Our fantastic tech blog today comes from Benjamin Rivers and covers the always important topic of time management.
In my experience as a game developer, creative professional, and teacher, I've learned that the best superpower is time management. Especially when you're a one-person studio or small team, the difference between knowing what to do and when to do it can result in launching your game when you should, and when you can.
So far, I've launched two successful GameMaker Studio games — Home and Alone With You — across multiple platforms and in multiple regions. I'm here today to show you the five rules I use to hack my brain, so you can hopefully make better use of your time.
It seems so obvious, doesn't it? But it's so easy to spend (what feels like) 30% of your day just keeping track of everything. This is often because you're trying to use a task-management system that's meant for a 100-person team, not a tiny studio. As developers, we like rules and systems, and we want to believe that following the "right" set of rules will make our lives easier. When we're checking things off lists, organizing Trello cards, or managing task calendars, it can feel like we're being productive — but are we getting our project done? As a small team or one-person studio, it's more important that you build discipline and focus instead of an elaborate process. Because if you have discipline and focus, it doesn't matter what tool you use.
Here's an example: for the entirety of Home's development and for most of Alone With You's, here is how I kept track of my day-to-day tasks:
I'm not even kidding. Every day I wrote out my high-level tasks in my notebook, like this, with a pen. If I completed a task, I checked it off. If I didn't complete a task at the end of the day, I put a horizontal line through it. Then, the next morning, I copied out those incomplete tasks (the ones with the horizontal line) to a new to-do list on the next page, and page and added whatever new stuff I had to do.
Why? Well, let me tell you — once you've copied an unfinished task repeatedly for several days or even weeks, you're going to want to complete that task so badly that nothing will stop you. You'll feel, every day, how long something has taken to get done when perhaps you know it should have been done much sooner. You'll gradually create a self-policing sense of discipline! This seemingly crude technique is flexible enough that I can use it anywhere — no software, apps, subscriptions or cost required. It also has a sense of accountability built-in, because copying an unfinished task to today's list is a perfect morning reminder of what you must accomplish that day, and how you're doing.
You can absolutely use tools to keep track of bugs or specific assets that need to get done — there will likely be way too many to keep copying into a notebook every day. But for the big deliverables and major tasks, keep it simple!
There's been a lot of discussions lately about crunch, and it bears repeating: just simply working more is not the same as doing good work. "Work smart, not hard," as the saying goes. To do this, you must be accountable to yourself, or your team, and be consistent, every day — you must use that discipline and focus what you've been building. Whether you work nine-to-five, or 2–10pm, or whatever, you need to stick to that plan and keep a reasonable workday. When your day is done, you're done. Otherwise, you're going to burn out so quickly — and believe me, you'll lose much more time than you think you're gaining by overdoing it.
Remember: Game development is often a marathon, not a sprint!
To make the best use of your work day, you need to stay on-task — not check Twitter, not text your pals, not watch trailers (and yes, I know it's difficult, especially if you work from home). It doesn't mean that you don't get to do any of these things; just that you compartmentalize them, so you can stay focused.
Did you know that every time you switch tasks (say, pausing your programming work to check and respond to emails), it takes you 20 minutes to mentally return to the same level of focus you were at before and you can lose you up to 40% of your productivity? If you get distracted easily, you make more errors so time penalties associated with switching increase. I don't know about you, but if I'm allowed 90 minutes of wasted time, I'd rather go for a run and then take a nap.
So rather than switch back and forth between tasks frequently, batch together less-essential activities at certain points throughout your day. Check your email just before lunch (when you're winding down a bit because you're hungry) and then again near the end of the day (when perhaps your brain needs a break anyway) rather than several times while you're doing something else.
Turn off your phone's notifications and check in on texts or other alerts when you need to get a cup of coffee. Make slacking off by watching a trailer on YouTube a delicious treat that you can look forward to when your game is compiling, or when your artist is uploading the next batch of assets you need.
As a small developer, you probably have the unlucky task of switching roles often. One hour you might be diving deep on some artwork that only you can do; the next, you might be managing your console certification process or making deals with platform partners.
Here's a little story I use to help navigate this constant back-and-forth; I call it the Strawberry Field Effect.
When she was a kid, my mom's parents would often get her and her siblings to pick strawberries during the hot summer. They'd each be given a quota (say, one basket each). If my mom kept her head down and just focused on picking berries, the work went more quickly, and she could get out of the hot sun. But every time she looked up at the field ahead of her, and how much more there was to be done, she'd lose focus (not to mention the will to live — what kid wants to spend their Saturday picking strawberries in the heat?).
You're often your own boss and employee all at once. In Boss Mode, you're looking at the whole strawberry field — what needs to get done, when it must be ready, all other high-level considerations. In Employee Mode, your job is to pick those damn berries, and that's it. Whenever you try to bounce back and forth, you lose momentum and often get frustrated, and your work suffers. How can you focus on that animation you have to get done today when you're also worrying about that meeting you have next week about funding?
Like with Rule #3, you'll save a lot of grief, and get way more done, if you can switch between Boss and Employee modes intelligently. How? Well, thanks to Rule #1, you've already made your to-do list for today — that's a Boss Mode task; you've told yourself what you need to accomplish. Next, you just assign yourself a task to do right now, and then immediately switch to Employee Mode.
Once you're in Employee Mode, you don't think about those other to-do items until the one you're working on is done, or some new crisis adds a wrinkle to your schedule. Once that animation you've assigned to yourself is complete, you return to Boss Mode, pick a new task, and then repeat.
Some days you know exactly what needs to get done because there's a deadline or some other obvious goal. Other days are more difficult because your to-do list is filled with dozens of small tasks, and you're not sure which to do First. One way to keep the momentum going is to look at your next major goal (say, a milestone, such as an alpha you need to test a gameplay feature), and work backward (this is often called a workback schedule). For example, you need an alpha by next Tuesday. You aren't done yet because you don't have enough art assets to show the player character on-screen for the demo. You haven't done that yet, because you haven't decided if the player should be able to move in four directions, or just two.
Like in Doom, now that you see all your tasks rushing towards you, you have a better idea of which ones you need to deal with first.
But what if there is no pending deadline in the immediate future? What if you have six tasks in your notebook of equal importance? Here's what I do: I think, what is my brain capable of doing right now? Maybe I'm half-asleep, so fixing that coding mistake I created yesterday isn't the best idea right this second. But hey, I need to process some invoices, or send some reference photos to my artist; I can definitely do that while the caffeine kicks in.
The key is that, no matter what, you always move forward. The work must get done regardless of how sleepy or frustrated or motivated you may feel. So, do your most important work when you're at your best, and your least important work when your brain starts to flag.
Hopefully, these five rules help you make the best of your own projects and remove some of the barriers you may feel are keeping you from success. If you build discipline into your day, it can be the difference between releasing your game when you should and when you can. Good luck with your projects!