29 October 2021

Top 5 Mistakes Made by Indie Game Developers

Anyone can jot down a list of game development mistakes, why would you listen to me?

That’s a fair question, so as a seasoned mistake-maker, let me try to back up my authority in this particular area a bit.

To start with, I’ve been a “professional game developer” since about 2007 and yet have somehow never released a hit game. In fact even though I’ve been involved with dozens of game projects over the years, some even for major studios, it’s very unlikely that you have ever heard of, let alone played, any of them.

Many of them were terrible and doomed from the start. For example, I once went to E3 as a programmer for a game so bad that I wore my badge backwards the whole time so nobody would know which booth I was from. True story. (I don’t want to name names, but imagine a cross between Farmville & Borderlands).

Or there was a game for an r/c toy car company that strictly forbade any racing. Or a hockey themed MMO that contained no actual hockey.

Mistakes

I have plenty of failed or abandoned personal game projects under my belt as an indie developer too. In some ways these are even easier to mess up, since there are no project managers helping to keep things on track.

So although I probably shouldn’t be writing any “how to succeed at game development” articles yet, I feel I’ve got the mistakes angle well and truly covered. Many of these I see being made over and over by other developers, so hopefully by calling attention to them we can prevent others from learning the hard way.

Mistake #1: Game is too big & complex.

This is number 1 because it’s both very common and very hazardous

This is especially true for your first game. For most people just getting into game development, they have lots of big plans about what types of games they would like to make. Grand ideas can be great once you have a bit of experience, but they can spell disaster when just trying to get your first game completed.

The main goal of your first game should be to finish something. Finishing a game is the most difficult part, so make sure you start small & simple, probably smaller than you think you need to.

Even for more seasoned and professional developers keeping the scope small and focused can be a problem. Never forget the 90/90 rule:

The first 90 percent of the [game] accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the [game] accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time. — Tom Cargill, Bell Labs (paraphrased)

If you’re working on your first game right now, think about ways you can simplify things, reduce the amount of required content, and get it finished more quickly.

Restarting

Mistake #2: Loop of Restarting

This mistake has also been dubbed one of the Game Development Death Loops by Derek Yu. Developers beware: It’s easier than you think to fall into this trap, especially as you’re first learning.

The “Loop of Restarting” happens as your skills are improving during development. Sometimes, your art skills will improve significantly as the game progresses, making it appear that the the earlier portions of the game are no longer good enough. Other times, your programming skills will improve, or you think of new mechanics that require you go back and rework earlier finished levels.

In either case, the danger is the same: You feel compelled to go back to the beginning and make major changes to your previous work. In the worst case, this can mean completely starting over! The problem is that even once the game is restarted, your skills continue to improve over time, and the desire to go back and rework previous areas continues.

Sometimes games can get stuck in this cycle for years, and many games have been derailed and killed by constant development restarts. To avoid stumbling into this particular pitfall, make sure you focus on finishing, and remember that there’s always a next game.

Mistake #3: Lack of Playtesting

The longer you spend working on your game, the more familiar with its quirks you become, and the less ability you have to view your game from a new player’s perspective.

It’s crucial that you have other people play your game as early and as often as possible. In the best case, you should watch people play in an evironment where you can observe them directly. Remember not to talk when doing this! Resist the urge to give explanations or hints.

Playtesting like this is the best way to find out which parts of your game are confusing, which parts are frustrating, and what aspects of your games are the most fun.

Restarting

Mistake #4 Wrong Genre or Platform

This mistake is not something to worry about for your first couple of games. However once you get to the point where you want to distribute your games to a larger audience, or sell them, then it makes sense to think carefully about your intended genre, theme, and platform, and how well they fit together.

Most platforms and marketplaces have certain game types that excel there, and those that are almost destined to fail.

For example, mobile devices have very specific input styles that make some game styles and genres nearly impossible to do well.

Some marketplaces, like Steam for example, have certain genres and themes that do especially well with their audience, and others that seem to get ignored.

Trying to build a game that doesn’t match well with the intended platform and audience is a losing proposition. Genres, themes, and platforms are fluid and constantly changing, so there are solid rules here - you’ll need to do some research relevant to your specific game.

Here’s a presentation from Erik Johnson from GDC discussing how choosing a poor genre & theme for his chosen market (Steam) affected game sales.

Mistake #5 Marketing Procrastination

(This is another one you can ignore for your first game or two, but becomes crucial once you begin selling your games.)

It’s very common for a developer to spend months or even years building and polishing their game, and then once it’s ready, decide to start building an audience. This is a huge mistake, because there are loads of games released every week, and it’s very difficult to stand out in the crowd.

The time to begin marketing and building an audience for your game is the moment you have something you can share. Screenshots, development logs and updates, level walkthroughs, player polls, or any game related content can help start building an audience who feels invested in the game’s success.

This process takes time, however, and launch week is far too late to start. Get started marketing your game as soon as you can, and stay consistent in order to have players ready to jump into your game as soon as it’s ready.


Avoiding these mistakes won’t guarantee the success of your games, but it will put your game in a much better position right from the start.