10 Things I Learned In One Year Of Keeping A Devlog

This is my last week of regular updates before I’m off on paternity leave. I have a short recap video ready to go on Wednesday, but beyond that, I can’t guarantee what my schedule will look like. I already wrote a long blog about being one year into development on Gunmetal Arcadia and one year out from the launch of Super Win the Game, but since I’ll be taking a short break from documentation, I thought it would be interesting to talk a little bit more about the documentation process itself, and some of the things I’ve learned in the process. Plus I couldn’t resist the clickbait headline.

I really enjoy writing. I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising; I’ve maintained a blog in some form or another almost as long as I’ve been on the internet, but it had been a while since I’d kept a development-oriented blog that I updated on any sort of a regular basis, and I had some concerns that I might not be motivated to keep writing every work. As it’s turned out, I have more than enough material to pull from, and though the typical week’s update is usually an overview of the previous week’s worth of development tasks, I have the flexibility to cover anything at all related to development here, from deep dives into my engine, tools, or processes to tips for first time exhibitors.

And the writing itself is fun. That’s the important (and sometimes surprising) part. Sometimes I think I like writing even more than making games. It scratches a different creative itch, one that’s more immediate. There’s a thrill in publishing content on a regular basis that you just don’t get when you ship a game once a year (or two, or whenever). Launching a game is exciting, but it’s also stressful and the rewards are somewhat muted by comparison. Games, even free games, have a higher barrier to entry than a blog or a video, and you don’t get that thrill of knowing that your work is just a click away. Publishing a blog or a video is instant gratification.

Keeping a devlog forces me to schedule my time better. Very often, especially when I’ve had events and associated items to prepare and contract work encroaching on my schedule, I’ve had to honestly ask myself, “Am I going to have anything to write about this week?” This has become doubly critical since I launched the video series, as my goal has been to minimize overlap between the blog and video each week. So when I find myself having to ask whether or not I have at least two substantial new pieces of development, it reinforces just how precious my time is. I’ve had many weeks in which I dive into a task that I’ve been putting off simply because I know it will give me something to write about in a day or two.

In some cases, I haven’t had new development work to write about, but I’ve been able to turn to other sources, detailing bits of how my engine works, high-level designs for the future, and other things beyond a checklist of recent tasks. Sometimes this feels like a cop-out, and it hammers home the guilt of not having new development to discuss, but I also tend to think those can be fascinating topics, and I might not ever broach those were I not desperately in need of material.

Animated GIFs are the best. I started recording animated GIFs of my recent work back in March, and it’s caused a shift in how I think about new features. I find myself prioritizing tasks that can be conveyed visually, or looking for ways to convey elements that might otherwise be obscured. There was a recent article on Gamasutra built around a conversation between Rami Ismail and Adam Saltsman in which they discussed the benefits of developing games for spectators and how these same principles can benefit players as well. I’m finding the same in true of showing games in development; if an animated GIF can’t provide enough visual cues to communicate the experience, it’s highly probable the player won’t have enough feedback, either. Building for animated GIFs means building a better game in general.

My progress is more apparent to myself. Super Win the Game was developed in eight months, You Have to Win the Game in five. I’m now a year into Gunmetal Arcadia, and I don’t have a clear finish line in sight. And yes, some of that time has been spent on other things, and yes, it’s a big game, and yes, I’ve already made a lot of progress, but I still often find myself feeling like things are moving too slowly. That can be demoralizing. That’s where having a week-by-week chronicle of exactly what I was doing over the last year is nice. It’s easier to see how things are stacking up and easier to be proud of my accomplishments to date rather than critical of myself for not working faster.

I still can’t estimate tasks. I tried once, on David’s insistence, to estimate a projected release date for Gunmetal Arcadia by making a chart detailing all my tasks from the current day to launch, with time estimates for each. I had zero faith in it at the time, and that was before spending two months on free DLC for Super Win the Game and taking on contract work and launching a video series and having a kid. I bet it would look pretty silly now.

The point is, I can’t estimate tasks, and I won’t. And that in turn means I can’t gauge a release date. But I feel like I have a pretty good gut instinct for scope, and more importantly, as a solo developer, I’m in a position to be flexible and adapt to scope and schedule changes. It’s exactly that flexibility that led to the creation of Gunmetal Arcadia Zero. That put me on a path where it made sense to prioritize content production, and I feel like that’s turned out pretty well, as the last few weeks or months of enemy development has shown.

It feels like I’m trending in the right direction. I’ve probably talked about it before, but the primary reason I started this blog was in reaction to the lack of response I got to the announcement and launch of Super Win the Game. With that game, I tried to manufacture awareness with a handful of press releases every few months, and I failed. So with Gunmetal Arcadia, I made a decision to grow awareness more naturally with a constant stream of information. It feels like that’s working. Will that be The Thing that solves my low sales? I don’t know. There probably isn’t Just One Thing. But as I mentioned in my one-year postmortem, it’s not as critical that I have an Eldritch-scale hit as I once thought. It’s still too early to say for sure whether this is going to achieve my goals, but the trends are encouraging.

I wear more hats than ever. So many hats. Game developer, blogger, video producer, contract worker, occasional email replier-to, family man, not complete social recluse…that’s a lot of hats. I’m not always good at wearing that many hats. Drink every time I say “hats.”

It’s a weird combination of adrenaline and self-pity that fuels me when the weight of the hats starts crushing down, a bleary-eyed, caffeine-propelled fixation on overcoming the odds. I don’t know if that’s healthy. I mean, I know it’s not healthy. But it gets things done.

I still have further aspirations. My ambitions are limitless. The more I do in this vein, the more I want to do. I’m done a couple of dev streams and I’m currently dangling those as a carrot to fund my Patreon, but more recently, I’ve been doing some game streams just for fun, and I’m really enjoying those. In fact, I’m playing more games in general than I have in a long time. I’m finding myself itching to write or speak about these experiences from a perspective of fan and critic and designer. I’ve talked about this a few times now, and it’s hard to say if anything will come of it because it feels impractical for a number of reasons (too much on my plate already, too similar to what others are already doing, etc.), but it’s been stuck at the back of my mind for a while and I figured it was worth mentioning again.

This blog tends to be more recounting of personal experiences and less practical knowledge and education, but I’ve been wanting to branch out in that direction for some time. I mentioned my plans for a GDC talk recently, and as the deadline for the first draft is quickly approaching, I’ve been doing a little work on that this week. I’m excited about where it’s going, hopefully it’ll turn out to be a good resource for future indie developers.

I have no idea what I’m doing. Feedback is an interesting beast. You want it until you have it, and then you do your best to ignore it. I tend to rely on gut instinct most of the time, for better or for worse. There’s many other ways I could structure and push this blog. Should I be more high-level? More deep dives? Should I enable comments? Should I link old posts more often on social media? Should I blog more? Less? Change up my schedule? More art? More in-dev builds? More videos? More streams?

I know what sort of content I like to see on others’ blogs, and I try to aim for that, but it can be difficult to look at my own work with a critical eye. I’m not always sure my own perceptions or expectations align with everyone else’s. I can’t read my own work without knowing what went into both the development and the writing. I can’t read without knowing what comes next. Sometimes I’m not sure who I’m writing for. Gamers? Developers? Both? Someone else entirely?

This game is still exciting to me. Losing motivation is one of the more widely discussed aspects of solo game development, and I’m not going to pretend I don’t have days where I have to drag myself out of bed and force myself to work, but a year out from its inception,the promise of what Gunmetal Arcadia will be still gets my blood pumping. On more than one occasion, I’ve caught myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were an NES game that player like Zelda II but with roguelike elements— oh yeah I’m making that game.”

But even beyond the core promise, the day-to-day implementation work is actually fun, and I think the devlog is a large part of that. Development can sometimes feel thankless, programming in particular, especially when it’s on systems that the average player would never observe. Knowing that I can write about those and detail exactly what goes into the apparently mundane aspects of development makes it a little more palatable.

This blog and the accompanying video series are also a much a wider outlet for communicating my ongoing development than the occasional tweet I did for Super Win, especially once you account for forums and such where I can repost the content. It’s sometimes hard to gauge exactly how many readers and viewers I’m reaching, but it for sure doesn’t feel like I’m just talking into the void, and that’s the important thing.

Anyway, on that note…

::Disappears into the night::