Game developers choose to work alone or in teams for their own reasons. If you find yourself on the path of the solo game developer, you might enjoy it for a couple of reasons: minimized financial costs, a stronger sense of control, and zero politics. However, going it alone does bring along its frustrations.
Thomas Brush, creator of Pinstripe and Once Upon A Coma (now called Neversong), shared in his recent YouTube video that he wanted to quit game development in 2019. Thomas felt that he had reached the end of the road. Issues entailed were boredom, insufficient return on investment and the worry of missing out on other opportunities.
In 2018, I got tired of my corporate career and had an idea of writing an enterprise software product. I roped in a friend to join me in selling the product after I have it written. However, I never finished writing the software and so my friend never joined me in selling it. Reasons cited for my failure were very similar to Thomas Brush’s reasons for wanting to quit. I think a large contributor to our frustrations was that we tried to go it alone.
A positive experience
I eventually joined a startup company for artificial intelligence projects which I grew to love more and more. We were very productive in the projects, and we got paid by our customers. It felt very gratifying.
Comparing both scenarios, a glaring factor that made a world of difference for me was straightforward: working in a team helped me achieve the objective more quickly and effectively.
Game development is not just about coding. There are several other critical elements that need to work well like game design, graphics, user experience, plot, marketing, just to name a few. In established game development companies, these tasks are usually taken care of by one person each (sometimes even a team). While it comes with the cost of salaries and human resource management, a team when used correctly, helps accomplish several things more quickly and more effectively.
Here are some lessons that I learned when working in a team:
More than one critical domain to take care of
Game development is not just about writing code. Sometimes, that is the easy part. Other domain expertise are required like graphics, user experience design, game mechanics, and plot. For a solo developer, this would demand not only the experience and skill of one person, it also demands all the energy from that same person. Every one is finite, and that includes zeal. Once a person burns out, it takes a while for recovery. Besides, having more than one person working together can have more tasks taken care of at the same time.
Offset your weakness with a team mate’s strength
Related to the point above, there are domains that we are extremely awful at. Someone might be extremely strong when it comes to anything coding related, but when it comes to art, he or she can barely draw a stick man. That’s when a trained graphics designer becomes very appreciated. For me, I am not too bad of a graphics artist, but I would take too long to work on something due to the lack of experience. I would appreciate a graphics artist for my games!
Another often not thought about aspect is the business side of a game development project. Marketing is often an underestimated animal. Solo game developers easily think that they can whip up a fun campaign that the world would love. Nope. Most of the time, the world does not care about our creations. Besides, marketing usually involves a lot of leg work and sometimes even hustling. There is only so much you can do by yourself.
Business strategy is also often underestimated. It goes hand-in-hand with marketing, but they are not the same with each other. Either way, you cannot get the best of either worlds if you want to handle them all by yourself.
I have not talked about the boring finance part of things, but I will probably save that for another blog next time.
A team is a community
I am an introvert, so I can vouch that being an introvert does not mean that we do not like people. While I do not happen to be the introvert who will drop dead in a conversation, I too draw strength from being around people whom I enjoy working with. Assuming that all differences can be reasonably managed, being able to work alongside others is often invigorating and even fun. This helps to extend morale, often by seeing how working with a team mate actually helps bring the product to a higher level more quickly than if you had tried to do it alone.
I remember once sitting down with another somewhat introverted colleague discussing ideas about the architecture for a project. The discussion was serious but it was exciting as we explored some approaches to make the infrastructure lean and robust. When we fleshed out our ideas into a diagram, I recalled not only a sense of accomplishment, but a sense of camaraderie. Subsequent discussions with the colleague became more exciting, and we remain friends to this day.
But what about those guys who made it alone?
In case you misunderstood the title, I’m not saying that you must work in a team, but you should consider working in a team. The decisions may vary across project demands.
And I get it. Lucas Pope, Eric Barone, Dong Nguyen, just to name a few. These three solo game developers happened to not count on their games for a living at the time of their games’ successes. Development did not have a live-or-die deadline to meet or living under investors’ gun barrels. If you too are not in a hurry for commercial success, you can go it alone more easily. But if you are taking game development as a business, the completed product is infinitely more important than a romantic journey of passion and drama of creating your product.
Whether you are doing it for commercial reasons or not, enthusiasm easily wanes when you leave unfinished projects on the shelf for too long. And if you love starting new projects, this may mean that you never complete any previously started projects.
It also isn’t always the case that having a team is the most suitable approach to success. When you put wrong people together, the results can become disastrous. Besides managing and leading a team requires a skill set on its own. You may also raise your chance of success in working in a team. The colleagues you make along the way also helps you pipeline talents for future suitable projects.
If Thomas Brush and I started early working in teams, we may have avoided boredom or burnout. At least for me, I may actually have had my product created and launched. The journey in our separate projects may have been more enjoyable and productive. At least for me, I’ve learned this lesson and intend to source for collaborators for future projects (I hope to share my experiences about forming a virtual team next time). As they say, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.