If you’re a new indie developer, you’re probably neck deep in one project or another. Every developer hits a roadblock or fifty while crafting their game. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if you should push through, or if you should just start over. How do you know if your indie game is worth finishing?
While most projects have issues that you can push through, there are occasions when you should just can the whole thing and start over. Here are my five signs that your game may be in need of a reboot.
1 - The core gameplay isn't fun
Everyone has an idea of what would make a game more fun. "It'd be better if there were more bullets". "If I added survival mechanics, it would be more engaging". "If I had a different art style, this would be good."
All of these things, while valid on their own, tend to point to a more critical core issue -- the core game mechanics aren't enjoyable. All of the polish, tweaks, and additions in the world won't change that.
Let's say you've been building a platforming game for iOS and Android. You have placeholder assets in. A rough storyline is in the works. You have your first couple of levels laid out, and some mechanics already set up. You've decided your core mechanic will be some sort of laser gun.
So, you export playable build 0.7 to your phone to test. You try to run, jump, and shoot, and realize that you have too few thumbs.
So you decide to automate the movement around the environment, so all you're doing is shooting. This works better, but it's not enough to hold your interest. So, you decide to scrap the gun. Now the game is a regular ol' platformer, nothing special.
At this point, it may be a good idea to go back to the drawing board.
2 - None of your play testers like your game
You've spent hours -- no -- weeks working on your new game. You get some 30 people lined up to give it a whirl. You're super proud of it, and you're excited to share your creation with others. After you send it out and let people play for a while, the reactions aren't good.
'it's not fun', 'it looks ugly', 'it just doesn't feel right'. How could they not like it? After all, you worked really hard on it. Clearly, they don't know what they're talking about. You're the designer after all. What do they know?
Unfortunately, they probably know more than you. When you're creating a game, you need to have a core audience in mind. Just because you like something doesn't mean that anyone in your audience will. There's also a certain degree of vanity that comes with sharing something you're proud of with others. If you created it, that makes it better than anything anyone else is creating, in your own mind.
Unfortunately, if something is really enjoyable, but only to you, then you're not going to make any sales. If your goal is to create a game for yourself, by all means, do it. However, if you're making a game to sell, this may be a sign that you should re-evaluate.
3 - You're going to get into legal trouble
Many budding game developers start with some sort of fan game. Maybe you're making yourself a Pokemon ROM hack, or you're programming a Zelda MMORPG. Either way, there are some companies who wouldn't care, and some developers who will sue the crap out of you. Many companies are the latter, especially Nintendo. If you're working on a fan game, make sure you're distributing it in a legal way that won't get you a cease and desist. Most importantly, make sure you won't be making any sort of money off of it.
Just about every major fangame that tries to monetize is deleted within a few weeks. Months and years of work will go to waste. If you're going commercial, rebrand your game into your own original work.
Also, I don't want to see any comments saying "Sonic Mania". If you get really lucky and your talent is noticed by a big company and they hire your team, great. For the vast majority of developers, however, that's not going to happen. Be sure to keep your games copyright-friendly.
4 - Your scope is too large
This applies more to solo developers than large indie teams. When you're in the planning stages of a game, it's really easy to dream up some perfect game that nobody has ever thought to create. There will be rolling hills and vast seas. There will be extensive dialogue trees that will put Bethesda to shame. The game will have factions of pirates dueling it out off-screen, and the fallout of their battles will be broadcasted to the game's radio, and you can use that information to manipulate the stock market in the game's realistic simulation of an international economy, all while fending off hordes of drones in your asteroid space station. See where I'm going with this?
Everyone has ideas, but many indie developers find that implementing even the simplest mechanics can be tedious, time-consuming, and frustrating. When your game's scope gets this large, you're going to give up at some point. It may be during the beginning coding segments, or when you're designing your first art assets. It may be after your Missile Command knockoff mini-game to play during loading screens is halfway through its 3rd week of development. Either way, if the entertainment factor for your game relies on a scope beyond what you're capable of, you should start over and work on something smaller instead.
5 - You're not experienced enough to finish your game
Everyone wants to make the next Sonic Mania, Stardew Valley, or Super Meat Boy. You download Unity on your laptop, drag and drop in some assets, and your game is looking good. You have the bones of something truly great. However, you can't seem to figure out what a raycast does, or you've never drawn anything but stick figures. There's nothing wrong with this. Everyone has to start somewhere. However, it's very important that you know your limitations, especially when you're early in your game development career.
If you want to make a time-bending multiplayer FPS game, but you don't know how to make a regular FPS game, you don't know how to manipulate time, and you don't know how to manage multiplayer servers, you need to scale back and work on something else. Make a simple FPS game from start to finish. Once you have a game under your belt, tackle something with a time-bending mechanic. After that, make a simple multiplayer game. Once you know how to do each of these individual things, you've probably been creating games for months, or a year, or more. At this point, you're ready to create your dream game.
Remember: making video games, like any fine craft, takes years of practice, refinement, and effort. If you're willing to put that in, you can create your dream game, but don't jump into a big project before you're ready. Your life should be a Karate-Kid style montage. Train and practice and learn, until you're ready.
As with any project, there is a significant gray area on when you should push through, and when you should start over. Don’t trash every project, and don’t stick with a bad one forever. Just remember, no matter what happens, you can do it!
Thanks for reading!
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