Back when I was creating the Maze, or building the initial prototype for E.C.H.O. (nevermind that only 5 people saw it – I learned an entirely new language and created the first few levels in a week of 7am-to-2-am crunch), I was under a lot of self-generated pressure to deliver. Why? There were deadlines. And to meet those deadlines, I sacrificed a great deal of time, energy – the old phrase “blood, sweat and tears” comes into play here – and at the end I had something that I was really proud of. I’ve never counted the downloads for E.C.H.O: what mattered to me was that I did it. It was hellishly tough, but out of sheer obstinacy I stuck to it until it was done.
Contrast that with almost all of my other projects. No deadline, no goals, no criteria: result: inevitably discarded prototypes lying around in a half-forgotten folder. I’m sure every developer has been through this. We tend to discard more projects than we ever complete. My ideas tend to go nowhere (or haywire – almost the same) unless I give myself a deadline. That forces me to think: “What can I achieve within this time limit?” and those hundreds of ideas are whittled down to a few core ideas that can be implemented. That in turn helps me establish a roadmap, so to speak, and figure out what has to be done.
I don’t precisely understand the psychology behind all this, but a deadline – even a vague one – really kicks in this process of “What can I do within time” and then “Ok, let’s chop the task down into daily bits…” When you say to yourself: “I will do this within this time” it’s as if you put on a pair of +10 Gloves of Productivity. It chops down most of the feature creep that tends to have you designing the next Call of Duty and throwing it away. It also helps me with vital, practical questions.
Eg: my timeline is 20 days. Obvious choice is to go 2D. Okay, I can’t write my own engine: acquiring the knowledge and expertise for that alone would take me a few months. Possible options: Construct2, Game Maker. Art? I’m going to have trouble with animations. Downloads? No, not enough time: it’s going to take forever to find the graphics sets I need, compare licenses, blah and so on blag. Let’s keep the animations to a minimum – or use code to generate some (as I did in the Maze).
It’s as if setting a deadline is an immediate shift from a rather laid-back “weekend warrior” style of developing to a more efficient, faster type focused on a few key ideas. While this might lead to repetitive gameplay, the other tends to lead to projects getting out of hand or simple being abandoned. Especially when a new idea creeps in.
Looking further, I think that deadlines – well-thought out, fair deadlines, not the cruel punishments that, say, call centers dish out – actually make you do WHATEVER you’re doing much better. Crunching like Edmund and Tommy did for Super Meat Boy isn’t advisable, but neither is just plugging away without a proper goal or deadline, like Phil Fish for Fez.
My advice? Use deadlines. They’re not as bad as everyone says, ESPECIALLY if you’re a writer or game developer. They help you identify the possible and set targets for you to hit and feel good about. Use them fairly to set up achievable and challenging targets, and whatever you’re doing, you’re going to end up doing it faster and better.