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Guard Duty: A Development Retrospective - Dev Diary #5 - A look back at the best working practices and process when designing a graphic adventure game.

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Guard Duty: A Development Retrospective - Dev Diary #5

Ambition versus execution


Today’s post is all about motivation, self discipline and making good use of time. That ever looming presence that weighs on our subconscious, the thing that rudely awakens us each morning. Not the alarm clock! No, the clock is simply a vessel for time, you should never blame the messenger.

For any of you that are following us on social media you will have a much better idea of where we’re at with our current build, for those who are not (Go! Go now and follow all things Chicken-y!) I will first bring you up to date.

I can now confidently say that we’ve reached the halfway mark. I would say that somewhere around 60% of the game’s art assets are complete, I’ve still got some of the Northern Region and most of the dystopian future locations to detail *but* the majority of the background scenes for Wrinklewood and the Wildlands are now finished. We’ve been working hard at optimising the gameplay through the first act and a good portion of the second act is now playable too. Andy has put together some really neat puzzle back end stuff, like a Mini-map for one of the dungeon-esque locations and an AI system where a character will follow Tondbert through multiple rooms, losing interest after a set distance if not provoked.

I digress, today’s post is about time management after all.

The most important skill that comes into play when working as an independent game developer is that of self discipline, something that I have never been particularly good at. If there’s anything that this project has taught me it’s that I waste FAR TOO MUCH TIME on Reddit and that simply starting work is often the most important part of making progress. You see, there is this golden window of opportunity where you know you have a certain amount of time available to work and you sit with a project before you (be it a blank photoshop canvas, design document or game client) and you are SO READY to start work that you actually struggle to get stuck into it. It’s those first minutes that can turn into hours of procrastination if you’re not careful. This goes for pretty much every area of life, it’s far too easy to sit around thinking about doing something, rather than actually doing it.

So if I may make a suggestion: If you are sat at your computer, reading this blog post having browsed the web looking for inspiration to work on your own project - press Alt-f4 now! Right now! Ditch Chrome and open AGS, or Unity or whatever and just do somethingon your project. It doesn’t have to be something huge, just adding a line of dialogue can often lead to another line and before you know it you’ve spent the last hour writing a dialogue conversation you’ve been putting off for days. I often find that it’s these little things that lead to big development sessions that make you late for work the next day (just one more feature before bed!) It’s really important to try and make some sort of progress each day, even if it’s something super simple.

I guess you didn’t hit alt-f4, or you’re reading this on mobile and couldn’t find the function keys. Well, in that case I’ll continue.

Another lesson I’ve learned over the course of developing Guard Duty is one of ambition, that is, not to be too ambitious. I’ll spare you the history lesson (see my first Weblog for that) and skip to the current iteration of Guard Duty. When I started work on the game I was more than a little over ambitious, I had this neat idea revolving around a lovable dysfunctional protagonist who ends up travelling through time in an attempt to put right the wrongs he has caused. A neat concept with an infinite scope for storytelling. Where does he go? Who does he meet? How many time periods? Jeez, it’s a lot of stuff to think about. I put my head down and drafted out the story, planning each significant beat in the story structure whilst trying to envision how the game would play out. It wasn’t long before I realised that the story would have to be a little more grounded, it was far too much work so I decided to go with just one alternate time period rather than several.

I figured I would have the most fun creating two polar opposite ‘worlds’ for the player to explore, one in the old medieval-esque era and one a more futuristic setting, similar to some of my favourite films (Blade Runner, Akira, GitS etc). Admittedly, this took a lot of brainpower to get the initial story draft finished, I was trying to do something new (to me) and pretty ambitious for a video game. It meant that I had to do a LOT of rewriting of the story until I had something that felt coherent, after all I was trying to connect two storylines that were hundreds of years apart.

My shortcoming came when I had finished this draft, I had the story planned out and a rough idea of a few of the puzzles along the way, but this wasn’t anywhere near enough. I went straight ahead and started drawing out backgrounds, designing characters and creating the ‘world’ that the player would experience. Word of advice - don’t do this.

This is the important bit and the best advice I can give anyone looking to take on a large scale adventure game project; Create a rough (very rough) skeleton ‘game’. By this I mean a playable template of your entire game, from start to finish using crappy programmer art. There has been nothing more valuable in GD’s development than this step. By creating the game using mere sketches for backgrounds has allowed me to focus entirely on the story, dialogue and gameplay. You are able to get a feel for how long the game will be, you know exactly how many locations will be in the game and you can get a feel for where you need to add cutscenes, animations and any extra story elements. This also helps immensely for productivity, prior to this step I was getting caught up over trying to get the visual style to a finished quality, taking days or weeks perfecting all the art and animations for single locations (like the town pub, or town square) when I should have been working on getting a playable game together. When you’re using sketchy, half arsed programmer art you no longer worry about these things and can solely focus on getting the game playable, which is a lot more satisfying and feels like you’re making a lot more progress.

Here’s a great example, this is from one of the later sections in the game. It took me an evening to put together and was actually easier to tweak because the rope doesn’t get lost in the background.

So, don’t be a dummy like me. The ‘skeleton game’ should be your first priority after you’ve decided on the story and overall plot points, it’s a really rewarding process when you can go back and play through last week’s work, feeling like you’ve made substantial progress.

…and on that note I should get back to work! Thanks for reading, ‘til next time.

-Nath

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