Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Joss Whedon’s Productivity Advice

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 8, 2013

On one of the indie gamer forums over the weekend, someone shared this excellent article:

How to Be Prolific: Guidelines for Getting It Done From Joss Whedon

The points seem to be a little bit meandering, but the key points resonate pretty well with me. While I’m hardly perfect at implementation, when I’m on a solid “roll” I find I generally follow most of these suggestions. Here’s how I apply them to game development:

1.  Be Specific About Your Next Action / Task – figure out exactly what action needs to be taken. Don’t just say, “I’ll work on X,” but rather what you intend to complete for your next task. From a game development perspective, an example might be, “Complete the special effects for spell X and Y” rather than just “Work on the spell system.”

2. Eat Dessert First – Whedon takes on the most enjoyable tasks first. This means that when he gets to the less-fun tasks, he’s already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and is still in love with the project. This can be tough to do, especially when so much of game development depends on laying the foundation – building the “black triangles.” But getting a game to a fun, playable state as early as possible is very important.  And this usually means getting the “fun stuff” done first. The trick is balancing it and using a development methodology that doesn’t make it too difficult to rip out the prototype code & data you used to “do the fun stuff” first and replace it with your more scaleable architecture (something, I might add, which bit me in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon… I spent a lot of time and effort replacing prototype code).

3. Reward Yourself Often – he jokingly refers to this as a vice rather than advice, but it’s another trick. He uses lots of little rewards for completing small tasks (he prefers chocolate),  rather than big rewards at the big tasks. I try to use gaming as a reward for working on my game, but I keep running into self-discipline problems where 15 minutes turns into two hours.

4. “Fill the Tanks” – Seek Inspiration from Eclectic Sources – Whedon explains how Firefly was directly based on a book about the U.S. Civil War that gripped him. He combined this with (obviously) the Millenium Falcon from Star Wars for his key idea. He says, “Now, if I only watched sci-fi I would have just had the Millennium Falcon part, which has already been done, but finding that historical texture, it literally, I put the book down and started writing Firefly.” So a key to being creatively productive is to keep the inspiration coming from not only the sources relating to your focus, but from all over. I’ve noted myself how science, history, politics, music, philosophy, and provide ripe fodder for fantasy. The best game designers I know have a pretty rich & broad area of knowledge.

5. Enlist Your Friends – I’m certainly guilty of this. To be honest, some of the best ideas I’ve had were a result of bouncing ideas off of friends and my wife. Even my daughter. And I’ve certainly not been shy about working with friends to develop content. I’d say my own take-away from this, however, would be to pay attention to the local “indie” scene and know what other people are doing, what they are capable of doing … and get an idea of how you can all help each other.  Even if it’s nothing more than just bugging them for ideas or advice.

6. Don’t (Just) Talk About It… – This was something of a side-point, but an interesting one. I’ve often heard that talking about your project (especially in writing) can end up being a psychological substitute for actually working on it. And it’s certainly been true in the past… a lot of indies have proven guilty of a lot of hype and little substance. On the flip side, I’ve often found that indies who used to talk about their project a lot and then suddenly “go quiet” for an extended period of time often do so out of embarrassment – because they have no progress to talk about. Of course, it’s also true that there are times – especially deep in mid-development (that’s about where Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath is right now) – when you get pretty head-down in a project and are too busy to really talk about it, and a lot of the work that you are doing (now that the “fun stuff” from point 2 is done) is really not particularly sexy or exciting.  I’m not sure what the “best practice” might be here, other than to try a measured approach to talking about your project.

7. … Just Do It: This is the indie thing. This is not limited to games. Thanks to modern technology, the tools are cheaper than ever and the barriers are lower than ever in many fields. Put your money where your mouth is, and do it. The worst that will happen is that you’ll fail… and if you avoid bragging about it too much before the fact (point 6), then it’ll not be much more painful than never having tried.  You don’t need permission, and you can’t wait for perfection. So lose the fear and dive in.


Filed Under: Production - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    Authors have taught me another trick that I’ve found surprisingly useful. Take breaks and relax instead of working until the job is complete.

    Any programmer knows the effect that stress or being tired has on their code… and by working in short bursts you avoid hitting that state. When relaxing, I can think and plan my next move rather than “Trusting my gut”.

    I work for half the time that I used to, but I end up accomplishing so much more. Even better, I feel far more relaxed and happy.

  • Anon said,

    “Enlist Your Friends”

    If you are living in a country or state with drastic divorce laws where your wife gets half of the share you better make sure she worked her part for it! 😉

    So enlist her by asking her for her opinions, letting her proof-read etc.
    AFAIK there are even designers who utilize her skills as an artist and let her produce content for their games (Jonas Kyratzes’ wife illustrated some of his games, I believe).