The Long Haul Project: Why Making Games Takes a Long Time

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.

In the frozen Canadian arctic of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, there is a famous road known as the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road. It’s a long haul road for ice truckers that’s over 300 miles long and most of it is built on frozen lakes. Sometimes it’s hard to know which direction to go in, but by far, the hardest part is that there is a limit to how fast you can go – 16 miles per hour. When I heard about this, I said to myself sardonically “sounds like game development.”

This image was originally posted to Flickr by madmack66 and licensed under CC BY 2.0. I modified it from its original state.

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Testing, manufacturing, shipping, and building an audience all take a lot of time and there is no way to really shortcut this. Whether you work 20 hours per week or 60 hours per week, you cannot meaningfully reduce the amount of time it takes to do certain tasks. Manufacturing and shipping can’t be changed at all by extra work. Testing can be expedited, but only as fast as you can afford to bring in fresh testers or make changes to the game. With building an audience, sooner or later, you will run into some kind of constraint…

You can spend money on ads, but only until you run out of money. You can talk to more people, but only until you run out of either people to talk to, energy to talk to people, or – in the case of things like Twitter or Instagram – you hit an API limit set by a web developer. You can bring up your game multiple times, but only until people get sick of hearing about it. You can keep talking, but only as long as you have things worth saying.

Game development…no, creativity itself, requires a mix of commitment and downtime. In fact, I’d hoped to speak about this on a post about mental health with a real licensed psychiatrist on this very blog. That post fell through after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and left my contact without power for months. (He’s physically okay but was unable to respond to questions.)

You can’t speed run this. A single project, even with a large team of creators and administrators will still need to go through several stages, listed below. Let’s imagine you have infinite staff and money at your disposal. Where will you hit a bottleneck?

  • Early Game Design: If you’ve got tons of game designers and you work in shifts where 2-3 designers are working on a game 24/7, this will take several days. You can’t have much more than 6-9 people working on game design or else communication will get really weird, really fast.
  • Artwork: Let’s say you create great art specs and break discrete parts of the game up between artists. This will still take a few weeks because each artist will have a contract, some will flake on you, and some will not meet the spec.
  • Game Tweaks: Let’s say you have an infinite supply of fresh play-testers. Yet every time you make a new tweak, you’ll have to iterate the game. Even with 24/7 shift work, it will take several days to get this right.
  • Sample Production: You’re going to have to have another place print your game. If you know exactly what you’re doing when you make the order and you have it rush shipped, this is a two week process.
  • Reviews: Once your game is ready for review, go ahead and wait six weeks for reviewers to get back to you. They’re busy and do their work with full-time jobs and kids most of the time. You can’t rush them because you need their trust to continue on.
  • Kickstarter: Okay, you don’t technically need Kickstarter, but a lot of people like using it to estimate demand and have some degree of certainty in success. Take two weeks for a short campaign.
  • Manufacturing: Let’s say you start the print run as soon as the Kickstarter ends and front the cash even while waiting on the Kickstarter check to clear two weeks after the campaign. It will take six weeks to print and two weeks to air ship it. (Most people can’t afford to air ship, and sea shipping takes up to three months).
  • Fulfillment: Let’s say you rush ship all your rewards from the warehouse – that’s a two week process.

Without factoring in sales and marketing, it is not even theoretically possible to create a board game and fulfill it in less than six months of time. This is assuming you have tons of staff and tons of money, which very few of us do.

What I’m driving at is simple: if you work alone or in a small team, be patient, pace yourself, and have fun. You can’t sprint a marathon. You’re not missing out on anything by not working yourself to exhaustion. There are structural limits to how fast you can move.

If you get bored along the way or feel like you’re not making enough money, here are some suggestions:

  1. Stagger your game projects so that you’re working on more than one at a time.
  2. Launch another project or start a different business entirely.
  3. Help other creators make something they’re proud of.
  4. Spend time with your friends and family.
  5. Take a vacation.
  6. Binge watch YouTube. Yes, seriously.

I don’t even think business geniuses like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet could build up massive empires from nothingness in a year or two. They could do it again and probably do it in less time than it took the first time, but if they were truly left with nothing but their knowledge – no contacts, no cash – it would take a while to build back up to where they are now.

Let’s put the myth of the obsessed genius creator in the ground. The most effective creator is the passionate one who puts in consistent effort regularly BUT who does not burn out or isolate themselves in the process. The effective creator takes in the world around them, reaches out to others, and generally lives a life outside of their work.

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • I’m chugging along on the final 100 tests. I’m feeling good about Highways & Byways. I’m on track for the late March Kickstarter I’ve been aiming for.
  • It looks like I’ll be getting the prototype game in the mail today!

5 thoughts on “The Long Haul Project: Why Making Games Takes a Long Time

  1. Good post, Brandon. In my first year of creating my game, I was arrogant and nsive to think I could launch it on Kickstarter within 12 months. Obviously, I was wrong.

    After the second year of learning more about the game design business, I had a more fleshed out game, and had an artist working constantly on it. I figured I was ready about 30 months in. Nope. Wrong again.

    By the third year, my game had improved some more, and the art was done. This had to be it. But then I had anxiety issues with launching it on Kickstarter, and I would not be able to get prototypes out in time for game reviewers before the game launched. My funds were also pretty low.

    So now I am nearing the fourth year of my project. I was able to afford 6 prototypes and have blind playtesters working on the game. Although there are still a couple of issues with game mechanics, they will easily be fixed and in the rules before the game launches on Kickstarter. My next obstacle is finishing the Kickstarter page and making arrangements with shipping fulfilment companies, as well as sending out some prototypes to game reviewers.

    Although it has been a long road working alone, I think it will pay off ensuring I have a much better and completed product to introduce on Kickstarter.

    1. Thank you, Warren! I’m reminded of the Miyamoto quote that “a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”

      Year after year, you’ve been picking up new skills and trying new things. That effort, over time, really adds up. If you’re able to pull this off on Kickstarter the first time, making a second game, third game, and so on is a lot easier.

      There were times when War Co. as a project felt like a long hazing ritual. Yet the skills I picked up getting that game off the ground have made everything feel smooth with Byways.

      Good luck on Kickstarter!

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