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How to actually finish a project

One undeniable truth about video game development is that even if it is relatively easy to start, no one knows when it will end. Numerous game projects get abandoned each year for various reasons. Sometimes it is due to inadequate research and planning, resulting in a less solid / interesting video game than envisioned. Other times, developers struggle to determine when to stop adding new features. In most cases, in these contexts, these games could have been completed and released by following a few simple guidelines.

Let’s see how to maximize the chances to actually finish your video game project.

Why it is easier to start than finish

When embarking on game development, a rush of amazing ideas often floods our minds. We are usually eager to create new and exciting video games, and our creativity drives us to incorporate all sorts of fresh and wild ideas. However, as the game begins to take shape, we often start noticing areas that could use improvement or fine-tuning. At times, we may even become weary of playing through the same loops repeatedly. This is usually when our creativity reawakens and suggests, “Hey, why not add this or that to turn this monotonous routine into something more exciting?” It is then easy to end up piling on more and more elements to escape a fictional boredom that only exists because we have played the game a million times before it even existed.

To successfully complete a game project, we need to establish a clear definition of what the game is made of.

Determine an MVP early

One of the first tasks to tackle, right after completing the prototype (although it can also be applied to the prototype phase), is defining a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. This is a straightforward list of essential features and content that the game must possess to be considered acceptable and ready for release.

It is crucial to emphasize the word “minimum” in MVP because, as game developers, we often aspire to create impressive, bold games for demanding players. However, this desire to continually expand the game concept can be one of the reasons the game may never make it to release. The MVP should include only what is necessary for the game, no more and no less. This can be a challenging task as it requires us to be capable of trimming down the grand design we have in mind and distilling intricate components and mechanics to their most fundamental aspects.

Preserving these fundamental elements means retaining the heart of the project and its core concept. If defining an MVP forces a drastic alteration to the game’s grand design, storyline, or theme, something may have gone wrong, and it is time to take a step back, reevaluate, and start again.

Every element that survives in the MVP should be tagged as “must-have,” while the rest falls into the “nice-to-have” category.

For example:

The final game will feature 800 unique NPCs, each with their own storyline… I’ll tag 10 unique NPCs as ‘must-have.’ These are essential to fully realize the game’s potential. The other 790 will be considered ‘nice-to-have.’

In my grand city-builder game, there will be 400 unique hand-drawn flowers in the parks… I’ll mark one flower as ‘must-have’ since adding more won’t significantly enhance the game.

Even though teleport points offer convenience, my adventure game can function without them, so I’ll categorize them as ‘nice-to-have.’

Getting this kind of list early in development will be helpful later when difficult choices will have to be made.

This MVP represents a streamlined version of our game, containing only the bare essentials. It is the benchmark we must reach before launching the game. If the MVP criteria are not met, and despite the numerous fantastic features and mechanics that could be added, the game will lack the essential components needed and will rest on shaky foundations.

Analyze each Milestones

Game production should be organized with a clear plan for what’s coming next. This plan should be divided into milestones. Regardless of the time span between two milestones, it is essential to set goals and focus on achieving them (but, no, you can’t have only one milestone named “game release” – it does not work that way).

At the end of each milestone, the team should come together to collectively evaluate what went well and what did not during that period. It is the perfect moment to review the MVP and prepare for the next milestone accordingly. In case the development of certain important aspects lags behind others, the MVP helps us concentrate on what really matters in terms of features or game content to produce during the next milestone. It defines a clear path to define milestones content.

In a typical development scheme, up to two-thirds of the roadmap consists of MVP milestones, meaning that by the end of the second third, the MVP is achieved. Subsequent milestones would then encompass “nice-to-have” and potentially “bonus” topics (we have not discussed “bonus” features, but you get the idea).

It may will happen that some “must-have” content is not delivered within the first two-thirds of the roadmap. The key here is to adjust and shift the plan a bit. Since time can’t be extended (yet), postponing an MVP feature means that a “bonus” feature with a similar duration will either have to be removed or marked as planned for post-launch content.

Maintain a cut plan up to date

Knowing what to trim from the project at any given time is a great way to save both time and money when challenging decisions need to be made. Once again, an MVP and a good understanding of the roadmap can come to the rescue. This time to help shaping a cut plan.

A cut plan is a simple list of aspects of the game that could be potentially reduced or eliminated. When financial resources become scarce or the release date needs to be adjusted for any reason, a quick look at this list can help determine what could have a positive impact on the production timeline without significantly harming the game (but your mood and feelings might be affected).

These cuts could range from reducing the number of assets (e.g., using 20 flower meshes instead of the initially planned 80) to removing crucial features (such as teleportation).

It is recommended to update the cut plan after each milestone. This can be daunting and even disheartening at first as it is a bit depressing to have to consider all the promising content that may never make it into the game. However, as production progresses, the cut plan tends to become shorter, which is a positive sign. An updated cut plan assists in preparing for the final stages of development. Realizing that the list of elements that can be removed to save time and budget grows shorter each month makes the release date more tangible and secure with each update.

Learn to let it go

At some point, it becomes essential to learn the art of letting go. This aspect of video game development is often overlooked, yet it is a crucial skill worth mastering. It is also known as “being pragmatic”.

Sometimes, making decisions can be challenging because we are reluctant to stray too far from our original plan or the ideal game we envisioned two years ago when everything began. However, the ability to not stay hooked on features that have no chance to exist, may be of important value not only for the game production but also for the developers themselves. It helps developers maintain a healthy distance from the game they are creating, preventing them from losing themselves into it.

It is dangerous to persist with something simply because it should work or because it functions perfectly in one’s mind. If it does not meet expectations after several tries or if it cannot be realized without significantly affecting milestone deliveries, it must be pruned.

It is worth remembering that if game production has been correctly planned, letting go of certain aspects will not jeopardize the entire project. In fact, it can serve as an important indicator of the current state of production and even prevent the need to cut other content.

Final words

At this stage, it is evident that early and effective planning is one of the primary keys to successfully completing and delivering a game project on schedule.

As a side note, if it is within your budget, please consider hiring a skilled producer or production team to oversee early and production planning. Game producing is a delicate field that requires expertise and a good comprehension of both the game and the team to pragmatically plan several years of upcoming development.

Never underestimate the power of early planning.