Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How Do I Know When My Game Is Finished?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 13, 2013

I saw this question on a forum recently: “As a ‘lone wolf’ developer, how do I know when my game is finished and ready for release?”

Snarky answer:

It’ll be ready approximately three to six months after you are completely sick of it.

Real Answer:

This question probably reveals more about you and your process (or lack thereof) than you’d probably like to reveal. But it does expose some serious concerns and issues. It really is a pretty serious question, and while there’s no easy answer, it’s something that depends on you and your intended market.

First of all, game development – particularly on the indie side of the fence – remains an artistic process. Yeah, screw the whole “are games art?” controversy – it’s an artistic process.  Even the science and craftsmanship of coding and engineering… it’s all towards an artistic goal. And hey, you’d better believe there’s science and math behind music composition and many other forms of artistic endeavor. But I digress. Anyway, the point is – it’s a creative and artistic endeavor, which means the developers get emotionally invested it.  And we invest our ego into it as well. No game is ever perfect (it’s never been done, never will be done), so it’s impossible to release anything that we are 100% satisfied with.

So at what point do we make the cut-off? At what point do we acknowledge that if “best is the enemy of good”, we must accept the imperfections and send our baby out into the wild to be criticized with great venom and rape analogies by basement-dwellers the world over?

The scientifically accurate answer, with a standard deviation of +/- 0.5%, is:

It depends.

It depends on what kind of game you were building. What was your initial design? Did you hit your design goals? Does it “feel” like a complete game? Did you know what you were building from the get go? If you didn’t know where you were going, then you’ll never know when you get there.

It depends on testing. Have you had other people play the game on whatever variations there may be of the release platform you can get ahold of  and play with the intent to break it? How about with the intent to “explore?” Are the actual bugs reported becoming fewer, more esoteric, harder to replicate, and less game-destroying? Then you are getting close.

It depends upon audience. Who is going to be -playing the game, and what are their expectations? Are you fulfilling them?

It depends on polish. This is a really tough one to handle, especially as you run into your own limitations as a developer (particularly budgetary limitations). And it can be hard to judge as a solo developer, because you are a so close to the project. This depends on testers, and especially “fresh faces” of new players who can experience your game for the first time. And, as Braid developer Jonathan Blow maintains, part of what’s great about indie games is the lack of total polish – the sincerity of the sometimes rough edges.

It depends on economic realities. Yes, we rake the games over the coals that were obviously released in an unfinished state in a desperate attempt to bring in some revenue – usually because the game went over schedule, over budget, and the truth is that most studios don’t have a huge buffer in the bank to cover those kinds of surprises.  But excepting that kind of extreme, there’s a certain point where a game developer has to ask himself, “Will making these changes increase my sales enough to justify their expense?” At a certain point, the answer is “no.” And at a certain point, the opportunity costs for projects you are delaying to finish the current game are too high.

And then there’s a personal commitment to quality. Does the game meet the developer’s own standards? This can be a hard question to answer, as a perfectionist will literally never release a game, because it will never be “good enough.” Each game you release will build your reputation – good or bad – as a developer, and a poor reputation may damage your long-term prospects.

Finally, it depends on marketing preparations and market conditions. Sadly, indie games are also hit-driven, and long-term sales are often dependent upon hitting “critical mass” the first few days of release. Have you done everything you reasonably can to ensure a smooth, well-publicized release? Are there similar, competing games’ release dates (it’s bad for both games if you both release the same day, or even the same week).  Sometimes the exact time-frame of release will really depend on the market, not on you.

So basically, when all of these factors all start to converge – and they often won’t do so all at once – then you know that the end is nigh, and the game is close to completion. Wrap it up.

Filed Under: Game Development, Production - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Albert1 said,

    “part of what’s great about indie games is the lack of total polish” – it’s funny how years ago I read an article that said something like “the strength of indie games isn’t broadness but the fact that they are little, polished gems”. Vogel stated that, contrary to popular belief, indie games aren’t more innvative than AAA titles. These examples say a lot about how developer and press perception diverges.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think it may be more of a diversity of opinion. Whether indie games are more or less innovative that AAA depends on what games you are looking at, and how you measure ’em. If you are talking quantity – there’s a hell of a lot more innovation happening in the indie sector than mainstream, but there’s about 100x more games being released, too. As a percentage… I dunno.

    And as far as polish is concerned … well, I dunno about you, but I consider Braid to be pretty well polished. So it seems he may be referring to as “unpolished” is what you and I would call “reasonably well-polished.” It’s more a matter of degrees, maybe.

    I’m a little more concerned that the production values and budgets for “indie games” – as far as the public and the press are concerned – are steadily climbing into the six figures and beyond. Indies have always included the hobbyists, the lone-wolf first-timers, and other shoestring-budget types. I’d hate to see that all get ignored by press that thinks that indie gaming comes from million-dollar Kickstarters.

  • Pete said,

    As a consultant I am very familiar with the “it depends” response 🙂

    From a biased perspective, I think an App is ready when your users tell you it is.
    To find out, conduct some usability testing and achieve a specific result such as > 4.5 star rating.

    This is exactly why I founded elusivestars.com a service which provides usability testing for iOS and Android apps.