Nov 14, 2023 - Big Without Scale

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Having big and interesting game worlds has been a holy grail of games since the beginning. In the early years, technical constraints meant that big worlds were simply infeasible, without heavy use of procedural generation - Elite in 1984 for example boasted thousands of planets - but nowadays, the main constraint is dev effort. Put simply, to create lots of interesting content, you need to put in lots of work.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use clever techniques to get the most bang for buck.

Elite

Bigger is not Better

When we look at lists of biggest game worlds, space games like Elite Dangerous and Starfield dominate, but that’s not particularly insightful when you consider they are mostly empty space. A bit lower in the rankings you’ll find Daggerfall, which dwarfs other Elder Scrolls game worlds while being much older than them - notably having “the size of Great Britain” - but again, isn’t interesting as most of the game is empty wilderness, sparsely filled with randomly generated towns.

Another mistake that some games make is by increasing the scale of their game worlds without maintaining the density of content, which makes things feel sparse. During the release of GTA San Andreas, there was some hype about being able to enter lots of buildings, and while the game did make many improvements in density over its predecessors, most buildings were still off bounds or limited in interactivity, making the game feel less like a huge living city and still like a playground for driving cars around.

So when it comes to feeling big, the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. Bigger is not better if it is just sparse, more is not better if it is small variations of the same stuff. To truly feel big, we need things like variety, complexity, and content.

PCG is not a Panacea

Over the years various people have touted procedural content generation as the killer technology that will enable big and interesting game worlds on the cheap. In recent years, No Man’s Sky suffered bad reviews due to not being able to live up to its hype; boasting quintillions of playable worlds, a press largely unfamiliar with PCG helped blow things out of proportion. The reality is that, although PCG is great for some things, it is no replacement for hand-crafted content in the same quantity; quintillions of worlds created by competent human artists (if such a thing were possible) would be so much more compelling than any algorithm could, and equating the two was ridiculous.

More recently, generative AI has caused much disruption and threatened to replace human artists in many domains. It is still early days, but indications so far suggest that they cannot fully replace all human artists, but may be useful in some mundane tasks, provided we can sort out the legal issues.

I view PCG and generative AI similarly - they are useful in limited areas, and work best when complementing hand-crafted art, as additional tools in an artist’s toolset. PCG for example works well in roguelikes or game randomisers to improve replayability, but still requires a great deal of effort and care in creating those worlds in the first place, and tuning the generators for the task. Generative AI has already proven useful in areas like prototyping and as filler content, but requires a lot of resources to train and tune, and cannot be the whole content pipeline alone.

So although technology will make work easier, you still need to put in the work. But where do we focus our work on?

A World that Feels Alive

Stepping back a bit, we want big worlds they are immersive. When we reach the end of a small world, the illusion is shattered and we are rudely reminded of the artifice of the game, but if the world was big enough, we could continue to pretend that this was a virtual reality we could inhabit indefinitely.

But we can do better than focusing solely on scale. By taking cities as an example, what makes a city feel “big” isn’t its geographic size; instead it’s:

  • complexity
  • density
  • specialisation

By focusing on these, we can achieve worlds that feel big without excess effort, and avoid common pitfalls that make some worlds feel wrong.

Complexity

Real life big cities are incredibly complex places. They are where people live, work, play; where industry and commerce and many different sectors coexist in symbiotic ways. Lots of infrastructure and services are needed to keep it all working - transportation, sanitation, health, construction, emergency services, education, on and on. This amount of complexity really resists procedural generation, and a simulation approach would also be very difficult. Any given part of a city will contain amenities of different types, like religious temples mixed in between residential buildings. Cities resist uniformity, and this makes them endlessly interesting.

Sendai Station Mitsumine Shrine Shingen-ji

Cities are sometimes designed, but often organic entities, and this makes it resistant to clean delineations. Buildings are not simply just an “office building”, blocks are not simply a “commercial block”. Buildings can be owned by a single business, or multiple businesses. Successful businesses can expand to encompass multiple, adjacent buildings, connecting them so that when you enter them, you can seamlessly travel from one building to another as if it were a single building. Dominant businesses can buy up buildings in the same area - the Japanese electronics retailer Yodobashi Camera owns a whopping 13 “pavilions” (buildings) in the West Shinjuku district of Tokyo alone.

A city’s appearance reflects its history and culture. As a city grows, newer areas and buildings will have a different style than older areas. The distribution of businesses can also follow opposing dynamics. Recall what I wrote about cities not being uniform? Sometimes businesses cluster and you’ll find single buildings filled with the same type of business, shopping streets, or department stores designed to capture a specific type of clientele. Just as businesses and amenities may need to spread out to capture geographically dispersed users, they can also cluster to capture users who are shopping around.

Density

Cities are much more than just villages or towns but extended out. Because of how desirable they are to be in, space becomes a premium and this drives up density. This can do some weird things - streets become narrower, buildings get higher. A newbie trap is to make everything bigger in cities, including streets, but density will lead to them becoming smaller, unless there are other forces at play.

An example of where things aren’t quite right is EarthBound’s Twoson Department Store. Although it does contain different shops on each level, which is realistic, it does two things wrong: 1. the slow escalators between each floor make it less convenient, and 2. the shops don’t actually have better selections than other towns. In reality, big city department stores should be more convenient and have better item selections.

Twoson Department Store

Compare this with Pokemon’s Celadon Department Store. It has great item selection and its stairs and elevators are quite convenient.

One consequence of extreme density and verticality is that it turns the space from 2D into 3D, which humans have trouble navigating. Underground spaces lack weenies, and claustrophobic spaces limit sight lines. This all makes dense spaces incredibly hard to navigate, so there’s an over-reliance on signage, providing sensory overload.

Sendai Station Panda Bridge Namba Walk Dotonbori Multilevel business building

Specialisation

When population density is high enough, more and more niches become viable, and here’s where we see lots of specialisation. Specialty stores in big cities sell all sorts of weird items for tiny interest groups, that are often baffling for lay people. Unique buildings, people of all sorts of subcultures comingle like colourful animals in a thick urban jungle. Cities are anything but boring and uniform.

Recall Pokemon’s Celadon Department Store? It sells a lot of unique items, including strange ones like Fresh Water, a healing item can only be bought at a vending machine one at a time, it does exactly the same thing as the Super Potion, yet it is much cheaper. In gameplay terms this makes little sense, but I love how items like this give the game extra life. You get the sense that this item was not made for the player, that the game’s world was inhabited by all sorts of different people who use this item for different purposes, and it just so happens to be useful to the player too.

Toshima Incineration Plant Saita Building Saita Building

Making Big Worlds is Hard

This is basically what I wanted to say with this post: making big worlds is hard, and you can’t cheat your way by copy-pasting content or using procedural generation. However by focusing on three elements: complexity, density and specialisation, you can make the most of your efforts - some games do this well by making some locations feel bigger without actually being geographically bigger.

This post does not cover exactly how to go about building big worlds - this is a far too broad subject - but here’s a random list of items to consider:

  • Historical layering, old/new regions: tell the history of the world via the environment
  • Show construction: real cities/worlds are organic and always a work-in-progress
  • Unique landmarks: gives a place character, as well as aiding navigation
  • Multiple transportation modes
  • Specialty stores selling unique items
  • Content that is only tangentially useful for gameplay, but which make sense for the world
  • Verticality: undergrounds, overpasses
  • Mixed use buildings and districts: don’t use only single-use architecture!
  • Infrastructure: real cities can’t exist without it. Don’t completely forget the aqueducts, waste management plants, power lines!
  • Confusing navigation: in moderation, but dense cities are confusing places, so don’t be afraid to lean into it

As well as a few excellent reading materials:

Sep 17, 2023 - A review of Golden Age RTS Music

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I love games and music, and one of my favourite game genres is RTS. I don’t know which led to the other, but one thing’s for sure: RTS music slaps. I would argue that it is one of the best genres for awesome, listenable music that you can put in your playlist. For example, RPGs have great music too but their soundtracks are too eclectic, as they are strongly themed to specific levels or characters. Action games can also have great music but they are very situational, with a mix of stealth, action and boss tracks. RTS games have a perfect blend of strong yet consistent themes, and the gameplay gives the music plenty of space to develop itself, not being dictated by the action onscreen.

In this post we’ll review great RTS music from its golden age, from the mid-90’s to early-mid-00’s. We’ll see how diverse studios and composers take different approaches to what style of music to use, and how they serve the game.

A brief history of golden age RTS music

The start of the RTS golden age (variously reckoned to be somewhere between Dune II and Command and Conquer) coincided with the wide availability of CD technology, and RTS music rode this technological wave and showcased high-fidelity soundtracks. The genre is perfect for music, its 10-30 minute gameplay sessions allowing uninterrupted, extended play. While Dune II had to use limited chiptune, by the time games like Command and Conquer came around, everyone jumped onto the CD audio bandwagon, since music is so key to RTS games.

The golden age is often characterized by the fierce rivalry between Westwood (Command and Conquer) and Blizzard (Warcraft, Starcraft), but was by no means a two-horse race, with quality releases from many other studios such as Ensemble (Age of Empires), Relic (Homeworld, later Dawn of War and Company of Heroes), Cavedog (Total Annihilation), and not to mention the numerous clones and contenders. The best of these entries also had fantastic music.

Great RTS games continued being released into the 2000’s but the genre tapered off in prominence. The 2010’s saw a brief resurgence with Starcraft II and various Age of Empires remasters, but new titles became rare. Nevertheless, the genre is healthier than it seems, with dedicated followings and titles like Age of Empires 2 and Total War occasionally appearing in top-50 most played charts. And throughout the years, great music remained a hallmark of the genre.

Let’s look at a few prominent composers/studios and how their music evolved.

Frank Klepacki / Westwood

Frank Klepacki, Westwood’s main composer for most of their RTS titles, started early with the studio, at 17 years of age. His early work included that of Dune II, which adapted music from the Dune movie. The music recreates the orchestral, synth-heavy and bleak soundscapes, but is very much constrained by the chiptune technology of its time. The advent of CD audio definitely expanded the capabilities of the music, and its remake, Dune 2000, showcases the musical lineage much more clearly.

The two Dune game tracks are not direct remakes but contain a lot of common elements. You can clearly identify the influence of the film score in the Dune 2000 version.

Klepacki’s most notable work came with Command and Conquer and its spinoff Red Alert. These games established his signature style, mixing electronic sounds and samples with rock and metal riffs, styles that are difficult to achieve if not for high-fidelity CD audio. Hell March is the breakout hit, wonderfully blending sounds of soldiers marching into a heavy metal beat, but Act on Instinct is a better example of this signature style. Its mix of newscaster-style voice clips and industrial metal perfectly evokes the game’s modern, techno-thriller setting.

Compared to its contemporary strategy games, which were slow-paced and had staid or somewhat dorky fantasy settings, Command and Conquer was fast, fresh and hip, thanks in no small part to its soundtrack.

Hell March

Red Alert was the spinoff that overshadowed the original, including in its music. Its title track Hell March not only helped win several soundtrack-of-the-year awards, it also became the signature track for the game's sequels too, with remixed versions in each game. While each version is great in its own way, the contrast between the first and second is especially interesting. Despite being slower than the first, Hell March 2 manages to sound higher energy thanks to its richer layers and electronic styling. Showcasing Klepacki's maturing style and techniques, which closely resemble his self-described signature "rocktronic" style, the Red Alert 2 soundtrack was a welcome return to form for many fans who had mixed feelings about Tiberian Sun's slower, moodier turn.

Tiberian Sun shifted the series to a darker, apocalyptic, and slower-paced setting, and this is reflected in its soundtrack. Gone are the pumping beats and voice samples, replaced by moody synths and lots of ambient sounds.

What Lurks

In this soundtrack Klepacki collaborated with Jarrid Mendelson, who really came into his own in Emperor: Battle for Dune. An underrated game overshadowed by its contemporaries, Emperor represented many firsts for Westwood’s RTS games: a truly 3D engine, 3 radically different factions, and the use of different musical themes for each faction. Klepacki returns to the series for House Atreides, giving them a Dune-conventional theme, and prolific studio veteran David Arkenstone contributes an excellent heavy metal soundtrack for House Harkonnen. Mendelson’s dark synth House Ordos soundtrack was a standout, perfectly capturing the faction’s cold, ever-scheming personality.

Not An Option

This per-faction soundtrack approach culminated with Generals, which - owing to being made by a studio that had just a small part of Westwood lineage - was created by a different, yet very capable team: industry veteran Bill Brown and occasional collaborator Mikael Sandgren. Brown’s experience with past award-winning soundtracks like Rainbow Six is on full display in the USA faction’s orchestral-electronic tracks, evoking the techno-thriller themes of the USA being the good guys fighting international terrorists using high tech. The bigger surprise is in the excellent tracks for the China and Global Liberation Army factions, which feature tastefully-used ethnic samples and styles. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a game whose factions have big, bombastic personalities.

Contenders and Pretenders

It's hard to understate how dominant RTS games were in the late 90's. Westwood in particular once accounted for 5% of the video games market - all platforms. It's therefore no surprise that clones were aplenty. Some were more successful than others, but even the less successful clones had surprisingly good music. Melbourne House released Krush Kill 'n' Destroy and sequels during this time, enjoying relative success in a few markets like its home market Australia and some unexpected ones like South Korea. Although mostly dismissed as inferior clones of Command and Conquer, it did feature great music from local artists.

Post-golden-age, Westwood’s franchises enjoyed further quality releases in Command & Conquer 3 and Red Alert 3. For genre and music fans, Command & Conquer Remastered Collection is particularly worth getting, with original and remixed versions of classic tracks. Meanwhile the fanbase continues to hope for a continuation of Generals.

Cavedog, Relic

In the late 90’s, during the peak of the RTS golden age, two studios emerged with stunning RTS releases and a dramatic approach to its music: Cavedog and Relic. Both debuted with award-winning titles, and were lauded for their atmospheric music, which set new bars for video game music.

Cavedog’s Total Annihilation, a 3D game featuring vast robot battles, had an unusual musical direction. Composer Jeremy Soule took the unprecedented approach of using a real orchestra to perform the epic, sweeping themes, evoking imagery such as crashing waves, verdant forests and sombre wastelands. This helped the soundtrack stand out from its rivals, and paid off well, winning best music awards, and some reviews even singled out the music as a highlight of the game.

Relic’s Homeworld set new benchmarks for atmospheric gameplay. With a space opera story that deals with heavy themes like genocide and cosmic horror, and remarkable visuals made with the assistance of astronomist consultants, it is indeed high praise when many reviewers said that Paul Ruskay’s music was on par with the rest of the game’s quality. In addition to ambient space drones and a prominent use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Ruskay effectively uses the desert metaphor to describe space nomads, using Arabic and South Asian musical elements to evoke the utter isolation and desolation of space.

Although Cavedog met an untimely demise, Soule’s critically acclaimed works made him one of the most highly sought-after composers in the industry. His signature style of moving orchestral pieces brings some much needed colour to Relic’s next RTS franchise, Dawn of War. The game takes place on an otherwise conventional ground-based battlefield with small unit numbers, and it’s the haunting choirs in the soundtrack that remind the player that this was 40k, the grand, grimdark universe spanning millions of worlds. The Space Marine themes in particular give the faction its unique dignitas.

Post-golden-age, Relic reached newer heights with the Company of Heroes franchise, leaving the Dawn of War and Homeworld franchises in relative neglect with sporadic new releases. The creators of Total Annihilation resurfaced to create the Supreme Commander series, which had its moment in the sun. Looking back, these were two studios who proved that RTS - and video games in general - can evoke dark, powerful emotions, through the power of music.

Blizzard

The early golden age of RTS was dominated by Westwood and Blizzard’s rivalry. For a time the two studios released frequently, with each outdoing the other in rapid succession. The two studios also had very different philosophies, which engendered fierce loyalty among fans, and endless debates on which was superior. At least in terms of music, Blizzard started out behind - while Warcraft II had a well-crafted, medieval-orchestral soundtrack, it was notably shorter and less varied than Westwood’s similar offerings. The belated release of StarCraft saw a marked improvement. Here the composing team turned out a fantastic soundtrack, with distinct styles per faction. The Terran space cowboy themes were a standout, but the Zerg themes also deserve praise for the way dark synths and screaming guitars give a sinister, insect-like feel. One shortcoming is that the soundtrack is still rather short, at only 3 tracks per faction.

Blizzard took a big step up with Warcraft III’s soundtrack, taking the winning formula from StarCraft and notching it up to 4 unique faction themes. This time round the faction themes were done by different composers - like Westwood did earlier with Emperor: Battle for Dune - with each composer putting their personal touch on the outstanding themes. The Undead themes were my favourite, with catchy beats yet creepy atonal riffs, reminiscent to music from Diablo.

Blizzard were known for quality yet infrequent releases, which is both a blessing and a curse. The only notable RTS contribution post Warcraft III was StarCraft II, which featured an overall greatly enhanced soundtrack, especially the Terran faction’s more faithful rendition of the space cowboy theme. With Wings of Liberty being free to play, it is well worth checking out for RTS music fans.

Ensemble Studios

Ensemble’s Age of Empires series took a unique approach to RTS games. By leaning heavily into historical accuracy, they carved out a strong niche, starting with the great yet somewhat janky Age of Empires, and perfected with Age of Empires II, a game so compelling that its remakes continue strong to this day. This was followed by the interesting spinoff Age of Mythology towards the end of the golden age.

The games span thousands of years of human history, and this vast scope represented a big challenge for its music. How do you represent music from a time so distant and alien, and across dozens of different cultures around the globe, while still functioning well as game music for modern players? The music team headed by Stephen Rippy seems to have chosen a middle path, combining the sounds and styles of ancient instruments with a modern sensibility to create unique soundtracks.

Without being familiar with historical music, I cannot fairly judge the success of this approach, but the quality of the music definitely advanced by leaps and bounds with every iteration; AoE’s music was passable yet interesting, AoE2 had some bangers mixed in with average ones, but AoM’s soundtrack was exceptional, with some reviewers stating it was one of the best of the year. It had diverse period instruments like the ney flute and tabla drums mixed with modern electric basses, guitars and keyboards, with high production values that feature some live orchestral pieces.

Ensemble would go on to release Age of Empires III before fizzling out, but the franchise lived on stubbornly, enjoying remakes and expansions to this day. The Definitive Editions of the classic games are well worth checking out especially if you missed the originals, and look out for the same treatment for Age of Mythology.

Tech Race

The golden age of RTS saw rapid innovation as virtually every studio brought new features to the table. This was the case for music too; studios got better and better at creating good music, with new techniques and higher fidelity.

Audio Tech

Early RTS games like Dune II and Warcraft used MIDI or AdLib-style chiptune music, but by Warcraft II, released just two years later, Blizzard went with a SoundFont-rendered orchestral soundtrack, with much more realistic instrument sounds. Westwood leap-frogged Blizzard in this regard, releasing Command and Conquer earlier in the same year, but with high fidelity CD music with a mix of recorded and electronic instruments and samples, albeit in a totally different style. Total Annihilation released the following year blew everything out of the water with a real orchestral score, and this represented a tech pinnacle: soon almost every studio followed suit, using real instruments and high quality digital alternatives and high fidelity audio.

Dune II (1992)

Warcraft (1994)

Warcraft II (1996)

Command and Conquer (1996)

Total Annihilation (1997)

If you consider that OPL was first released in the mid-80’s and gaming consoles did not get universal CD-quality audio until the 6th generation around 2000, RTS games managed to do in 3 years (Warcraft to Total Annihilation) what it took 15 years for the rest of the industry to do, for audio tech, which is simply astounding.

Production Values

The RTS golden age coincided with tremendous growth in the gaming industry. At the dawn of this time, studios were small and plucky, but by the early 00’s and the end of the golden age, staff and budgets ballooned to rival that of large Hollywood blockbuster productions. Music production value tracked this, going from a single in-house composer to multi-person teams producing high quality, multi-theme soundtracks, sometimes enlisting veteran composers that also worked in TV and film.

The earliest RTS games like Dune II, Warcraft and Command and Conquer featured a single in-house composer, producing music in a way that’s more or less the same as any other game project - a single, multi-track soundtrack, reflecting the theme of the whole game. Warcraft II pioneered, and StarCraft exemplified a new approach: per-faction soundtrack, that reflected the unique factions and their character. RTS games have always had different factions, but before StarCraft, their differences tended to be minor, with a few unique units, abilities, or stat differences. StarCraft showed how factions could be mechanically distinct, changing the entire play-style, and this was complemented perfectly by the soundtrack. Of course multiple soundtracks also multiplies the music budget, and StarCraft had two more composers assisting, yet had to make do with a smaller soundtrack per-faction. Other games with unique faction soundtracks followed, like Westwood’s Emperor: Battle for Dune and Generals, as well as Blizzard’s Warcraft III, to great effect. Each required multiple composers to manage the load. You might think that Ensemble’s Age of Empires series could also benefit with per-faction soundtracks, given the unique flavours of the civilisations, but the sheer number of factions made this unfeasible, and those games remained with the single-soundtrack approach.

Ensemble experimented with other music techniques in Age of Mythology. The excellent soundtrack also includes mellow versions of most of its in-game tracks, which are used in certain cutscenes and custom scenarios. This technique works quite well, to add variety to the game’s pacing, given the narrative-heavy nature of its campaign. The game also has another dynamic music technique: when a town centre is under attack, the music switches to a dramatic one, and fades away to the usual, chill soundtrack once the attack is over. This technique is somewhat less successful, given the jarring transition and how difficult it is to properly follow the tension of an RTS game - sometimes the most crucial moments are small skirmishes during key moments rather than large battles. Nevertheless it is interesting to see attempts at dynamic music in RTS.

Further Listening

Music, like many other aspects of RTS games, have matured after its golden age, as the genre stagnated. But by examining its history, its key titles and soundtracks, we can learn a lot about how to make and enjoy great music for games. Many of the best soundtracks are highly listenable and can easily go into your playlist. For those who want to (re)visit some great soundtracks, here are my top recommendations:

  • Command and Conquer: this series is all about Frank Klepacki’s signature “rocktronic” style, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, definitely find a copy of the Command & Conquer Remastered Collection. Many tracks in this and the Red Alert series were good from even the earliest games, but if for some reason you want more, check out some of Klepacki’s non-game work too.
  • StarCraft: the Terran faction’s space cowboy soundtrack is so iconic, and Glenn Stafford’s prog-rock background keeps it fresh with the tracks constantly evolving. StarCraft II is generally the better version, although StarCraft is still very enjoyable. Same goes with the factions, although Terran music is the most well regarded, the Zerg faction is pretty cool too, but in a dark-synth kind of way.
  • Dune: for dark sci-fi this franchise’s unique setting offers the perfect thematic backdrop for some unique tunes. Empire: Battle for Dune’s Ordos and Harkonnen soundtracks are top-notch, but Dune 2000 remains my favourite rendition of the kind of epic desert sci-fi war that exemplifies this setting. If only there was a new Dune RTS…
  • And last but not least, here are some of my single-title favourites: Age of Mythology (looking forward to the remake), KKND2, Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, Total Annihilation, Command & Conquer: Generals (sorely needs a sequel or remake)…

Apr 19, 2023 - The First 80%

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[Most] games are awful for about 80 percent of the process—there’s no fun in the game until the very end.

David “Dr. Doak” Doak, excerpt From GoldenEye 007 by Alyse Knorr

I recently read Goldeneye 007, a terrific book covering the making of that classic game, and came across the above quote. I could not help but strongly agree with this observation, as I’ve seen it first hand countless times. Whether it’s making a game, or writing music, drawing art, or any creative activity, it always seems like the first 80% of the project is a slog. It feels like working on something that seems like utter crap and somehow refuses to come together, until the very end. It happens regardless of the type of project, the length, or even how challenging it is.

So it was very heartening to learn how ubiquitous this problem is. Apart from knowing and accepting that most creative work will feel like crap, what other things can we take away?

Things will suck, until they don’t

Even my most successful projects did not break this first-80%-is-crap rule. When making Dunkman for Ludum Dare, about half way through the jam, I posted this progress update:

Creepy hands for Dunkman

This project had a very successful process - from the start I had a clear vision of what the game would be about: a silly send-up/homage to shonen sports anime. The game mechanics were simple so I could focus on polish: story, art, effects. But truth be told, until all the pieces were together, I was not sure if it would work, if the stylistic elements would overcome and elevate the simplistic gameplay. But they did come together - the upbeat music, anime speed lines, silly elbow IK animation, the chunibyo dialogue, all made for a ridiculously compelling narrative, like you were playing an anime protagonist.

So if you are a creator in that first 80% of the process, and everything seems to suck and it feels hopeless, take heart! Chances are you haven’t reached the last mile where things come together, like magic.

Finish Strong

When a project is near completion, things are coming together rapidly. The bang-for-buck of putting in work at the end is very high, given that the groundwork has already been put in place. This is where many make the mistake of racing to the finish line: they quickly put the missing pieces together, fix as many issues as they can, and ship the project as soon as possible. But so much value is being added during this last 20%, it often pays big to take your time adding polish and final touches, and you may reap unexpected rewards.

Goldeneye 007 was a cultural phenomenon because of its multiplayer, giving it incredible replayability and contributed massively to its success. And yet, “…GoldenEye’s multiplayer mode almost never got made.” On account of the project being a year behind schedule, Nintendo forbid working on a multiplayer mode, but the dev team, who were given incredible autonomy, did so anyway, furiously hacking it together in just 6 weeks. The rest is history - Goldeneye 007’s multiplayer was so good it overshadowed the already great single player campaign, and the game became one of the top-selling N64 games, revolutionising console FPS games.

On the other hand, I worked on a jam game, Lasso Lassie, which turned out much less well than I had hoped. The process of making the game itself went extremely well. I spent a week researching music and made a pretty cool western-themed chiptune track. I had a clear vision for the game from the get-go, choosing to remake the criminally underrated early NES game Field Combat. I made a solid plan and budget for all the dev tasks, such as implementing the gameplay, enemy logic, spawning waves, and finished on time having implemented everything I planned for. And yet the game just wasn’t that fun.

Lasso Lassie

In retrospect I believe I neglected to spend time fine tuning the gameplay. I had falsely assumed that since I was recreating an already fun game, all I had to do was tick all the checkboxes, put the game together, and it would just work. But things like game feel or “fun” can often be fickle and elusive. Sometimes the difference between a fun game and a boring one is a 20% difference in player speed, or slightly increased enemy density, or a clever level layout, who knows. You really have to sit down and play around with the game, tinker with it until it is just right.

So here’s the take-away: if you have a deadline, or are planning out the phases of your project, don’t keep adding features up to the end. Plan for a feature freeze, and leave ample time at the end for playtesting and polish. It will often pay off in spades. Personally, for jams I leave as much as a third of the time available for polish at the end, and it has worked out extremely well for me.

Finish Your Projects

This is very old and evergreen advice for amateur creators: stop starting new projects and finish more of them. The temptation to abandon your current project and start over is strong, especially when you are in the first 80%. All the sweet ideas you have for new projects will feel infinitely sexier than your current project, which sucks more than ever, even though when you started it it probably seemed like the coolest idea out of them all.

Well now that you know, that’s more reason to stop the foolish cycle of abandoning old projects, starting over, only to abandon them mid-way again. If you start over, the new project will become the next awful project and you are back where you started. But if you persevere with the current project, when you finally reach that last 20% things will be awesome. Not to mention all the benefits of finishing - having good projects to show off, proving that you can deliver, gaining crucial experience in those finishing steps.

This is why I strongly advocate doing game jams. The tight schedule encourages people to finish games, limitations like secret themes encourage creativity, and feedback from fellow creators helps us learn what it takes to make a successful game project. Finishing games in such a short time puts you through that first 80% quickly, making it easy to power through and reap the fruits of that last 20%.

Non-creators will suck at providing early feedback, and that’s OK

When working on our craft - often a lonely endeavour - it’s tempting to seek out approval for our work from friends and family, to share progress or something cool we just made. But the response is rarely positive or helpful, since this rough work is from that first 80% when everything is awful, but this has little to do with skill or artistry. If even creators have trouble seeing past the expected roughness of early work, how can we expect non-creators to do better?

In most cases we should accept that feedback from lay people is not that useful. But what if we really do want to share something, if we’re proud of something we’ve done, how do we help them see it in the same light? My advice is to show finished work. Show stuff that has already made it past the first 80%, and has been polished and put together. This doesn’t mean you have to put in lots of work before being able to show it off, it could be something small, but packaged well. This could be:

  • An art study
  • Music loops
  • A small, completed gameplay prototype or demo

In fact, being good at sharing work, even to non-creators, is a great skill to have and hone. Getting good at creating and sharing little bits of finished work comes in really handy if you want to market your work, build a following, or put together a portfolio.

Getting better at judging early work

What if you’re working on a big project, going on for months (or years 😰), how do you judge how the project is going? The simple answer is to practice and gain experience. A master will be able to look at a piece of work, at any stage of progress, see past the whole and into the components that make it up, and judge the quality of craftsmanship. Drawing from their years of experience, they can tell whether the project shows promise, or if it is fundamentally flawed. But this answer isn’t useful for the rest of us. Is there anything we can do besides, without the benefit of being an expert? Here are my tips:

Make vertical slices, then iterate

A vertical slice is a usable, completed yet very small part of the project. If you’re making an action game, it could be having the player character run around and perform one interaction, with one win and one lose condition. If you’re making music, it could be one looping bar (say the chorus) with full instrumentation. If you’re making a video or animation, it could be one fully developed scene, with sound and special effects.

Vertical slice

The point of doing this is to get all the components together as quickly as possible, to see how they work together. By front loading this, you get to that last 20% part sooner, and reap the benefits. Once this vertical slice is done, it’s easier to iteratively expand upon it, which can be done very flexibly, without compromising the feel or the vision of the project, since it’s already put together.

One of the worst game jams I’ve done failed because we didn’t do this. I was on a new and inexperienced team, who did not know how to work well together. We scoped out the project and assigned separate tasks to everybody - art, music, level design, gameplay - hoping that we can just put it all together at the end. Unfortunately this is where things failed miserably. Not only were there technical issues integrating everyone’s work, it turns out everyone had a different idea of what the game would be, so that the work we did separately did not fit together, and lots of adjustments and cutting had to be done. For example, our 3D artist made really awesome character models and animations, but because the gameplay wasn’t ready, almost all that work had to be left out of the game.

These days one of my mantras for game jams is to get a runnable prototype up as quick as possible - preferably in the first day. Get everyone working off this prototype, so they can independently add to it. Audio guys can add partial music and SFX in to get the mixing right. Gameplay designers can get the game feel right at the start, and add things like levels and enemies that fit with the game feel. Artists can gradually replace placeholder art and see how everything looks in game and not just in their concept art. This way even a large team can work towards a cohesive vision.

Example schedule for 7-day jam

This example schedule for a 7-day jam from 7 Tips to 7-Day Game Jams gives similar advice: core game mechanics done at 1/3rd, feature complete at 2/3rd, and the last 1/3rd for testing and polish.

Finish More Projects

When you’re in the first 80%, good and bad projects will both seem awful. How can you get better at telling? By finishing more projects! Only by finishing will you get a complete retrospective on what went well and what didn’t, and you’ll get better at what makes or breaks a project. But if you abandon projects half-way, then there’s no way to be sure.

One example: things often go wrong during a project, but they are not always fatal. Sometimes they can be worked around at the end. How can you tell? By sticking with the project until the end, and trying to overcome earlier mistakes. Another example is that projects can often fail because of a feature kept in, rather than a feature left out. A troubled feature can suck up development resources and jeopardise the project itself, but you won’t know this unless you let the project take its course.

When making PepperTown, an RPG-style idle game where characters auto-battle enemies and you buy upgrades for them, I had no experience making idle games, so I wasn’t sure what features would be key vs nice-to-have. I thought that, being RPG themed, I would need at least some sort of interesting combat mechanics, such as magic spells, or at least different types of enemies, but it turns out that was unnecessary. The final game just has characters battling one type of enemy - a slime monster - and with basic attacks, bashing each other repeatedly. But what makes idle games such as this is the visceral sensations of hearing the hit sounds and the coins trickling in, and the satisfaction of waiting and buying upgrades and sensing them affect the game. Thus I learned more about a new genre of game and what makes it work.

PepperTown