Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Polishing what you have

I sometimes think indie game developers get a little bit carried away with new features. They cram in new stuff, in an excited and passionate way, without stopping to think that they should probably get last weeks feature working better first.

I hate to name names. Finishing ANY indie game is impossibly hard. You might notice that generally speaking, developers don’t criticize each others games. I did some twitter ranting recently about how Assassins Creed III seemed to be designed to torture me, but I try to avoid such rants. And most of that was ranting at stupid business decisions (unskippable crap, uplay, etc), rather than poor game design. I couldn’t get far enough into the game to even really play it…

…So I won’t name names, but I have played a few indie games recently where I wonder why they bothered adding new feature X, when old feature Y was half-assed. I am of the opinion that I’d rather have a feature not included until it can be done right. Feature-lists do not sell games. Quality, fun and atmosphere sells games. I thought GSB would sell better if I added the ‘feature’ of direct-control. It made no difference. (BTW the game sold VERY well, I’m not complaining…).

The problem is, developers come up with a new idea, and all they care about that week is the new idea. In a big studio, you have some dude in a suit (metaphorically) with a clipboard (ditto) who says stuff like “Dude, X is not on the approved feature list for this build. We need you to improve the agreed features so they pass QA”. As an indie nobody says that. You dream up some mad idea, and you race off to do it, forgetting that none of the buttons in the game have mouse-over tool-tips or a highlight state or crop text to fit because… fuck that’s so BORING! and the new cool feature is both NEW and also COOL.

I believe this to be a mistake. When you come up with a cool new feature, just write it down. When the game is finished, polished, bug-free, optimized, awesome… if you still have the time/energy and money, you can look at the idea again and see if it still feels so ‘must-have’.

A lot of indie games have historically shipped in an unpolished state because the developer is

  • bored or
  • penniless.

Now we have kickstarter, people can say it’s a beta and who cares :D But I’m still a believer in making sure you polish what you have. There are some hit games out there which are not at all polished, but I’d rather not gamble on making one of them. Polish is GOOD.


7 thoughts on Polishing what you have

  1. Some good points there, I agree.

    Indies tend to prefer fun stuff over boring stuff.
    Who wants to implement menus if you can spend some more time playing with your particle systems special FX e.g?

    I try to guard myself against these things, but that is hard.

  2. What do you think about the “pareto priciple” in this case?

    Wouldn’t “indie” developers be better off targeting the low hanging 80% fruit?

    Even a hand full of game-program-features seem to be an massive effort, additionally to all assets needed…

  3. well I think they should polish what they have, because they likely already have that 20% that makes a difference, its just hard to see it if its buggy, or badly explained, or looks poor.

  4. Hi Cliff,

    Until just now, I had never heard of you. I watched you on the Humble Bundle video and was really impressed with much of what you said.

    Err, why am I writing to you? Well, I’m kind of on a mission…

    I completely love computers, games, etc.. I grew up playing my C64, being jealous of my mate’s Amiga 500 and Atari ST. But coming back to the present, I’m the head of IT at a high school on the Isle of Man. You may already be aware, but if not I’ll tell you that computing is making a comeback in school IT (Sorry, ICT) lessons.

    A problem of this is that many ICT teachers have become rusty from teaching how to use Microsoft Office all the time. Also, kids are just not used to programming because it’s not been on the curriculum for yonks. Anyway…

    My mission is to forge links and raise awareness amongst developers (games developers in particular, because kids can relate better) and ask for bits of advice, suggestions, guidance on programming matters. The mission statement is to educate and provide the (UK) programmers of tomorrow! (I just made that up but actually quite like it).

    If you can assist in ANY way whatsoever, I know for a fact that EVERY IT teacher in the UK will want to hear what you have to say. What you know is invaluable to people in my position.

    Any kind of feedback would be most welcome.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this.


  5. Hi. It’s a pity you are on the isle of man and not local. I think young kids would benefit a lot from meeting a computer games programmer. When I was at school, we were told that trigonometry was important because ‘you might work in a baked bean factory and use it to work out the volume of a can’. I use trig all the time to compute spaceship explosions and social simulations in my games. I reckon that’s more motivating for kids…
    I’d be happy to speak in a school now and then, if it was within vague radius of me (SW England).

  6. Would you consider keeping your Linux builds up to date and making DLC more easily accessible to Linux users to be “polishing”? Not that i want to sound negative, it was nice that any support cropped up in the first place, but leaving the customers who bought into your linux version stuck at an old revision and without access to DLC feels less than polished, even if fixing the situation may not be as profitable or fun as you’d like it to be, hmm, i’m almost sounding bitter again, and that really isn’t my intention…

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