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Herding Cats or: Running a Game Development Group

Apologies, but thisíll be a long one.

About a year ago, I received a strange notification. An offhand remark that I enjoyed writing in my free time had caught someoneís attention on one of the more popular social media blogs. Turns out that this individual was looking for writers to work on a project of his. I told him sure, as I was pretty bored around that time and to be honest, my dream has been to write games since the dawn of time.

A year later, I find myself in charge of the endeavor (Iíll get to that) and wondered how best to offer words of advice and share my experiences to my readers and game-loving friends out there. So here you go - Returner Mikeís Long, Meandering Advice and Insight on Amateur Game Development.

The Bad

Weíll get this section out of the way, because like any good how-to document, it needs to crush your spirits about the undertaking youíre about to embark on right out of the gate.

The Reality of Failure, or The Venture Bros Were Onto Something

First and foremost, most projects, especially those of amateur passion, will fail. Let it float around inside your head a bit. That includes yours. The possibility of failure is always going to be floating right above your head. Maybe your game sucks, but frankly, if it even gets to release, thatís a huge achievement. Maybe your artists leave, maybe you realize far too late how little material you have for your story or maybe you and your team will just get bored.

How to avoid this? Well, whatís kept me going is this - everything youíve ever played likely started as an idea between a bunch of friends on one beer-soaked, Halo Slayer-filled night. There isnít some tank of bodysuited clones floating in goo to come up with ideas like ĎCube of Meat Saves Girlfriend A Lotí or ĎAyn Rand Failing Under Waterí... itís people like you. Oftentimes without training or anything. Ideas may be a dime a dozen, but if you feel strongly about it, explore it. There may be some merit there.

There are always worse ideas out there.

Another thing is foundation. Ensure your project has a clear goal. Hash that out with the team until youíre sick of it. What do you want to do? Create a heartwarming love story visual novel? Create a shooter with bizarre gravity physics? What? Make sure you always keep this, your end goal in mind.

Next, and this one might not work for everyone, but tell people. This was a piece of advice offered to me while I was writing in my first National Novel Writing Month. Build up your own peer pressure. Tell friends and family so that theyíre always asking whatís new with the project. Youíll feel like a gold-plated asshole after the third time you say Ďnothing, I was too lazy to work on ití and your family gives you that Ďfuck, why arenít you a doctor?í look. Then youíll either get back to work (yay!) or slip into depression (my bad).

Pictured: Gold plated asshole

Last, be prepared for the little failures. Realizing your ending blows or that your character is inadvertently a complete ripoff of another is not the end of your project. Things can change, especially early on, even big things, and youíll survive it. Weíve had to rewrite huge chunks of our project for remarkably small problems and itís never that much fun tearing apart your favorite scenes.

People Are Strange, or Shut The Fuck Up Donny!

Shit is going to happen, as the good Rev. Gump foretold. People will get pissy or bored or frustrated or just have been born directly into a vat of liquid asshole. Likely, this will occur on your team. Sometimes people arenít as mature as they seem at first glance. Sometimes people just run into other people they canít get along with. Sometimes, people just want to watch the world burn.

The biggest thing towards solving intergroup conflict is a strong leadership hierarchy. If someone can point at someone and say Ďshut the fuck up and workí and the other person does it, youíre already leaps and bounds ahead of the game. Emulate other works you've seen or ask for advice. I had someone who worked project management for awhile, and we implemented an old IBM software development system. Everyone will find their own way but there needs to be strong leadership.

Now, what if the leadership is causing problems? That can be tricky. First, Iíd recommend talking to whoever is causing the problems. Be gentle and respectful and try to figure out some way around the issue. Biggest pitfall - weíre all human. Sometimes we just donít agree and we have to learn to live with it. If this doesn't lead to solutions, ask around to see if this problem has been encountered with other members. It may be something the group is trying to work through.

Also, and this is a big one, ask yourself if youíre the real problem. Take off your blinders and take a good, long look at yourself. Be honest, for the sake of your team and your project. We can only improve if we acknowledge our shortcomings. Itís never easy, but itís necessary.

Some teammates complain. Some saddle you with killswitches.

So what if our unique ability as humans to reason and discuss things logically fails? Well, you have two choices here - get the fuck out or stage a coup.

Getting the fuck out isnít a bad idea if problems canít be reconciled. You might even be able to drag a few people with you.

Spoiler: If you get this joke, you're older than you think.

Staging a Coup, however, is what will get you placed onto hipster shirts. This, I happen to have some surprisingly accidental knowledge in.

In my situation, I was pretty low level at first, which was fine. I had a story to write and thatís all that mattered. As time went on though, our leadership started to deteriorate. At first, it was a few odd things, like cutting massive parts of a writerís story with no reason or explanation, or rage quits during meetings, but it eventually began driving away members of the team and after awhile, we knew that our choices were to dissolve the project or do something drastic.

At first, we implemented the aforementioned project hierarchy and allowed each of the groups, Art, Music, Writing and Tech to vote on their own leadership. This almost went as planned, except at the last minute I was voted in for writing lead over the writer Iíd been coaching for the spot. I actually discovered my new truckload of responsibility while I was out of town... about two days after the vote had occurred and been set.

You know the quote.

The individual in question continued to cause problems, however, and eventually the team pulled him aside and booted him. As a last resort, this choice is never, ever going to be easy, but sometimes itís necessary. I imagine the boss that has to fire an employee would feel the same way. In the end, itís about whatís best for the project, and sometimes those choices get ugly.

Youíll Never Work a Day In Your Life, and Other Bullshit

In my opinion, the biggest killer of projects isn't bad leadership or a bad concept, the biggest killer is boredom.

This guy became apathetic about his project. Look what happened to him.

There will be a point in your project when the project starts becoming work. Your passion alone will not carry you through to the end. You need motivation. You need drive. You need people who are as crazy about the project as you are to keep telling you to work. Youíre going to hit slow points, youíre going to question the quality of your work and youíre going to hit snags that you never even considered. Keep going.

Apathy is one of the toughest snags, mostly because for everyone, the answer to it is different. Working on different parts of the project or even having something small on the side to work on to relieve the monotony might help.

Silver Lining

You might be asking yourself a lot of questions by this point. You might be wondering if itís worth pushing onward. You might be getting excited to tell me how full of shit I am. I donít know. But Iíll tell you one thing, that there is nothing in the world like reaching a goal. For me, I donít care if our IP isn't received well. I donít care if it ends up as a joke on the message boards or even fades into obscurity. All I want to do is see it out there, with my name on it, knowing that I made something that I never thought possible. If I get some positive fan mail or see someone cosplaying as a character I made, well... thatís just icing on the cake.

This is how I picture myself when I argue on the internet

Anyway, next time Iíll be talking about the mirror image here... the good sides and what to do to make a project sing. Until then, have any of you started any projects like this? Did they succeed? Did they fail? Why? Iíd love to hear stories from other teams.

UPDATE: Link to page 2 - http://www.destructoid.com/blogs/Returner+Mike/dare-to-be-badass-project-development-part-2-244876.phtml
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About Returner Mikeone of us since 6:25 PM on 01.24.2013

I'm a gamer who's lived in Indiana, Colorado, Hawaii and Japan (having majored in Japanese at Indiana University). Beyond the electronic, I'm a fan of of scuba, fencing, movies, anime and creative writing.

I love all kinds of games, from indie, to foreign, to high profile and experimental. I grew up with the NES, SNES and Genesis, and was always a nut for a good RPG.

I'm currently working on a writing focused interactive fiction with a team online, and assisted in map design and writing for Killing Floor when it was a mod.

I'm hoping to bring an interesting voice to the community and I ask for your feedback, your criticism and your support.