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A DECADE OF ITERATIONS

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10 Learnings from 10 Years of Indie Mobile Game Development
By ZAID AHMED

I’ve been involved with the indie mobile game dev. scene here in Dhaka since 2011. I too would roll eyes with you about the “mobile games” part but hear me out. 

While making games, I had to wear many hats, not all willingly, responsible for designing games, user experiences, managing the product & people behind it, to name a few. The myriad of roles I played demanded that I uphold standards for the people, products, and practices I am proud of. A decade of iterating taught me valuable lessons about making games and about life. 

So, when I was tasked with writing this, I felt that the best way to do justice would be to write something a younger me would appreciate and hopefully learn from. 

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

About making mobile games, in an ideal world, I’d be making games for the master race but the dice I rolled decided otherwise. Even though I wasn’t too excited about mobile games, I found the best thing around my circumstances and dived in head first because for me “it is better to make mobile games than to make no games.” My PC dev. goal still remains, it’s just a matter of time before I figure it out. I believe Civ fans amongst us can relate.

Just like the Bear Grylls “improvise, adapt, overcome” meme, my goal is to make PC games and I had to start somewhere even if the start wasn’t ideal. I kept my goal in mind and found a way to get my foot in the gaming industry door. I wanted to learn how to make games, get good at it and then eventually find a way to reach my goal.

I encourage everyone thinking about joining game dev. to learn more about it, find out where you fit in the puzzle and start chalking out options. It’s never too late or early when it comes to learning game dev. 

Learn Before You Leap

I grew up infront of TV and computer screens absorbing as much information as possible. I learned from ants, simulation games, science, art, history, the news, movies, music, you get the point. 

After researching game development in general, I decided that Game Design is what  I wanted to focus on. I realized I could apply all the info I absorbed, into making games. I ofcourse had to equip myself with the skills, knowledge and inner workings of Game Design aswell.   

For me all those “useless information”, as my parents term it, helped me understand the importance of systems, mechanics, art, experience and how to glue them together. I kid you not, if it wasn’t for Animal Planet, I would have never realized that some people are symbiotic and others are parasites. 

You are going up against the best in the world and you should bring your big guns to the fight. Learn to make those guns. It’s constant learning and staying informed mixed with how you apply that learning which leads to making great games. The advent of the internet and recently, social media, has made it ever so affordable to learn about game development; so the only barrier to making games is actually doing it either solo or being lucky enough to find employment. 

Iterate. Fail. Iterate.

If anyone tells you stories of when everything went right in their game dev. career then you should press X to doubt. Failure is a daily occurrence in game dev. and it’s a good thing. Failing while making games opens up opportunities to better yourself, your processes and practices. 

Iterate on your failures and make a better product. The cliche is true, learn to fail and fail fast. I learned that iterations apply to life aswell, it’s okay to fail because you will come out as a wiser person.

Have a plan ready for your project. Make room for failures. Set deadlines accordingly. You don’t have to figure it all out right off the bat; it’s better to build games in small chunks and develop as you go; iterations allow you to have a more stable, playable and enjoyable end experience. 

Making Games is Not “Fun”

Before you jump into the hype wagon of making games, make sure to understand what you are getting yourself into. It has happened where awesome people I know just couldn’t adjust with game development and switched to something less demanding. Know that it is perfectly fine to make games on the side as a hobby.

Making a great product requires a motivated team, led by a capable “manager” and a lot of communication. There will be debates, personal biases and people complaining all the time but know that most of these are requests to address concerns that they feel are harming the game. This should be encouraged.    

An important lesson everyone learns and talks about is how making games can drain the life out of you and at one point make you lose interest in playing games. Life becomes a little less exciting and you end up being a meme. It’s true, making games is taxing on the mind and work-life balance. 

Work sometimes bewitches you to push yourself into working late and take on more stress. Soon enough that becomes the norm and an expectation. In my experience, it is better to balance workload and give equal priority to your personal life. Remember why you enjoy games and why you wanted to make them, if you’re unhappy in either then that needs to be addressed. 

Problem? Communicate! 

Making games requires communicating ideas, handling conflict and putting the product before your ego. I can’t stress enough on how important communication is in game dev. 

I know programmers who thought art & UI is “just drawing lines”; I also know artists who think programmers are lazy because it took so long to solve a “seemingly easy” problem. Both are wrong and should not be encouraged. In my experience, communication between teams is absolutely essential not only for work but also for understanding the human being behind the designation.

I have a grandmother’s jute bag of stories where communication has cleared many misconceptions, helped improve efficiency and morale of the workplace. It will get uncomfortable and not everyone will click with you but as long as everyone shares the same dream of setting global game dev. standards, you can work out the differences. Talk to your co-workers, understand their passions & dreams and soon enough you will be pulling pranks on each other! 

At the end of the day, people on the same boat should get along with each other regardless of flaws to keep the boat afloat. If things-gone-wrong-in-game dev. was a movie, it would be The Titanic. A small leak can bring down giants, communication can save lives. 

You’d be surprised how some people think the other designation’s job is easier and the best way to deal with this is to have frequent conversation and interaction amongst teams. A workplace full of laughter, open communication and gaming rivalry will eventually improve productivity. The less “corporate” you are, the better.

People Make the Product

You can have a revolutionary milk idea to bring the boys to your yard but without the right mix of people, knowledge and technology, the boys will throw stones at you when they arrive. You need highly skilled, talented and able people to execute great ideas. A key ingredient to success is having such people who are also great human beings. 

I found that most people want an open, communicative and comfortable workplace that values them as individuals. Every specialization is required and every role is important. Finding the right people to fill in those roles will make or break your pipeline. 

Sometimes you may find someone who is insanely talented but a very difficult person to deal with. The individual might cause more social damage than game dev. good. This leaves you in a difficult position to first try and discuss it out with the individual and then eventually decide to keep or get rid of them. Remember kids, in 1340 wise people said “a rotten apple quickly infects its neighbor” and it applies to people too.

I realized that identifying talent and potential should be a basic requirement for the person hiring. Foregoing traditional hiring practices can sometimes help you find gold. Judging a CV isn’t enough. Just like love, you can find game makers in the strangest of places.  

There have been many times when CVs didn’t impress but the individual’s hunger for game dev. opened up opportunities and they turned out to be a dream to work with. Most of these people I still work with. 

You’re Playing it Wrong

I’ve done it myself and seen others doing it – handing someone your game and having to explain it to them. It’s your responsibility to ensure a player can easily understand what to do, how to do it and why they are doing it. Never blame the player if they don’t understand how to play your game. You won’t be next to a player at all times.

To make better games, be all ears to feedback. Research your audience, take from best practices, and apply lessons learned. After testing your product, understand the complaints and define a target that will please most parties, players and money makers. You can never please everyone, so the next best thing is to please as many as you can.

Testing should be a responsibility of all team members. Everyone making the game should play the game with the goal of identifying bugs, areas of improvements and issues with user friendliness.

While play testing is good, if you are the one making and testing it then that could lead to hidden issues. You will play the game mainly to test while somebody not involved with the project will test the game to play it. Find such players and let them play your game regularly to iterate faster and reach polish sooner. 

Fast Fashion of Gaming

Just like any other entertainment industry, the goal is to stay afloat with what you make while finding new revenue streams. Mobile games dominate numbers, it’s the fast fashion of gaming and brings in big money. 

Game dev. is unstable in nature, especially when it comes to mobile games; you have to always know what is trending, where your sector is heading, emerging services and so much more. 

You’ll be left behind if you can’t cope up or are not fast enough and expectations can often be unreasonable at best. All of this while figuring out finances. The financial stress is enough to break the strongest of believers. 

I want to address the crushing reality that games are made to make money and you should keep that in mind when working professionally. It takes money to create, market and maintain games. Based on whether you go solo, indie or big chungus AAA, the objective is money but how you make it should be your decision. Let’s face it, whether you like mobile games or not, you can’t escape today’s sponsor, Raid….legends. 

Fancy Names

I grew up with PC games and whenever I imagined making games, it was always for the PC but even with a decade of making mobile games, I am not fully convinced I can get a PC game right the first time. 

The lesson here is, game dev. follows tried and tested methodologies with fancy names that apply to all platforms proving their benefits. Each platform presents challenges and opportunities but approaches like Agile, Scrum, Kanban and other fancily named best practices bring out results. These practices are promoted and sometimes exaggerated but their efficacy is tried and tested. 

It is imperative to understand these philosophies and apply them in a framework that works best for your workplace. Not everybody will be happy with certain practices and consider them useless but as long as you are implementing them with the goal of finding what works best for you then you’re on the right path. Rest is iterating the process. 

I feel managing a project is more like orchestrated chaos where if proper protocol, procedures and best practices are maintained, you can deliver something worthwhile and in time. Whether it achieves financial success or not is a different story and just like stories, not every one of them have happy endings.

Product Before Ego

Perhaps the most important and harshest learning was placing the product before your ego. It’s difficult to put your biases aside because in your head, your game is the best out there. I had to swallow my pride and hurt my ego to make a game commercially successful.

I was a victim of the mindset that since I like this, they too will like it and if they don’t then they are wrong. This is the worst possible attitude to have when making games for mass appeal. 

Your fickle audience decides what they like, it’s your job to make something worthy even if you do not personally like it. Listen to your audience through data and some feedback. If your audience and data tells you they like something you don’t personally like, shed the lizard skin and figure out how to make that something better.

Oftentimes the team and I had heated arguments for and against a feature or design choice but in the end we all had to agree on what is best for the product. I always tell my team that “if you cannot proudly showcase what you made then it’s not worth making” whether you personally like the game or not.

In Conclusion

Making games is magical during brainstorming and concept incubation, everything that follows is a social experiment where everyone thinks the other person knows what they are doing, but nobody really does. Everybody thinks the manager has it figured out except the manager is just confidently approaching a vision he is secretly anxious about. Just smile and wave, boys; smile and wave. 

Game dev. is notorious for the infamous “crunch” and tight deadlines. It is not a welcomed part of game dev. but it is in tune with reality. It does get extremely stressful and often leads to burnout or boreout, both of which are undesirable. The best we can do is to ensure the pipeline we believe in will reduce the side effects and keep game dev. magical. 

I am by no means discouraging anyone from pursuing game dev. but ask every hopeful to be cautious, informed and determined. Remember why you love games and if making games is right for you, before getting hooked to working till you look like the meme with saggy, black eyes and Einstein hair. Don’t forget to have fun! 

P.S. I think this article needs a few more iterations!