Deadlines in Game Development: Friend or Foe?

Deadlines exist everywhere. From our game development projects to our partners’ (or parents’) ultimatum on when we are going to finally clean our room, we love to hate deadlines and we hate to love deadlines.

Yet many of us already (secretly) know that deadlines help us accomplish what matters the most: getting stuff done. There is arguably a downside to declaring a project done when it is not yet. – for example, the latest casualty Cyberpunk 2077. To be clear, I work in software and empathize with the developers for Cyberpunk 2077. Deadlines can really be an immovable obstacle. Most of us are not making the next Cyberpunk 2077, and have far lesser excuses to not finishing our projects except for not having enough skill or not having enough time.

I’ll be one of the first to admit that I do not have enough skill or time (see the games I made and you will know why), but even John Carmack started with Hello World (I think). But adhering to the deadline is one of the paramount doctrine of any software project, let alone an indie game development one.

Obey deadlines versus being banished to development hell

I shall declare early that I believe this to be true. Our players are not paying us a huge amount of money to justify AAA game standards. Most likely, barely anyone is paying anyway and people will only play our games because it is free.

However, these free or super cheap games that we finish help us establish feedback that we can by no other means acquire:

  1. Is our game really as enjoyable as what the market thinks?
  2. Does the market really even care enough for our game?
  3. Do enough players know about our work yet?

Therefore, it seems to make more sense in completing a product that is sufficiently playable. Putting it on Steam, the app stores or will in turn give us valuable feedback. Most of our releases will likely be duds. We can then focus on those with encouraging and qualifiable feedback for a sequel or a spin-off.

Not finishing is painful

I know it because I have not yet finished my last project… all right, projects with an s

We all know that while deadlines work, many of us choose to believe we don’t need to impose one for our latest project. We convince ourselves that we can finish our game quickly, and setting a deadline is going to be more discouraging and stressful than necessary. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Just like using task tools like Jira or Trello, deadlines are quintessential to every project, no matter how small.

“But my game is so simple that I can finish it in a weekend!” Then set that weekend as the deadline. Why do we do that? Because it is very easy to want to sneak in a little feature or two, or to optimize some code (which is often very unnecessary), and that weekend we were talking about becomes a month later, then two, and we somehow lose steam and never complete the game.

What a deadline will do for us

Setting a deadline gives us little excuse to get out of scope. It will first force us to make clear on the onset what on earth we are trying to make in the first place.

It also forces us to evaluate our capabilities, whether our ambition is above our punch, whether we need to enlist help, or whether we even want to make this game at all! Notice that in doing so, we get to control our emotions better, and be able to think, plan and strategize a lot better. It may save us a bit of money, but for sure it will save us a lot of time. Our wisdom also grows and over experience and time, we become more successful in completing good game projects.

There was a quote that I came across some years ago, that one important thing to agree before playing the Chinese game of mahjong is when to stop. I grew up watching relatives play mahjong all through the night and looking terrible the next day. While we kids were also playing hide-and-seek or board games during those nights, we did end our games and go to sleep. When the sun rose, the adults were sprawled all over the sofa or the floor reeling from the all-nighter. Us kids were already energized and ready to play again. Let’s do the same for our game development energy.

But my game may become rubbish!

In most cases, our products are already rubbish by commercial standards (sorry, but that’s really fine). Unless we have sunk in a huge amount of money (ours, investors, or our parents’), and have payrolls of developers to make, there is a huge chance that our games will be at best decent, peppered with bugs, or are downright simple and uncomplex. And that’s really fine. There is a reason why we are indie game developers and not AAA game developers or AAA game developers pretending to be indie game developers.

If our games do end up to be rubbish because we failed to make decent quality before the deadline, then we have identified the real problem: our own ability. We can then learn from this lesson and scope better for the next project. For getting better at that, I personally recommend watching this video by orangepixel. This blog post is inspired by it.