4-Hour Game Dev

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I spent many a year stressing out about not “having enough time” to make the games that would bring me closer to my dream of self-employment and wealth. More recently, Derek and I talked about how hard it is to bootstrap a game company and how squeezing the time it takes to make a game into your already busy schedule leads to burnout. It is a common, almost uniting feature of the game industry, and tech in general, and it affects everyone from indie developers to AAA powerhouses.

Programming, design, art, play-testing. It all takes time. It took Derek and I the good part of a year of part-time work to bring a simple game called Shaped from prototype to market. A game like Grand Theft Auto 5 takes a team of 500 veteran game developers about five years to complete. There’s so much that goes into a game, so much one needs to learn, so many obstacles that one cannot anticipate, that the hours just get away from us. It seems logical, and people accept it as fact. I know I did, and thus I stressed about not having enough time to get those dreams off the ground before kids, a mortgage, etc. entered the picture.

In an ideal world, I’d have enough money to burn that I could work full time for months or years. “With all of that free time I could finally make those dreams come true!” This fantasy rests on the idea that having a full 8-9 hours of development time would produce greater results than 3-4 half that time. Well, after 3 years of carving out more dev time out of other aspects of my life, I can confidently conclude that “more time” is not the solution. My girlfriend and family have gracious cleared my plate for weekends so I could have all 48 hours to game dev. The result? Burnout after the first 8-12 hours.

Now, maybe this is because I went into this jam after a full workweek had drained me. After 5 days of 9 hours of sitting at a desk and working, a 48 marathon just isn’t going to be physiologically palatable. However, many full-time indie devs report burnout, as do AAA game developers. This isn’t to say that the ability to engage in full-time development is not desirable. It definitely is. But it does highlight the fact that ‘more time’ is not the entire solution here. More time does not necessarily lead to greater output.

Perhaps if we accept the time constraint, if we abandon the dream of full-time work (for now, at least), we’ll be forced to discern and focus on the variables that have the greatest effect on productivity. Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour Workweek, is perhaps the right person to lean on in this regard. What if we embraced a 4-Hour Game Dev experience? I don’t mean to say we should create a game in a total of 4 hours, although it has no doubt been done before. Rather, I’d ask what if you could only spend 4 hours a week on game development? What would you have to do to make it work?

Having read his books, I know that his methodology would prompt us to to boil down game dev into the minimum building blocks of game development. Next, we’d utilize Pareto’s Law, or the 80/20 rule, to select which blocks make up the 20% of building blocks that get us 80% of the desired result (a good game). Then, we need to figure out the sequence in which to execute those building blocks. Lastly, we need to setup stakes to keep us motivated to continue to attack those key building blocks.

First, let’s look at the building blocks of a game:

  • gameplay (mechanics & dynamics, gamefeel)
  • graphics (textures, art style, polycount)
  • sound (sound, music)
  • fiction (context, narrative)
  • marketing (internet presence, convention presence)
  • the developer (honesty, confidence)

So, now we ask ourselves: what are the 20% of these building blocks that will get us 80% of the way toward a successful (good) game? In other words, if we only have 4-hours a week to work on it, what are the things we should be focusing on? The rest is just going to be a distraction we can’t afford. From what I can tell, it’s the following:

  • Gameplay
    • 10-30 seconds of enjoyable gameplay in an endless loop.
    • Game feel (how good it feels just to play)
  • Marketing
    • being present on twitter, facebook, reddit, itch.io, etc. etc.
    • meeting folks and having them play your game

In other words, great art and sound, while important, are what make a good game great. They’re not, however, what make a non-game, or a crappy game, a good game. Thus, to get to a ‘good game’ status, we need to first focus on making a fun game and then developing a following around it so we can validate that it truly is a good game.

As for sequence, well, I think the above ordering works well. Nail the gameplay down first. You can add in some placeholder art if it helps to communicate visually, but remember that Minecraft still uses uber basic textures and that Super Meat Boy, Super Crate Box, etc, all got big with basic sprites. Next, start getting your game out there in peoples minds, twitter feeds, and in their hands. You can start doing this while developing, but I’d recommend holding off on this until you have your core gameplay in, as doing so beforehand will lead to a lot of wantrepreneur-esque distractions. A bonus that comes with doing things in this order is that for the rest of your game development experience, you get to play a very fun game rather than dwelling in half-finished buggy crap land for the duration.

Lastly, stakes. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing Derek a check for $100 bucks with the agreement that if I don’t finished X game(s) by Y date, he can cash the check and use the money for himself. One way we’ve added stakes in the past has been by participating in game jams, where there’s a set deadline that you have to submit your game by. This is how Shaped was made and what eventually led to the creation of Send More People. Another, perhaps more beneficial source of stakes, is to commit to sending your game to the IGF or another game festival. Knowing that you have a deadline, that your game will be judged, and that you’ll probably lose money in order to submit, means that you have to make sure your game arrives in a good, fun, playable state.

So there we go. We don’t need full-time game dev. I can stop stressing over “not having enough time” and focus more on making the most of my 4 hours each week (for reference, 4 hours a week can break down to about 35 minutes a day). I can stop distracting myself with wantrepreneur shenanigans like gathering art assets, making a website, and recording podcasts for noone but myself. I can greybox to quickly prototype ideas and see if they’re fun before I waste hours or years of my life working on a fundamentally flawed game. Most of all, I can stop worrying about the game and business in its entirety and focus more on getting that 10-30 second loop of joy to as many people as I can.

Running in Circles

Perhaps it was the growing press coverage of indie game developers, the fact that I read The 4-Hour Workweek, or the fact that I had finally arrived at my ideal job and still found myself bored, arrogant, and hungry for something new, but I got hooked on this dream of working for myself. It was like a glimpse through the slats of the fence at greener grass beyond and I just could not let it go. I dived in and did everything I thought I should do to make it happen.

Fast-forward through about three years of stressing about how little free time I had (a continuing source of misery for me, wrongly), pouring through self-help and business books and blogs for the guaranteed way to succeed, an ever decreasing social life, and a rather embarrassing public series of YouTube videos, and you find me where I am now: still not financially independent, still maintaining a paltry social life, and still seeking the best way forward.

I currently work at an ‘actual game company’ but still desire to make my own games and my own companies. My family, girlfriend, and friends have given up expectations for me seeing them but still do not feel like I have ‘enough time’. I’ve read even more books and watched far too many YouTube interviews but still find myself no closer to a ‘best way forward.’ By all measures, I have wasted the past three years of struggle, passion, and neglected relationships. I’ve been hustling, but to unproductive ends. I’ve been treading water.

So what happened?

First, I’ve consumed many of the most recommended, most life-altering books currently out there. My mind is filled with the advice of others and I am glad I know it. I think it definitely gives me an edge. However, unless I act on that advice, that edge is never demonstrates its value. Without acting, the advice has just filled my head with ideas, causing me to think and over think. Over thinking leads to analysis paralysis and depression. Stasis and a shitty mood leads to the ‘better’ way out, which leads to gathering of more advice. The cycle repeats itself.

Secondly, when I recognize I need to act, my next step is, naturally, to make a plan of action. I draft up spreadsheets and To Do lists. I have even made burn-down charts for my future company, plotted my escape from my current job, and have had solid talks with my loved ones about my plans. I was preparing for what I needed to do but often have never advanced to actually doing what I needed to do. Why? Because planning is the easy part. Planning is the fun part. This is what Noah Kagan at AppSumo calls “playing business.” For Send More People, we came up with our business name, logo,looked at studio space, and we even legally registered a business before we had made a product or a profit.

According to Kagan, this is exactly what a wantrepreneur does. Planning makes us feel productive, it helps us feel on top of things, and it comforts us by showing how ‘serious’ and ‘mature’ we have become about our dreams. If we don’t act on those plans, however, then all that is just masturbation. It only serves to make us feel good and keep us well within our comfort zone. Eventually, I wise up to this fact and lament, “Gah! What is wrong with me? Perhaps I don’t know everything. Maybe I should get some advice from others who have been more successful.” The cycle repeats itself.

Thirdly, I eventually recognize I am furthering this vicious cycle and, in my new found wisdom, conclude that all I need to do is to actually do more. Indeed, the advice of many of my heroes calls for me to act now, not wait for tomorrow, and break free from my comfort zone. But I’ve spent years pushing myself beyond my comfort zone to the limits of my health, my sanity, and the patience of my loved ones in order to put in the time at my computer writing code to produce something. I became quite adept at making myself quite busy. But three or more years of busy-ness did not product a business.

I think this is mostly because I was doing things which, like planning or gathering knowledge, made me feel productive without actually producing forward momentum or tangible gains. It’s like buying workout clothes or a new gym membership. I feel like I’m headed in the right direction. A clean slate. I have thus spent many of my weekends in front of my computer, programming gameplay for a game that, just like a workout routine, I will eventually abandon when other priorities, laziness, and exhaustion set in. Without external feedback as to whether or not our time is actually making progress, it eventually begins to feel Sysyphusian. “Damn, this just isn’t sustainable. This project is going nowhere. I shouldn’t waste my time like this. I need to find the right idea to work on.” And just like that, the cycle repeats itself.

So what is the way forward?

I’m still figuring that out. I’m beginning to think, however, that none of it will feel right or comfortable. I’m beginning to feel like success is what happens despite doing all the things you think you should do. But that is probably for the better, because so far chasing my dreams has been the equivalent of running in circles. I think it’s time to veer off the road, without a map, into the thorns and weeds.