Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Four Steps to Making a Video Game In Just a Few Minutes a Day

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 6, 2013

Last week, I had people ask me how to get indie game development done when you only have about an hour or something to get the job done in an evening.

I’m not going to pretend I’m some machine-like super-programmer here. When the Day Job has me working 12+ hours a day (sadly, a description applicable to for far too much of the last year and change…), it’s pretty dang hard for me to jump right into more software development when I get home.  And I do like to do things like spend time with my family, etc.

I’m not perfect at it. Some days I really don’t get crap done. Or I just end up “tinkering” and not really making much progress (though it’s helpful, too). But sometimes I can make it work, and I actually get ‘in the zone’ and really make progress even with a limited amount of time. Here are some things that help me make this happen:

#1 – Face Reality

Even when you do pull it off, there are some real limits to what can get accomplished on only one hour a night.  An RPG epic is going to take a lifetime to complete at that rate.  If all you can possibly devote to indie game development is a few hours a week, scattered in little 1 or 2 hour blocks, you have to scope your vision appropriately. In my case… well, I really haven’t done this very well, but I also didn’t anticipate this last year being one giant crunch for the day job. But I anticipate that changing very soon.

But if that’s all the time commitment you envision – at least at first – then you need to face reality and scope your project appropriately. At 5-8 hours a week, it will take you about one month to create a game equivalent to what you’d do in a 48-hour game jam weekend. Make sense?  Plan appropriately.  Contract out where you can (which will take time on its own). Work within your limitations. If time issues are temporary, that might be a good time to work on pieces of the game that are less time-intensive, or stuff that doesn’t have too many dependencies. And – again – working with contractors for things like art and music.

#2 – Plan out tasks

One of the most critical productivity tools for me is to maintain a task list. I have lost count of how many times I sit down for a development session (or finish a major task), and look at the screen and say, “What now?”, and end up puttering around for an hour or two surfing the web, playing a game, and dinking around with things in the code that really don’t have much goal or purpose. While these things may be useful (surfing the web may involve hitting engine tutorials or whatnot), they don’t do much to get the game done.

Having a list already planned out really helps me get in the zone faster, and stay there. It’s motivating to see items getting marked off the list, even if their impact on the game as a whole aren’t really noticeable.

If you know you are only going to be working for an hour at a time for a while, break the tasks down to things that can be completed in that time period (or less). Rather than tackling the entire main menu as a single task, break things down to their component tasks. Like getting the audio options sliders working. Or getting the load game mockup done with fake data. This sort of thing.

#3 – Vary Your Activities

If your day job has you doing pretty much the same thing as you are doing as an indie game developer, it’s helpful to plan activities that offer a chance to shift gears. This is especially true for us programmers. For those who don’t know, here’s a shocking surprise – writing game code isn’t really a fundamentally different experience from writing any other kind of programming.  The results on the screen can be a hell of a lot cooler, but when you are down in the depths of your save-game code, you might as well be writing database access code or customer report functions.

So when the day job is going into overtime and I have problems jumping right into doing Yet More Hardcore Coding, this is a fine time to plan other non-programming tasks. Writing this blog is one way I shift gears. It’s a good time to do design work, to play around with art, to do biz-related activities, or other things that don’t involve straight-up programming.

#4 – Commit and Make It a Habit

The real dark, dark secret of all of this is actually pretty simple: Commit to a time frame for which you’ll work on your game, even if it’s only fifteen minutes, and stick to it like your life depended on it. Every. Single. Day. Ideally, this should be the same time every day. Maybe even cue up a “work mix” of music in your media player to play when you start.

Make it a serious commitment. Shut off the web browser unless you come into an emergency that requires you to look something up. FOCUS.  And plan on only fifteen minutes or something – that’s all the time you’ll truly “commit” to, and at the end of the session you’ll be done, but in that little fifteen minute time frame you will be doing NOTHING but making your game and knocking out a task or two.

There are two things that will happen here:

The biggest advantage is that eventually it’ll become a habit. When it becomes a habit, you will find your brain shifting more easily into game-dev mode, and you’ll be able to take better advantage of your limited time. You’ll get “in the zone” faster. And if you have a family and other considerations, they’ll hopefully adjust and plan around it as well. It’ll become part of your life.

The other advantage – more easily realized in the short-term – is that inertia will take over in your sessions, and once you start chugging along doing the game development thing, it’s easy to keep right on going. That’s one reason I tend to work at night, after all my other commitments are done… I’ve got nothing else scheduled for the day but sleep, and I can push that one back if I really need to. So I may only be committed to getting a single task done, after which I tell myself that THEN I can play a quick gaming session or something.  But if an when I get into a zone of unbridled productivity, I can stay there for a longer time and get a heck of a lot done. I’ll ‘cheat’ in a good way.

So there you go. Four steps to making a video game in just a few minutes a day. As always, these things are easier said than done, but when I actually do them, they work for me. Maybe you’ll need to vary them in some way to make them work for you, based on your schedule and the way you work best. It’s not a miracle formula, but I find it really makes a huge difference in my own productivity when I follow them.

Good luck, and have fun!

Filed Under: Game Development - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Adam said,

    Who knows perhaps I read this here or another blog but something that has been helping me lately, especially when I find myself staring at my screen wondering “what next” is to ask “What is the current thing stopping me from playing this right now?” e.g. “I can’t save my game” It seems silly but when I answer that question it leads me to a task I can work on. And if that task is too big I ask myself the same question but in a more pointed way. “What is the current thing stopping my saved games from working?” Anyway, thanks for the blog Mr. Barnson. It’s one of the blogs I look forward to reading everyday.

  • Noumenon said,

    Scoping for the time you have seems like a great tip. Maybe I’ll line up the next task I’m going to work on the day before.

  • Xenovore said,

    Awesome tips! Thanks!

  • Acrin1 said,

    Great tips. They struck a chord with some recent changes I’ve made to my own game development habits and they’ve been working out well since Christmas for me. Hope the day job eases off a bit soon. Thanks for your work on the blog it’s a good read and has good advice and links.