One big problem in game development projects is that we are in constant doubts about the game we are working on. Do we need another game mode? Should we change graphics because they seem too dark? Is this fun? Should we add this new feature? Should we even be making this game in the first place? Is our game good enough because our competitors have much better graphics? We are constantly making decisions based on hunch, fear and panic. To make things worse we are constantly end up revisiting the same problems and decisions over and over again.
I personally believe in the mantra “If your only tool is hammer then every problem looks like a nail”. When you want to stick two pieces of lumber together there are nails, screws and glue just to mention a few that pop into my mind. Same applies when you are making a decision. When it comes to making decisions, there are tools that will help you to make them and have confidence to stand behind them. I don’t have a magical knowledge on when to apply a certain tool on certain problem so it would always result in best decision available. When it comes to making decisions in various game development stages reality is that every game and people making the decisions are different.
So what this blog post means to you and me? Hopefully you will find some new tools or at least new perspectives on how decision-making can be less paralyzing and how to make sanity checks on your decisions. For me the best thing that might come from this blog post is your comments. I want to hear what tools you have in your arsenal and what new perspectives I could learn from you.
First tool that I use in these situations is to ask from someone else who is not working on the game. My animator friend described one of the problem of animating a movie as follows: “When you are working with animation movie it takes a time. Animating a movie takes so much time that you must have a really good reason to make it into animation in the first place. It would be so much faster to just shoot it into video using live actors or draw a comic book. There will be a time when you will start to hate your story and you want to make changes. This is just because you have worked with the project for so long. When you find your self wanting to change things in mid animation project, the first thing you should do is to ask someone else’s opinion”. In a nutshell this means that you will be fed up by you game project before you have finished it. Sometimes these changes can enhance the game, but sometimes you will want to change things just to amuse yourself. So before you start making changes ask for external opinion. Help can be found from fans, a colleague or a family member just to name a few. As long as those people have not been involved with your project as heavily as you they might have a better understanding of what is new and fun in your game. Of course you should not take their word as an absolute truth because in game development there are a huge amount of uncertainty until the game is polished and it is in the hands of the players.
Second tool is to always remember why you are making the game on and steer the projects towards that goal. One of the most useful piece of knowledge was passed to me just a few weeks ago. “You should always be aware why you are doing something. After that, have an idea how to measure your success when your game is live (or in alpha testing). If everybody in the team understands reasons why this game is being made, they will more likely make the right decisions.” So you should always be aware why you are making a game or an update and everybody in the project team should know those reasons. Reasons may vary from personal ambitions “I want to make this kind of a game” to more business oriented “we need to increase our daily active user count”. Regardless of the origin or the reason it self, it needs to be stated aloud and measured accordingly. If you do that, then it is easier to make decisions. It is always possible to revisit the reasons why you are making something and when you do change the reason don’t be afraid to redesign the whole game or cancel the project.
Third tool in my arsenal is measure and analyze your success and learn from your mistakes. Following piece of helpful encouragement was handed to me by my boss once “You are going to make mistakes. A lot of them. And if you don’t follow the impact of your desired targets, there is high change that you will never learn from your decisions (and how to make them)”. Be prepared to measure your success in some measurable way and learn from your mistakes. If increasing daily active user is your aim, measure the effect post launch, analyze your results and learn from them. If you where making a totally new kind of a game, then check from reviews and comments if the press and gamers really noticed that this is something totally new. You should also try to learn how you and your team make decisions. Keep decision log where you list decisions, dates, people involved and reasons why that decision was made. Use that list when you are facing a situation where you might want to change direction or revert a decision you already made. Also make decision log review a part of your postmortem process and try to learn from it. If you are lucky you even might learn from mistakes of others. Read lots of postmortems and ask how other people make decisions in your workplace or startup sparring circle.
Fourth tool would be fail fast and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. My boss and numerous excellent blog post in Gamasutra (1, 2) already recognize this. You are going to make mistakes and a lot of them. Don’t be afraid to try something out. You should also be equally willing to confess it to your self when the thing you tried out does not work. Don’t force something in to a game just because you made a decision about it. Do, review, iterate and abandon ideas in fast cycles.
Well that was my two cents on how decision-making could be easier and how you and your team decision making could be more efficient. I would love to hear your experiences, comments and ideas. I am always looking opportunities to learn from the best.
Also posted in Gamasutra as a featured blog post.