Two Year Retrospective

Posted On: 2020-10-05

By Mark

This past Friday marked my two-year anniversary of working full-time to develop games. As such, I thought now would be a good time to look back at where I've come from, where I am, and where I am headed.

Minimum Two Years

When I first started this journey, I had some specific expectations about what I would accomplish with it. Some of these expectations were met (the creation of A Notebook Prototype and participation in a game jam,) but some of them were more ambitious than I had first thought. I knew I wanted to make a game that would really stretch my skills - something that I would be proud of when I looked back on it, and something that expressed what I felt I've learned over my (admittedly short) life so far.

Even before I started full-time, I mapped out those goals onto the design of the large project I am currently working on: the narrative scope far exceeds anything I've undertaken before, and the narrative voice and themes of the work are informed by my perspective on life. When I set out to estimate the time my project would take, I knew full well that it would be a large one. In light of that, I set for myself an absolute minimum of two years: an estimate that reflected everything going perfectly right and never needing to rework anything. While I didn't talk about that estimate much (it might give people the wrong idea that I actually expected to hit it), I did find it occasionally useful, as some people I spoke to significantly misjudged the time frame*.

Behind Schedule

While I didn't set any specific goals for where I expected to be in two years*, I did hit an important milestone earlier this year - one that helps to reveal just how far behind I am: I am finally developing the content for what I expect will become the final project - a goal that I had originally estimated I would achieve before the six-month mark. Much of this is built on top of over a year of architectural and tools development: the save system and narrative authoring tools, for example, required quite a bit of development, despite being built on a foundation of existing (open source) work.

Yet, for all my progress, other aspects have eluded me in ways that continue to devour my time. Game visuals are an essential part of establishing tone and communicating in-game affordances. Unfortunately, I routinely create artwork that fails on one or both of these fronts: works that feel stylistically out of place or fail to communicate what exactly the player is looking at. Even with an established art pipeline, I still find myself creating art that requires multiple complete reworks before it can be clear enough to use in-game.

Incremental Scheduling

Although it took much longer than I had originally thought to get to this point, I am quite happy that I am (finally) working on the actual content that I've planned for the game. My general strategy for this phase is to use incremental development paired with internal-only playtesting. By combining these two, I expect that I will be able to keep forward momentum while still getting (limited) player feedback on how the narrative and mechanics feel - despite being at a significantly lower level of polish (ie. first draft writing.)

As such, I don't particularly intend to plan all that far out at this point in time. I know the story beat I am on, and the next one I want to get to - which together comprises my plans for the content. I've got some mechanical features that I'd like to implement, but each of those remain a "nice-to-have", and I'll try to schedule them when they actually benefit the narrative, rather than getting ahead of it and risking spending time on something that will be eventually cut. Thus, while I have a decently tight plan for the short-term, beyond that is pretty loose, and planned to just keep rolling incrementally.

More Than Two Years

Based on what I've achieved in the past two years, and where I am currently, I don't think I'll be done in two more. A lot of the risk has been ironed out, but there still remains a lot of uncertainty about the future - so I won't even try to make a concrete estimate of where I will be that far out. Instead, I'll make something of a prediction: often, when I work on a particularly difficult task or project, there comes a point where everything looks bleak, with no hope of it ever ending. In my experience, that is the prelude to the end - the fog of uncertainty that comes from solving everything, only to have some final pieces relentlessly keep falling out of place. Once those final hurdles are cleared, the fog lifts, and all at once the end appears, attainable, and far closer than imagined.

My best guess for where I will be two years out, is that I will be somewhere in that fog, unable to see an end. I've never completed a project of this scale, so I don't actually know how long such a fog would last. Such a prediction, at present, probably isn't much use. Yet, as I've seen with every retrospective so far, I always look back on the past retrospectives, trying to ascertain how far I've drifted from where I expected to be.

Thus, I leave this as a message of hope, both for my future self and for anyone else stuck in that final fog: Even if you can't see it, you're almost there. It will end - it always does.