In the startup world they call this an “MVP”, or a Minimum Viable Product. Essentially, you build the smallest most basic version of the product, and then you iterate and make it better from there.
With games sometimes this is as simple as making a game without a ton of content. If you make a basic version of your game and people love it, adding too it is the right move. Making a bunch of games, watching one pick up steam, and then improving that game to a point where you can make decent money from it is a smart way to run a business.
Lesson #4 – Consistency is a great way to build an audience.
Large games take a long time to develop. And because they are so huge, you can go long periods without anything new to show. I call this “Dark work”…the stuff that you have to do, but literally no one would ever notice the difference. I do a lot of dark work in my freelance game development. But the point is, the more dark work you have, the harder it is to keep your audience engaged…and you guessed it, bigger projects have way more dark work than smaller projects.
When you consistently release new things, you start to build a fan base and an audience. Even if you don’t do it intentionally, people are attracted to doers and finishers. The more you finish, the easier it is for someone to discover you because you have a bigger portfolio. And the more games you have, the more fans you have, which means later games are easier to get off the ground.
Now consistency works in bigger projects too. Marketing or promotional consistency can be very effective even in larger projects. But there is something about consistently launching new projects that is exciting, motivating, and inviting to your audience.
Lesson #5 – Quality comes from quantity
The single biggest factor in the development of my programming skill and even my art really, is the quantity I produce. There’s no question about this. Quality in what I build comes from the quantity of how much I build. If you are trying to build a massive game like I was, you can learn so much just by building a few smaller projects and seeing them through to completion. There is so much to learn about the finishing process and the completion process that I recommend every developer go through it on a smaller project first.
Seriously. I look at building and launching a small project as a right of passage for new game developers. If you haven’t done that yet, that should be the one thing that you are focused on. You will learn so much. The process has way more too it than you could possibly imagine, and having gone through it you get so much more confidence in your ability to produce things.
But no matter what, the only way to improve the quality of anything, is to do it in quantity. Do it over and over. Make shit happen. Work on it daily. That’s how you improve over time.
Conclusion: I’m going to focus on smaller projects
Is this way of thinking for everyone? Probably not. But I have found a massive benefit in focusing on quantity over quality. Not only does quantity in and of itself seem to actually improve quality, it also has several other key advantages. It can boost your confidence when you finish a project, or it can help you discover an untapped market or a viral opportunity. It can help you learn to iterate on smaller projects and grow them versus start on bigger ones. And above all else, it will teach you consistency, the holy grail of making shit happen.
Start small. Go for quantity. Iterate and grow your project size along with your skill set. That’s the path I’ve learned over my 10 years in the software/game space. It’s not always easy, of course we all have AAA ideas. But I’ve found that for me, smaller projects tend to be better all the way around. Now i’m obviously not saying you should make shitty games, and I’m not saying there is no market for super high quality games. I’m saying that for indies, especially those starting out…it is better to make 10 small games than to focus on one big one.
I’ve always said, if you want to make a great game, make 10 shitty ones!