4 Ways to Keep Promises on Really Complicated Projects

Posted on Posted in Dev Diary

Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

Many have lamented that people in the modern era don’t treat their word as bond like they did “back in the day.” Maybe we’re flakier than we used to be, maybe we’re not. Either way, keeping your word is very important. You don’t have to be 100% perfect, but if you’re reliable, people will notice, especially your customers.

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There’s one big problem, though: modern tasks are complicated and unpredictable. How do you come up with a reliable estimate of how long it takes to make a board game? It’s not an easy question – board games can take anywhere from several months to several years to create. Even individual tasks that you do on a day-to-day basis such as play-testing, writing a blog post, and managing social media can take a lot longer than you think. This puts you at risk of promising too much and delivering too little.

I’ll be honest, there is no way to be 100% reliable. Yet I personally have several rules I follow before I make promises to others, four of which I’d like to share with you today.

1. Make bold announcements only after you are prepared.

Once you’ve got a lot of commitments, take on new work slowly. If you take on too much responsibility, you won’t be able to fulfill most of your commitments as well as you would like to. It’s good to be ambitious, but there is a very big difference between private ambition and public promises. Knowing the difference can save your reputation.

If you want to take on an exciting new project, do at least some of the work before you publicly announce what you’re doing. Sure, you don’t want to wait too long since showing people the development process is great for marketing. No matter what, though, you want to make sure you at least have some idea of what you’re committing yourself to before you say you’re committed.

For example, after I found out how difficult it was to publish a game with War Co., I was more cautious when creating Highways & Byways. I had some experience publishing a game through Kickstarter, plus I had already drafted up a version of the game before I said online “I am working on a new game.” Furthermore, when I made that announcement in March 2017, I used a somewhat vague public timeline for when it would be on Kickstarter, opting to say “early 2018” or “Q1 2018.” It’s only this week that I finally settled on the launch date of March 26. (Shameless plug: click here to get an email when it goes live.)

Highways and Byways: Version Highway 3
I made a lot of progress on Highways & Byways before I started promising dates.

2. Use your resources to estimate timeframes for delivery.

When it comes time to commit yourself not just to a project, but to a project date, you’ll be doing that oh-so-dangerous business task of estimating timeframes. This is really, really hard to get right. You can Google search for terms like agilescrum, and systems development life cycle to see just how much thought people have put into estimating timeframes. Big corporations sink billions into better processes for estimating timeframes and they lose many billions more by being bad at it. (And let’s have some sympathy for them here, it is truly hard to get right.)

The best way to come up with a time estimate for something complex like making a board game, growing a blog audience, or creating new software is to use experience. You can either draw from your own prior experience or ask someone who has experience. But hey, sometimes you’re doing something really wild and you don’t have experience and you don’t know anyone who does. That’s where I was with War Co. (even though I could have totally found experienced people if I’d bothered to try).

In that case, research as much as you can online and make your best guess. Experiment and keep track of how long it takes to do certain things. Improve your guesses as you go along. As long as you follow the last guideline – being careful about what you publicly promise – this should get the job done.

3. Keep two timeframes – an optimistic one and a cautious one.

This is a personal favorite technique of mine for making sure I can make both accurate estimates and avoid promising more than I can deliver. My own personal timeline is pretty optimistic. I thought that I’d personally have Highways & Byways on Kickstarter by the first week of February. That’s not too far off, but if I’d promised that to my potential backers, that wouldn’t have looked so good.

When I’m held accountable for delivering something, I use a more cautious timeline. I make sure to account for all the odd little things that can come up, which I call incidentals – surprises which you can’t predict. Folks familiar with the original Star Trek might even liken this to the Scotty Principle, which goes a little something like this…

Kirk: How long will it take you to fix the engines?

Scotty: Aye, it’ll take me sixteen hours. I have to recalibrate the technobabble machines.

Then he delivers in twelve hours.

This principle could be cynically referred to as “padding estimates,” but that’s not the point. The simple fact is that underperforming on a big promise looks way worse than slightly overperforming on a small promise. People are not rational, and you have to deal with that when you make promises. Furthermore, if you’re working as part of a team, people may very well be waiting for you to finish your tasks before they start theirs. If you can’t keep your promises, you could make liars out of them, too.

4. Be transparent when you can’t do what you said you could.

The three principles I’ve laid out above will help you keep your promises, but you’ll still screw up every once in a while. It happens. Creative projects are way too complicated to reliably predict all the time, no matter how much we want them to be predictable.

If you fail to meet your promises, the next best thing is to apologize sincerely, provide an explanation, and stay in touch with the people you’re reporting to more often. It’s so simple, but a lot of people screw this up. If you get this right, you might even benefit from the pratfall effect by becoming more popular after handling a mistake with class and grace.

Do you have any good tips for keeping your word? Share them below, I’d love to hear them 🙂

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Highways & Byways is going live on Kickstarter on March 26Click here to get an email when it goes live.
  • The Highways & Byways giveaway contest is over and a winner has been chosen and you can see this on Facebook.
  • I’m still working very heavily on outreach: you’ll see me on a lot of podcasts, guest blog posts, and even a few Twitch/YouTube streams!
  • Highways & Byways reviews are still ongoing – it’s a lengthy process.

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