Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 October, 2010

The best laid plans

Time for another installment of the developer diaries. When we last left our heroes, they had a plan: make an RPG, The Fae’s Wyrd, in a month. This is the part where the plan goes off the rails.

Everything takes longer than you expect

I knew making an RPG in a month was crazy. I think most people understand that on an intellectual level. But, it’s different when you’re in the middle of it and you’re up to your neck in it. Looking at that TODO list, which seems to be growing every time to realize another hole in the design, is daunting. I wanted to get the basic infrastructure done last week, then spend this week adding the content. Next week would be polish, candy, and rainbows.

I’m not horribly off-schedule yet, but every day counts when you’re trying to do something in a month. I’ve gotten a lot done, but the code is largely untested since Dave has been slow getting the display and interface code done (more on that in a minute). I’m pretty sure the gameplay code does what I want, but I was hoping to test it as I went along. In retrospect, I probably should have written some simple test harnesses to make sure things work as I expected them to.

The other issue I’m grappling with is how future-proof I want to make my code. For example, in the full design spells can take multiple types of mana from the four basic elements (Fire, Air, Earth, Water). For this initial game, I’ve simplified the spells down to 8 that take only one mana to cast (4 light magic, 4 dark magic). But, in the spell casting mechanics, should I use this assumption that there will only be one point of mana required, or do I assume a spell could have multiple mana points as a cost? In general, I’ve tried to plan ahead with my code, but I suspect that has contributed to me being late.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I’m not a huge Beatles fan, but I do enjoy that quote from John Lennon.

So what about that wacky French Canadian working with me? Foolishly, he decided to make some personal games in addition the crazy task of making an RPG in a month. Obviously he’s insane enough to fit in the company.

The problem is that another of his single-player games has been demanding some of his time even though he had finished it. The good news is that he found a sponsor for a game, and has officially made $100. Hooray! Not a huge amount of money, but it’s an important step. The bad news is that he then spent a lot of time customizing the game for the sponsor. It was only a matter of adding a sponsor logo and a few buttons to go to the sponsor’s site, but it was new territory for Dave and took some time. On top of that, the sponsor provided assets that didn’t work well in our development environment. Instead of splashing out money for the Flash authoring tool (or, worse, pirating it), we’re using the free tool FlashDevelop. It’s a great program and I highly recommend it, but it’s not quite as easy to use when doing things like embedding .SWF files into your project. I’ll let Dave post about the technical details, since I only know them secondhand. Needless to say, this ate up a few nights of his time, so his side of the work has fallen behind as well. On the bright side, he’s expanded his skill set and if we need to do this on future projects he’s going to be better able to handle it.

Changes in business

So, as you might remember, part of the reason we’re doing an RPG in a month is for a game development challenge. The important part of the challenge is to make money (“sell 1 copy”) of the game. Our goal was to use the wonderful to find a sponsor. We accepted that this might take longer than the end of the month, but it seemed to be the best way.

But, then Dave found a blog post from a Flash developer entitled Flash game sponsorship dead? In the post, a rather experienced developer explains the trials and tribulations faced in trying to find exclusive sponsors for relatively high-end games. Dave had experienced something similar with his first game, a wonderful, Halloween appropriate, zombie-themed game that fits within the world of his brower MMO Golemizer. He has what I think is fairly original gameplay and it’s a lot of fun, even if he uses the same type of sprites as from his game (meaning, not lush original art). But, while his game seemed to get a fair amount of attention and plays from potential sponsors, in the end the best bid was $100 for a non-exclusive sponsor.

Now, maybe there are extenuating circumstances here. Maybe the original poster having trouble finding a sponsor has upset too many potential sponsors. Maybe the game isn’t striking the right chord with potential sponsors. Maybe Dave was having some problems since he was a new and unknown quantity. Or, perhaps the market has changed and big-ticket exclusive sponsorships are a thing of the past. At any rate, it’s another concern to note as we go forward. In the long term, however, I definitely want to get back into MMOs, and I understand the business models for those games a lot more than I understand them for sponsoring single-player Flash games.

About the artists

Not much to report on the art side of the game. They’ve produced some great work and it’s helping the game come together. The art schedule is proceeding according to the original plan, but there are always little, “Oh, we also need…” situations arising. Although one of the artists is taking some night classes and the other has a part-time job with unpredictable demands, which is keeping both of them busy. But, I think that the art portion of the project is going smoother than the programming.

Will our heroes make it?

We still have a week and a half left of this month. I think we’re not going to make the literal requirement for the competition: finish and sell a game by the end of the month. I think it’s possible we’ll finish the game by the end of the month, assuming Dave doesn’t have to make more changes to an existing game and focuses on this project! ;) This game is interesting enough to me that I think we’ll finish it release it even if we miss the deadline, but it might be something you see in the next few months instead of the next few weeks.

Taking a look at the current situation, I see the biggest specific risks as being: bugs in the existing code, having a surprise art requirement, and just not finishing the code in time for the deadline.

As always, feel free to ask questions below. I’ll answer if I’m not too busy debugging or harassing Dave to get work done. :)

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  1. My advice is to not plan ahead so much. Assume that you will have to change the code and refactor it. As well as the design. Use systems that build that concept (constant change) in. Do something really simple, and do it well. Test things rabidly, and constantly.

    These are the concepts of Extreme Programming, or more generally agile development. Reference here They are pretty much antithetical to how I used to do things. I now think I was wrong.

    Comment by Toldain — 20 October, 2010 @ 1:45 PM

  2. On such a short deadline, solve the problem you have today. Modularity is your friend here.

    Comment by Michael — 20 October, 2010 @ 3:37 PM

  3. Toldain wrote:
    My advice is to not plan ahead so much.

    I’m reminded of a quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” I think having guidelines is useful, but sticking to them slavishly is asking for trouble. We’ll see how well things work out with this project and if we continue the project with other games in the future.

    These are the concepts of Extreme Programming

    XP makes a some assumptions that I didn’t want to drag Dave into as well. The other big problem is, as I’ve said many times before, “There is no unit test for fun.” We could execute the game perfectly but have a steaming pile on the other end because it just doesn’t engage us. As I’ve learned, a game is more than just the sum of its parts. The system should be fun, but we’ll see if it actually is when everything comes together.

    Michael wrote:
    On such a short deadline, solve the problem you have today. Modularity is your friend here.

    My code is highly modular. I’m an avid fan of object orientated programming, so that’s not a problem. Making the code modular has helped Dave and I split the code into manageable chunks without us stepping on each others toes. It’s worked very well so far, but we’ll see how the different parts get put together.

    The issue here is: do I cut corners now to save time, or do I build thing out a bit more to make future work easier? In the case of the mana cost above, I just iterated over a list (which currently will only have one element in it for this game) instead of just taking a single value.

    My feeling is that this will help us have more reusable code in the future. Or, at least, reduce the work required to make it usable in other projects. We’ll see if that’s a smart thing to do or not. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 October, 2010 @ 4:18 PM

  4. The best laid plans – Part 2

    [...] If you’re looking for part 1 you must check Brian’s blog. Yeah I just stole his post title [...]

    Pingback by Over00 — 20 October, 2010 @ 4:57 PM

  5. Another thing that has been spinning in my mind recently related to my Flash game sponsoring experience is “do we try to rush it to make it for the end of October or do we instead go for something that might actually make some money”.

    The whole 1 month deadline thing was nice but with the bad timing with my other projects it got out of hands. So at the moment I’d say I’m more focused on making this RPG something a bit more than a speed run. The deadline is probably out of reach now but the project WILL be completed.

    Oh and here’s my official “excuse” ;)

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 20 October, 2010 @ 5:17 PM

  6. Ah come on, it wouldn’t be game development if you actually released ON TIME. What’s wrong with you?! ;-)

    I’d start worrying about the end of the world if a game (let alone an MMO) actually came out on the original release date.

    Comment by Ysharros — 21 October, 2010 @ 6:42 AM

  7. But isn’t this exactly the usual problem for commercial game development? “Do I cut features to hit an arbitrary deadline, even if that risks shipping a game that isn’t sufficiently fun? Or do I spend more money (if I have it) and miss a deadline and possibly some sales or marketing opportunities in order to try to guarantee that all necessary fun is implemented and polished?”

    What comes to my mind — which tells you exactly how I’d answer the above question, here and in the general case — is this: a good game can be released any time and do well.

    It would be great to finish Fae’s Wyrd in time for this competition, particularly since I gather it was the inspiration for the group to form. But hitting any artificial deadline cannot be permitted to be more important than maximizing the fun of a game that goes out the door with your name on it.

    So it seems to me, anyway. Just one more data point to add to the sampling of opinions. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 22 October, 2010 @ 10:37 AM

  8. Bart Stewart wrote:
    particularly since I gather it was the inspiration for the group to form

    Actually it wasn’t. We already completed 2 currently non-public projects as this team. So the competition here was mostly just a reason to get another project started but the team was already there.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 22 October, 2010 @ 12:02 PM

  9. My company is in the same spot, its amazing the things that come up unexpectedly, even after extensive planning and research. But Bart hit the nail on the head, it comes down to the Blizzard question: Schedule or Quality? Sounds like a simple question with an obvious answer, but realistically the temptation to rush and finish is ever present. The worst is when you decide to officially delay the completion date and choose a new one, because you feel a sense of failure and concession, but realistically you’re making the smart choice to give your project the love and attention it needs to be great. Fret not!

    Comment by Anderoth — 24 October, 2010 @ 8:42 PM

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