Six-Month Retrospective

Posted On: 2019-04-08

By Mark

Six months ago, I began my journey of being a full-time game developer. I have learned and accomplished so much in that time it's hard to consider it all at once. Nonetheless, as I look back on it, I am blinded by all the things that I haven't yet done that, six months ago, I was sure I would take care of. This retrospective is a chance to look backward at my accomplishments and shortcomings, but more importantly, it is a chance to learn and grow- to take away one thing to focus on now, and onward, to make sure the regrets of my next retrospective won't contain the same list of regrets we see today.

While my accomplishments and learnings were many, it's important to call them out, and take time to appreciate what I was able to succeed at. This is important both because reflecting on the positive is a good motivational boost, and also because leading a critique with sincere positivity can prime an audience to be more receptive to criticism. So here are some specific things that I have accomplished that I am proud of:

  1. I was able to complete my first story-focused game prototype (A Notebook Prototype) which I stealth-released on The prototype provided invaluable data, both during playtests and from the experience of releasing a game. Perhaps just as important, I am proud of the game: players connect with the characters and are invested in the mystery, despite how unpolished the game is.
  2. I created a prototype (called "Bypass") which was not released, but still provided valuable learning experiences and also useful data from those who did play it. The mechanics of that prototype were not robust or interesting enough to make into a full game - which was important to learn as I was considering featuring those mechanics in my larger project.
  3. My current prototype (starting initial playtests right now) brings together a wide variety of lessons into a single cohesive whole. It has taken longer than any of my other prototypes, but in many ways it's a microcosm of what the larger project will be like, so getting practice creating menus and lighting characters helps me understand what is working and what might need to be reconsidered.

Now that I've reviewed what has worked, I will look at a few things that haven't worked as planned. First and foremost is from a marketing/self-promotion standpoint. Things haven't changed from what I described in my retrospective for 2018: I had originally planned to work on building a community and generally making people aware of my work, but I have done very little of that. That being said, there is a clear reason why things haven't changed since then: I didn't include it in my plan for early 2019. Admittedly, that plan was supposed to cover the work of one (maybe two) months, but I am (still) working on tasks listed in that plan, so it's pretty clear why I haven't made any progress on the marketing side of things.

The second thing that hasn't gone as planned is the long development cycle for this current prototype. I didn't have any specific expectations for the timeframe, but this prototype is the first to include a combat system, so it is important to understand how well that is working relative to my narrative goals (mechanics and narrative serving each other is, in my opinion, the most effective kind of storytelling.) Spending 4+ months on this prototype, without any form of feedback at all, has been, frankly, bad for the prototype and bad for me. Iterating quickly is essential for taking something that is mediocre and either making it great or saving costs by cutting it. Having so much time already sunk into the prototype is going to incentivize polishing as I get negative feedback, rather than considering cutting (which might be better, depending on what it is.) Regarding how going for so long without external opinions has been bad for me: I've spent long enough on this one prototype that I'm getting pretty sick of it (an inevitable consequence of spending hundreds of hours on about thirty minutes of actual gameplay) so I really need an outside perspective to help me rediscover it. Seeing my first playtester respond with delight and inquisitiveness has helped reignite my interest in the prototype and the variety of experiences it can provide a player - which is good - but if I'd had that experience earlier it would have made this process less emotionally taxing.

The third thing which hasn't gone as planned is regarding my progress on the final version of the game: I originally thought that, by six months in, I would be into the development phase proper, but I am still in pre-production (prototyping to figure out what makes the game work in the broadest sense.) I don't ever expect to stop making prototypes (they are often cheaper than trying something in the game, only to rip it out later) but I don't even have a project template setup for the final game, let alone code committed to its code base. I know there are significant risks to starting too early (such as baking something that doesn't work into a core part of the game) but, given where I am on my overall timeline, I need to approach this issue from a producer's standpoint (plans, timelines, etc), rather than continue the developer approach ("we'll start once we're ready.")

While there are plenty more things I could list (six months is a long time,) now seems like the best time to segue into what I plan to do going forward. This retrospective has made me more aware of the importance of outside perspectives, not just to make the product better but also to ease some of the emotional burden of working. In light of this, I intend to spend time looking for ways to get that feedback sooner, and more often. While I am not yet at a planning crossroads, I expect that I will arrive at one soon (the feedback I gather from my current prototype will feed directly into the content of the plan.) In preparation for that, however, I already expect two items need to be in the short-term goals list:

  1. Some kind of plan to create opportunities to connect with people over my work-in-progress
  2. A detailed explanation of what exactly is needed before I can start work on my large project proper.

This concludes my six-month retrospective. Hopefully this has been interesting to read. As always, if you have any thoughts or feedback, please let me know.