If you’re working on a game or other project right now, finish it! Only by finishing a game will you actually gain valuable knowledge about the whole process. There’s something about the act of experiencing the start-to-finish cycle that launches your skill forward further than you would expect. I addressed one aspect of this in my blog “An ode to tiny games,” so check that out!
Learning to manage scope
Managing scope is hard to master. You don’t really know how to do well until you’ve done it a bunch of times. The act of managing scope isn’t just knowing how long it takes you to do things. There are many aspects of it that you just cannot see unless you reach the end of the project.
For example: It’s not enough to estimate tasks and call it a day. You need the ability to see the hidden scope that’s to come. How long will it take for two people to work together to implement their separate pieces? What kind of bugs can we expect to break this feature? How much of a rush will we be in at the end if we leave certain content until last minute?
When you are over scope, what kind of techniques should you try to manage it? What worked in the past? Where can appropriate cuts be made, and where should no cuts be made? Did your scope adjustments from early alpha phase pan out?
If you never finish a project, you have learned very little about managing scope. Very few of the problems you ran into and solutions you tried will be reliable for future projects because you never get to see how they impacted the end result. Push yourself through to the end, and all the choices you made along the way will stand out and reflect their value.
Learning to manage your time
Shipping a game -- or finishing it but hiding it away forever because you think it sucks -- gives you a huge moment of reflection on how you managed your time. Sure, you can still reflect on how you felt if you quit a game, but the real learning is seeing how adjustments to your time management affected the game and affected you in the end. By finishing your game, you’ll be able to make an accurate connection between your time management and the quality of the finished product. You’ll learn more about yourself. Without this experience to reflect on, you may be doomed to repeat the same mistakes in the future.
Showing off your portfolio
When we interview devs, we like to see finished games. Some people show off old, crappy games they made in school. Others, of course, show off successful projects they did at home or at their previous job. I still love to see them all. Even if the older games aren’t great, I still think to myself “This person has finished # games. They have some semblance of experience.” If someone has a nice portfolio of little chunks of work they did but no final game to show, I think “This person has never finished a game. They don’t know what they’re getting into.” It’s a little red flag.
Even if you’re concerned about the success and quality of the finished game you’re trying to complete, they mere act of making it all the way through will show other people that you’ve put yourself through the wringer before and have an idea of what doesn’t and doesn’t work to get a game done. The effort will get noticed even if the game itself doesn’t.
This helps me sift through design applications too. A good designer has experienced the horror of having a great design on paper, only to see it smashed to bits as production happens and their expectations are shattered. A good designer can adapt and adapt and adapt right up until the end, slowly guiding the design to its final form throughout the project. If they don’t finish the game, however, they can’t see if what they did was truly a good design or why it failed.
Learning to deal with frustration
Giving up can be a habit. If you start to feel frustrated and are uncomfortable with the pressure, it will be tempting to quit. If you quit and feel that feeling later on a different game, you might just quit again. Game development is a lot of pressure, and it’s a skill to learn to take that pressure and channel it into hard work and perseverance. When you push through the hardships and experience the joy and relief of finishing what you started, you’re teaching yourself that the pressure is a positive thing. You develop a good habit.
As a brief aside, projects tend to get more frustrating the closer you get to completing them. The thought that you are so close to being done but still aren’t finished is a killer. It’s all an illusion, though! Don’t view it as a sign that things are going wrong or the game isn’t worth finishing. It’s simply a magnified version of the natural pressure that’s been there the whole time. Push through!
If you do choose to quit . . .
. . . then give yourself a long break before you go back to it. Try something new for a while. Focus your efforts elsewhere. I wouldn’t suggest that you keep picking away at the thing you quit, because then you haven’t actually quit, you’re just working on it poorly. Give your brain a chance to reset and dabble in other things before you attempt to tackle it again. Giving up doesn’t have to be permanent.
I’m sure other people can think of more reasons why finishing a game gives you a vastly different perspective and learning experience than giving up on one. These are just the ones I’ve noticed. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Coming out the other side with a completed game will be worth the struggle.
Project in a nutshell
We ended up designing three games targeting early readers, some of whom may just be learning what letters are. The age range was 2-7 year-olds, depending on the game. Our first game was Bubbles, which asks players to find and place the letters that belong in a three-letter word to unlock the reward of a screen full of poppable bubbles wobbling around.
Physical devices have fewer limitations on interactions
When you design a digital game, you are in complete control of what the player can and can’t do at any point in time. You can disable buttons, hide pieces of information, point at things you want them to touch, etc. These are things you can’t do with a physical device, like the Square Panda tray. Kids can do anything they want with the device and letter pieces at any time, and the game can’t stop them. The digital experience needs to both clearly direct the player on what they should do with the letters and react to spontaneous actions they may do.
Because anything goes in the physical space, players can place letters incorrectly in the tray. It could be the wrong letter, it could be upside down, it could be in the wrong slot on the tray, or anything combination thereof. They could even decide to move letters or rearrange them at any point in the game. We opted to have immediate feedback that walks the players through correcting their mistakes the moment they make them. There are often visuals, text, and voice-over working together to tell the player what happened and how to fix it. We make the lights on the tray and screen blink by the letters and slots that the player should interact with to help draw their attention.
Limited number of letters
The Square Panda device only has so many letters. That means certain words are off-limits because there aren’t enough letters available. This is another limitation to a physical peripheral. All the words in the game need to be able to be written using the letters the player has access to. If the player has lost a letter, they can mark them as lost and the game will automatically fill in the missing ones for them, allowing the player to continue playing.
When you make a game with lots of pieces for a target audience of small children, you run the risk of them losing pieces. We even lost some letters somehow while playing with it in our office! Luckily, Square Panda thought ahead. All the games let you mark letter pieces as missing, meaning the game will fill them in automatically for you.
The Square Panda games use both physical and digital technology. We wanted to use each to its strength. The core gameplay focuses on the letters and tray, but a game like Bubbles will reward the player with the digital interaction of popping bubbles on the screen. Kids love the variety of interactions, and we love it because it keeps them engaged. Jiggity Jamble takes it a step further and encourages the player to stand up and do the dance moves along with the characters on the screen. We found a way to use the digital technology to affect players in the physical space.
Designing around hardware is not impossible, and in fact presents many unique interaction opportunities that only hardware can facilitate. A physical device can enhance play and open new doors for learning and interactivity. The games we created for Square Panda and its letter tray go beyond what many of our digital games have done, and players find them exciting and engaging. I look forward to trying my hand at more games that incorporate new hardware.