Let’s talk about scope. I was in my car today chatting to my friend about the COVID-19 crisis. Between the two of us we have over 10 years of Unity development experience. With current social distancing regulations we are finding it quite difficult to get out. We decided that a productive way to use our spare time would be to work on a project together. We are both looking to expand our skillsets so we decided we could try using the Unreal engine. We both have a small amount of experience using this engine so we thought it could be a good chance to expand our skillset.
I then decided I should also blog about our development experiences. I could also brush up on my 3D modelling skills using Blender and maybe look at Z-Brush. I was also thinking about doing a smaller project using GameMaker II.
Then I stopped.
See what I did there? My mind started darting through different possibilities and I went out of scope for the project immediately. If this has happened to you before, don’t worry, it is not the first time it has happened to me and it certainly won’t be the last.
Scope is a tricky thing to get right. When we start new projects we always set out with the best intentions to complete every component to the highest standards. Essentially building a AAA game by ourselves. The truth of this is, it’s impossible to do everything by yourself. I am not saying you aren’t talented at what you do, but at times the workload can just be too much. Also the mental dedication needed to start a solo project, even a small one, and follow it through to release is incredibly high. There is no shame in that though. This does happen to all of us. Below are a few tips however to help get a project from beginning to end while not going out of scope of what you are capable of delivering.
The Elevator Pitch
I do plan on writing an article on this so for my full opinion on the concept find that article if/when I write it. In short, an elevator pitch should be a 1-2 line summary of your game concept. Something along the lines of “The Sims but steampunk” or “A first person RPG but all your weapons are fruit”. A lot of people associate the Elevator Pitch with finding publishers or investors. Personally I believe it is a great way of getting your head around exactly what you want to make. Without a clear idea, scope creeping will be all too easy.
Core Game Loop
All these headings do tie in together. You need to be thinking about them all simultaneously and not one after another. The core game loop will tie into your mechanics and your capabilities in terms of art and development. Having a clear and concise game loop defined at the start gives you a platform to build your mechanics around.
A core game loop should be easy to understand. It’s the implementation of mechanics that can then define difficulty. Some examples of game loops:
- Age of Empires: Collect resources, build structures, recruit forces, fight invaders.
- Ori and the Blind Forest: Traverse challenging terrain, learn new abilities, defeat enemies.
- God of War: Hack and slash your way through every enemy that you encounter.
Even if you can simplify mechanics, a complicated game loop will mean investing a lot of development time and money, which can push the project out of scope.
Game loops that incorporate online play are not recommended for indie developers. The rise in Battle Royale style games being a good example of this. The infrastructure behind a game like Fortnite, Apex Legends, Warzone, or PUBG is far beyond what an indie could hope to accomplish. This is why it is better to focus on a simple game loop to begin with.
You never know, after a few titles you are running a company that can release something on a much larger scale. Hello Games started with a relatively simple game called Joe Danger and a few years later they developed No Man’s Sky, one of the highest grossing games of this generation (it’s good now, I promise).
So with a core game loop in mind it’s a good time to abstract some mechanics. To keep things simple you should be aiming to reuse mechanics through the course of your game. Now, what do I mean by mechanics? Mechanics can range from just basic shooting in first person, to something more complicated like 3rd person climbing or NPC interactions and bartering. Games like Hollow Knight and Dead Cells keep to two or three simple reusable mechanics, for example:
- Melee combat.
- Ranged combat.
- Wall running/climbing.
Of course, both games have a lot more depth than that, but at their heart you can see these same mechanics repeat throughout.
Most games have two or three reusable mechanics that carry through the entire game. If you have a core game loop in mind, start to work out what mechanics would suit your abilities in developing that.
In my most recent project I have been heavily inspired by the Bioshock series. Can I develop a game like that? No chance! But I can develop something that spiritually reflects my inspirations but within a scope I can achieve. I do this through clever narrative and artistic choices that I will explain next.
Art, Engine, UI and Music
I mentioned at the start that I was considering learning Unreal for this project. Immediately that would have been a problem for me and the timeline I set for this project. I am all for learning new things, but this project will be my first solo release. I have enough work on my plate, so adding learning UE4 to that mix was out of the question. Stick with what you know if you are trying to do a solo or small release. With enough time or a larger team I would certainly recommend working with UE4, but that is only because that is within scope for you and that project.
Most indies will tend to use Unity or Game Marker Studio II for their development. Both engines are relatively easy to pick up and sites like Udemy are stuffed with useful tutorials and other material.
Picking the right game engine isn’t the end of your plight unfortunately. When developing a game you will also have to consider game art, UI assets and audio. If you are going to do art and development you must factor in the time it will take to to complete both parts of the project.
There is no shame in purchasing or finding free assets from various stores. At times it feels like there is a stigma around purchasing assets. Most likely this has been brought on by the high volume of “asset flips” circulating Steam and other platforms. If there is a genuine effort put in to create something new using purchased assets I believe the community will recognise that.
If you don’t plan to buy assets but recognise that the workload is overwhelming, perhaps you can modify the game to something more manageable. My latest project will be a top down 2D game as I am a solo developer, who only has a fleeting knowledge of Blender, so handling 2D assets is easiest for me to manage.
Also consider using tools like Playmaker which is a visual scripting package which was used to develop games like Hollow Knight and Dreamfall Chapters.
Thinking about Narrative
With all of your technical elements in place, now is a good time to think about narrative. Honestly, narrative is something you can be working on at any point. Often a game idea will be based around a narrative element that you find compelling. The reason I bring it up at the end is because this is the area where your brain is most likely to let loose creatively. There is nothing wrong with that of course, it is actually a very positive thing. Too much of life is rigidly controlled, it is nice to be allowed to really express yourself from time to time. The key to writing your narrative now though is you understand the limitations of your technical ability and you can create scenarios around that. You do not need to restrict your narrative, instead you can realistically think of the best way of conveying it.
You may have written the best, most compelling story in the world, but if you never release your game then no one will ever get to enjoy it. Ultimately, you need to understand your capabilities, the abilities of those you may be working with, and keep your ambition in check so that you get to release. From there, keep building and building and pushing your limits with each new challenge.
You Don’t Have To Do It All Yourself
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I cannot emphasis this enough. If you have a project that you are really passionate about it, maybe you do need some help to achieve certain parts of it. Of course, I am not saying you will be able to put together a AAA team without paying anyone, but maybe you can find another developer or artist who is interested in working on the project in return for a revenue share, or just to have their name on a released title.
The most important thing to remember is humility. Far too often I see an “idea guy” appear in a game development group and post about their great idea for a game and that they just need a development team to work on it for free.
This is not going to happen. These sorts of post are widely criticised around the game development community. When you are looking for help you must always make sure you are bringing something to the table. Everyone who has ever started down the path of game development has an idea. Being an ideas person is not unique. Make sure you have already started work on development, art, music, design, UI, anything really before trying to enlist strangers into your project. Of course, when dealing with friends it is probably fair to ask them at any point. Honestly I have probably trailed off slightly here.
Eh, to end this section. Just don’t be a jerk 🙂
Just be sensible when you are developing a game. This post wasn’t for people who are already experienced in game developing. More, for those who are just trying to get into it. Scope is a tough thing to handle. Just remember that everything takes time. You might come up with a small mechanics that you think would be really fun, but you have to factor in how long it will take to develop that across an entire game.
The same goes for art, music or anything. You might be doing the art yourself. You might be drawing the most incredibly detailed sprites, but then remember that you have to do that for every single character and create a sprite sheet for each of them.
In summary, best of luck if anyone is reading this and is beginning their game development journey. There’s a large number of supports available that I will post about in another article.
Yes that is a picture of sourdough with a scope on it. For some reason everyone is raving about sourdough right now and I thought it was funny at the time. This joke probably won’t age well.