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Developing games is hard, so much so, that even experienced developers face a ton of pitfalls, from scheduling problems through to crunch time issues. Hobbyist, indie, and triple-A developers have pulled the plug on game projects at some point or another. Nothing is more disappointing than canceling a potentially promising game because development was taking too long, or funds have run out.
We work with game developers all the time, helping them make the best products possible. Moreover, we feel their pain when things go wrong, and understand the ramifications of projects ending up in development hell. That’s why we’ve put together this helpful list of tips to supercharge the development process that we hope you’ll apply on your upcoming game.
1. Use An Off-The-Shelf Game Engine
Aspiring developers often try to follow in the footsteps of the legendary John Carmack of Doom fame. They hope to mimic his success by building custom engines like id Tech. But most developers don’t possess John Carmack’s skills, and even seasoned C++ programmers struggle to make engines that run smoothly across all major platforms.
Today’s gaming hardware is incredibly complex, which come with multi-core CPUs and powerful GPUs. Multithreading and data-oriented design are necessary to take advantage of these, which are areas smaller developers lack in knowledge and skill.
Commercial game engines such as Unreal Engine 4 and Unity 2018.1 are on the bleeding edge and built by large teams of experienced engineers. They run efficiently on a wide range of modern hardware and are extendable and versatile making them suitable for a variety of game genres. Developers can have their game up and running quickly without the cost, time, and pain of building their own engine.
2. Build A Prototype
Once the tooling and development environment is properly setup, then it’s time to build a basic prototype of your game based on ideas you or your team have. Many indie developers love to brainstorm and make their prototypes during game jams, which are usually time-constrained, theme-based, and global.
Prototypes don’t need fancy graphics and features, as this would defeat the purpose of testing out new ideas rapidly. It’s perfectly acceptable to use placeholder graphics or blocks for the visual element of your game, and instead focus on implementing fresh ideas with unique and fun play mechanics. Complete your prototype within a pre-determined time limit, which could be a couple of hours, days, or weeks.
If your prototype is fun and everyone on your team is satisfied, then share it with gamers on sites such as Game Jolt and itch.io to gauge their interest. Their feedback will be invaluable in determining if you’re on the right path with your project.
3. Prepare A Game Design Document (GDD)
Gamers are responding favorably to your prototype while urging you to develop it further. Everyone seems impatient for the development process to begin, but that would be a bad idea without preparing a game design document (GDD) beforehand.
Indie developers often start making games without fleshing out key concepts and having it all written out in a detailed document. Without a game design document, there is no plan of how all of a game’s components will fit together harmoniously during development. The result is an unorganized development process, a canceled project, or a poorly made game.
4. Avoid Feature Creep
Your game design document will help you avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes, such as the ever-dreaded feature creep. Team members and gamers will make suggestions during the development cycle, which could allude to extra levels, characters, story elements, or features not originally planned. While you may want to implement all their suggestions to keep them happy, this will only prolong development and dilute the original vision.
Refer to your game’s design document regularly, and stick to it as closely as possible. Implement all features and meet milestones as they’re set out in your design document, before considering any other additions. You can always update your game with new features after release if necessary.
5. Optimize Near The End Of The Development Cycle
During the development process, your game won’t run optimally, which may annoy you and fellow team members. You’ll want to optimize it, but it’s best to resist doing this prematurely. It’s acceptable to do some minor optimizations and refactor your code periodically, to minimize spaghetti code patterns from emerging. But too many early optimizations are counterproductive, as your code base will change drastically and so will performance bottlenecks over time.
Become acquainted with the profiling tools of your IDE (Integrated Development Environment) and game engine. These tools will provide you with a wealth of information about your game’s overall performance, and pinpoint areas of your code requiring attention.
Using a commercially available engine saves much time and money, whereas prototyping and preparing documentation gives your team a clear vision. Avoiding feature creep will help your team stay the course and attain steady progress. Finally, when you reach the tail end of the development cycle, proceed with the necessary optimizations that will make your game shine!