Monday, May 12, 2014

Momentum in Game Development

I think there’s a very nebulous thing in the game development process called “momentum.” It is when you finish working on something, feel good about it, and are ready to work on the next thing with a lot of motivation and confidence. A possible definition of momentum is “the feeling of progress that inspires people to make more progress.”
Momentum is the core behind the philosophy of “Less Talk, More Rock.” Going directly from vision conception to creation lets you keep much of the momentum of having an awesome idea without giving it a chance to cool off with too much talking. Talking, by itself, isn’t actually unproductive - but it doesn’t feel like real work. And the more you talk, the more the completion of your vision seems to drift further away and the less momentum you will have.
However, this doesn’t mean that simply working hard on building your game translates directly to more momentum. It seems that in 48 hour game jams, there’s always a period of depression or slump around the 30 hour mark. It’s not that people aren’t working or creating progress - game jams are one of the most productive periods of game development. However, during a game jam the loss of momentum with create the feeling that the project will never be complete and give birth to thoughts of throwing in the towel and giving up.
Momentum is part of the reason why agile development works. Agile development is able to spread the “talk” among the “rock.” Unlike in the middle of a slump during a game jam, a good agile process should constantly remind people how much work has been done and what impact your current work has on the overall product.

Here’s a quick case study. Momentum is disrupted when your progress suddenly dips, and this is especially the case for games that need to break down and reinvent themselves. Take Super Time Force for example. Even though it started as a fairly successful game jam game (and the team felt really motivated after the jam), the need to reinvent its core concepts impacted its momentum and for a while made the team feel that no progress was being made. On the other hand, Goat Simulator really kept its momentum from its game jam by forcing the team to create a full game in no more than two months.

So what makes momentum work or not work? How to we keep momentum constant and at a good rate?
The first point is to not overwork. As in the game jam example, people who are too tired are not easily encouraged and can easily become depressed. No matter how much progress has been made, tired people will be thinking and concentrating on rest instead of even more progress.
A good way to increase momentum is to externalize your work so it is easily presentable to other teammates by tackling specific problems. Don’t directly tackle nebulous topics such as “the entire story” or “the tone of the game.” Split them into smaller topics so you can easily say “this is the progress I made this week” and list out the specific design choices that you decided on. Having short and reasonable deadlines help a lot.
Along with that, a usually good idea is to make easily implementable work. In other words, work on things that are only relevant at the moment and can be implemented in game as soon as possible. Even though planning ahead is important, work that isn’t implemented often doesn’t feel tangible and complete.
Besides having presentable and easily digestible work, it’s also important to let people see it. For the team, having regular times to show work helps momentum. Also, showing the work to people outside the team is also a good idea to feel more motivated. Supercapy Games founder Nathan Villa once mentioned that showing the game to excited people at shows and conferences helped them escape their slump.

I think momentum has a huge psychological effect on the development team, and that’s partially what makes design by committee is so difficult. In misguided design by committee practices, people will be required to brainstorm different individual solutions to one problem. Then a meeting is held to narrow down those solutions to one. Even though progress has been made, it often feels like momentum is lost because so many work is thrown away.

It’s possible to develop and ship a game without a lot of momentum, but having it does make game development process a lot more pleasant. Momentum is all about maintaining a balance between showable progress and work. In other words, having good momentum is essentially finding the “flow” of game development.

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