Despot Dungeons was my first “real” project. The definition of “real” is somewhat loose, but basically it doesn’t look like a lost gamejam game, when you see it in the Play Store (IMO).
I was in a bit of rut. I had only been making gamejam games and failing every attempt at long-term projects. I was determined to create a “real” game, so I wouldn’t feel like such a failure.
In 2016 I had been working on a tile-based turn-based game, that I eventually abandoned, because the artist left the project and it was filled with bugs. Here’s a few gif of what that looked like:
Fast forward to summer 2017 and I’m making a tile-drawing-grid tool for fun because I’m a nerd. It was a lot of fun and I decided to just start making a game without really having any real idea. Great way to start obviously…
I had decided that I was going to work every day for at least 1 hour, which was a fantastically easy goal to meet, but also kept me coming back, which meant I wouldn’t fall into a slump or randomly forget to do anything for a month (has happened more times than you’d think).
When it came to planning, I just kinda skipped it. I was really just here for the satisfying grid and turn coding, so I didn’t really scope out the game before starting. Instead I wrote down all the mechanics from my old game from memory along with a few new ideas. Once I had that down, I thought it’d be smooth sailing and it was… For a while.
Structure is Key
Making an enemy, a pushable crate, a pressure plate and a door is not hard, but it’s when these things start to overlap, that it becomes a whole new beast!
As more interactable objects entered the game with more and more custom interactions, that the backend didn’t support, I started adding more and more weird exceptions. The whole project became an unruly mess and soon I was spending equally long sorting out bugs as I was coding features, but I was really close, so I just stuck with it.
After about a month (my original deadline) I had completed everything on my list and I was out of stuff to do, but I somehow didn’t have a game yet?
It was time to actually figure out the beginning, middle and end. Being a story-lover, I started making up a story of an outcast frog reclaiming his honor by defeating 3 despot kings (ding, title!).
This meant that I’d need more intractable objects and enemy-types to keep the game fresh throughout. Oh and 3 king-bosses…
End in sight!
With an outline complete, I regained my confidence. Surely it’d be done any second now, but instead it dragged out. I still hadn’t fixed the backend, which meant that exceptions were piling up and it became harder and harder to motivate myself.
At this point I was no longer interested in the game and had to force myself to work. I kept taping things together and sloppily implementing stuff. I stopped feeling things and became increasingly dissociated from reality (mind you I had had issues with dissociation before). Essentially my mental health was crumbling, but I was only upping my hours.
Little known fact; your work suffers, when you’re dead inside.
I kept on hacking away at my to-do lists and forcing myself to work for another 1.5 months until I was finally done. Of course no game is ever “done”, but at this point I would’ve published a CD-i Zelda game.
If it isn’t painfully obvious already, then yea, I burned out. Really bad. I felt extremely shit for months after publishing the game, and even worse than that, I didn’t really feel accomplished or happy once the game was out. Not recommended.
What to do differently?
As for the actual project, I should’ve given the backend a major overhaul early on, but I’m not really here to talk technicalities. Instead I wanna think about what could’ve been done to prevent my burnout.
First of all you should make a game, that’ll be fun to make. Obviously not everything in game development is awesome all the time, but don’t go out of your way to make a game heavily dependent on something you don’t like doing. Sounds obvious? Well I’m a terrible level designer and don’t particularly enjoy doing it, yet I made a game, which derives almost all its value from the level design. Definitely didn’t help.
Making a deal with yourself to work often and a certain amount is great, because it means you don’t accidentally abandon your projects, but everyday may be too much. Even though I was only work a minimum of 1 hour pr day, it still stressed me out, because every second I wasn’t working on the game I felt like I was wasting time. This meant that even when I had fulfilled my daily goal and should’ve been relaxing, I was stressing out about work in the back of my head. Not being able to take an actual break from work is obviously stressful.
Instead you should try to schedule your hours and force yourself to take your scheduled breaks. When its “illegal” to work during your break, you wont feel ashamed for not working. At least that’s the idea. If you’re not good with sticking to certain hours like me, then declaring 1 day a week as your off day will still go a long way. For example, never work on Sundays no matter what.
Also obviously you should plan your projects before starting. Think about how everything will interact with each other, then try to avoid as many potential bugs as you can from the start!
In the end, I don’t regret it, because I got my game and I do feel slightly more like a legitimate game developer.