Get "Unstuck" on your Game Dev Project

Drew Conley

Drew Conley

Posted on March 20th, 2022

Does this sound like you? (It definitely sounds like me!)

  1. New game idea enters your mind
  2. Your imagination goes crazy with the possibilities of what the game could become. Features, stories, art style, etc.
  3. You quickly spin up a New Project in your editor or engine of choice. Maybe even reaching for that new exciting one that you’ve had your eye on.
  4. You’re really productive at first!
  5. A few days go by, the honeymoon starts to wear off a bit. Bugs come up, and you enter the classic “sludge” phase of any long project.
  6. A different idea pops into your head. You decide to pursue that one for a bit, promising yourself that you’ll keep both projects going.
  7. The first project eventually ends up abandoned. The cycle repeats.

If you resonate with any of that, you should know that you’re not alone! We game developers are constantly at risk of getting knocked off track and actually finishing our game projects.

Here are a few productivity tips I’ve discovered over the years of working on my projects. These tips have helped me anchor to my current projects and actually finish them. Some of my games like Danger Crew and Pizza Legends would have never happened without them.

Here they are!

1: Find an Accountability Partner

The biggest reason that people abandon gamed projects is the feeling of being alone in the sludge. You have a mountain of work to do. It’s exciting at first, but all the little hurdles, misestimation of effort, and endless graveyard of bugs can be demoralizing.

When you don’t have anybody to share that drowning feeling with, it’s easy to be tempted to switch projects to something brand new. I mean, hey - greenfield projects don’t have any of that baggage! (Until they do…)

Having a partner or two in the fray of a project can help sustain momentum. When you are feeling low, your partner can be there to pick you up and vice versa. It’s exciting to share progress with people when they genuinely care about the outcome.

Even if your accountability partner isn’t working directly on the project, like writing code, making art, editing stories, etc, they can still be a huge help by being present in other aspects of the process. Some examples:

  1. Your partner can play early cuts of the game and give you feedback.
  2. Your partner can do QA testing - try the game like a real player, intentionally trying to break things, and report back with any bugs they find.
  3. Your partner can help you decide what to focus on next. Managing your own creative project is a lot of work on its own - maybe they can help funnel your focus towards the next most important milestone.

In my case, my friend Glenn and I work on games together. We have a call every Tuesday night where we screen share progress and bounce ideas off each other. The meetings are casual and low-pressure, but the objective of showing progress adds a motivational layer of accountability.

If you don’t have anybody around to act as an accountability buddy, feel free to join our Discord! There are people in there who will help give you a boost when you need it.

2. Set your sights on demo release milestones

Finishing an entire game is a massive amount of work. You know this already, but I’ll reiterate: there is code to write, art to draw, stories to figure out, audio, music, marketing, argh. The list can go on. You get it - lots of work, never enough time in the day.

It’s tempting to daydream about that glorious day when the whole project is built and ready to be released. Realistically, it’s probably going to take you a while to get there.

Instead of focusing on that final release, shift your focus to releasing your first vertical slice.

A vertical slice is a demo of your game that has all the major features in place to make the game feel like what you intend it to be. The core of the game loop needs to be implemented, but it doesn’t need all of the content of the final game. Artwork and UI design can be placeholders if the real assets aren’t ready.

The demo should be at least one playable session that gives players a true idea of what the game is like to play, and the potential of what more could be there. It’s a mini version of your final game.

Throughout the process of working on our first game, Danger Crew, we put out demo versions of the game on communities like CodePen every 8 months or so. The early demos were very simple, just enough to show progress. The final demo had pretty much all of the features of the final version we ended up with, it was just a matter of adding content.

The real win here is shipping some form of a playable game to people. Sitting on unreleased work for too long can create anxiety and cause pressure and self-doubt to build up. Releasing things to the world can be a well-deserved morale boost that will encourage you to keep going.

3: Know when to Zoom In and Zoom Out

There’s a spectrum of focus that exists when you’re working on a game. I like to think about it like this:

There’s zooming in and zooming out. Bear with me here for a silly metaphor… imagine your game is a giant skyscraper and you’re looking at it from a good distance away through a camera lens.

You can zoom out and see the whole building against the skyline. You can answer questions like: What’s the general shape of the building? How many floors? What’s the regional architectural style? Who goes here? What is this place for?

Conversely, you can zoom in and concentrate on specific details. What color is the carpeting? What’s the style of furniture on floor #13? Where are the stairs or elevators that allow you to get around the building?

(Okay, enough with the skyscraper thing. You get the idea.)

Both extremes of zooming are important. If you’re only focusing on high-level areas, like writing the story or character motivations, and never the “feel” of playing the game, like the details of each interaction, it might feel underwhelming to play. Your carefully crafted story may not be delivered with the impact it deserves.

On the flip side, if you’ve been too into the details and not thinking about anything high level, your game might not feel like a whole world… maybe more like a tech demo. Imagine you have a super tight platformer in the works, like Mega Man X or Celeste, but only a demo room. (It’s important to get these games feeling great first, after all). If you find yourself bored or depressed with the project, it may be time to zoom out and give the character more than a demo room to live in. How about a full level? How are you going to apply the features you built to a real scene in the final game?

Another way to say this is the classic phrase “losing the forest for the trees.” Sometimes you need to step back and focus on high-level big picture stuff. Other times, you may just need to sit down, throw headphones on, and hone in on tiny minutia details of one single interaction. Make it feel perfect.

Here is the point.

If you’re feeling stuck, figure out which zoom mode you have been operating in… then do the opposite.

Changing your focus may be what you need to get yourself a fresh boost of inspiration and motivation. Sick of tweaking the demo physics? Write a story! The game doesn’t feel exciting to play? Maybe spend a whole afternoon on making one new animation feel just right. It may be the spark you need to keep going and feel excited about the project again.

4: Capture ideas for your project every single day

Finally, this last one may sound too simple, but it’s probably the most important one.

Ideally, you can be working on the game every single day, but let’s be real - you’re a busy person with responsibilities and commitments. You may have limited time in the week to actually work on your game project.

On days where you don’t have time to actually write code, do art, music, whatever, try to write down at least one thought or idea for your project.

Anything as big as “what about a whole new ice skating mechanic?” or small details like ideas phrases of dialogue. Even if it’s a whacky idea that isn’t practical, recording the thought keeps your mind engaged and interested in the possibilities of the project.

I personally use a combination of a physical notebook and text files in Dropbox. Digital products like Evernote and Notion are really effective too and have multi-device support so you can capture ideas on your phone.

Capturing ideas every day keeps your mind engaged on the project and helps fill potential gaps where other project ideas might give you shiny object syndrome.

But Watch out for Burnout

Be careful and listen to yourself when it comes to burnout. One of the worst things you could do is overwork yourself and then lose all interest in creating anything.

If you truly need a break from the project, take a break! I personally like to recharge by playing games, going running, and surrounding myself with other people’s creative work to help get me inspired again.

Finishing a game is a TON of work, but I hope these tips will help you out in the journey. If you have your own tips for getting unstuck, feel free to email us or tell us about them in Discord.

If you prefer video content, check out the video version of this post on YouTube.

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