Howdy IGMC contestants! This is Blackbird with 10 tips on how to maximize your game’s chances of success in the Indie Game Maker Contest. By extension, these ideas can also apply to game development in general.
[Edit 07/08/2015: Made some small adjustments based on staff feedback, and added a few extra mentions for ideas I’d omitted.]
1. Find the “nugget of fun”.
This is the number one tip for game design. Think hard about what’s really appealing about your game and try to distill it to just one thing. What is the reason that any given player would want to play your game instead of another one? You should be able to tell an inquistive person what your game is or does well in just one sentence.
“adrenalizing twitch shooter”
“engrossing character driven story about Jean, the cyber-punk”
“physics sandbox that uses magnetic orbs to interact in fun ways”
Everything about your game should reinforce, intensify, and elaborate on this one core idea. Do not allow extraneous ideas, like unnecessary skill trees or crafting minigames, to distract you from making that one core idea (the idea that makes your game fun to play) as good as it possibly can be.
2. Be unique.
The games that reached the finals last year all had unique elements. You don’t necessarily have to reinvent an entire genre, but you should try to differentiate your game from the bog standard. If your game has a unique twist of some kind, then it is a lot more likely to stick in the judge’s minds and move your game forward in the ranking process. There will be a lot of entries, so you want to include some kind of “wow moment” to catch the attention of judges and make them remember it.
Remnants of Isolation had a unique chain combat system and memorable characters. Goats on a Bridge stuck out for it’s high level of challenge and unusual control scheme. Last Word also had unique combat and setting elements.
Try to think about simple twists that can differentiate your game.
3. Plan effectively.
Before starting your game, you should have a clear idea of the mechanics, features, and areas you’d like to create before you begin.
Divide your mechanics, areas, and ideas into core and optional objectives and list their completion by priority. Ensure that any optional elements won’t detract from the game if they aren’t completed, and plan to develop them only after all your core elements are refined. You probably shouldn’t have any more than 2 optional ideas beyond your core ones.
Try to plot out how long it will take you to complete each core element to make sure that you budget enough time to complete the whole project and don’t spend too much development emphasis on any one area.
Be sure to allow some extra time just in case something goes wrong, because it will. Sometimes player feedback will derail your progress, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives you an opportunity to tweak less appealing areas of your game and make them better.
Another important reason for this phase is to make sure that your game idea has a reasonable scope and can actually be completed in the timeframe you have.
A huge mistake that beginning developers often make is planning games that are far, far too large to complete in a reasonable timeframe. When starting out, and especially in the time limit of this contest, it is far better to envision a game with a very narrow scope and concentrate on making a small number of mechanics or areas very refined rather than having a ton of mediocre, incomplete ideas. Quality is far better than quantity. This repeats #1 somewhat, but it’s worth reiterating because focus is very important.
How can you tell when your scope is too large? It comes from experience, but I would recommend you try to limit yourself to a very small area during this contest. If you’ve got a platformer, try to create one or two stages at most and make them really good. If you’re writing an RPG or narrative based game, write only one major plot twist and introduce your characters with only one scene each. In some cases, you might even limit yourself to just one room.
4. Use what you know. Be aware of your limitations. If your skillset is lacking, join a team.
Try to limit the amount of new skills you need to learn to complete your game. You won’t have time to develop entire new skillsets during the course of the tournament, so don’t expect to learn C++ if you don’t know it already.
It’s a lot better to adapt your existing talents and use them on your game than to learn entirely new skills from scratch. If you’re really good at art but don’t know anything about coding, consider teaming up with a talented programmer so that you can compliment each other’s strengths. The IGMC forums will likely be full of developers looking to team up with other people that can compliment their skills. Take a look: http://community.gamedevfort.com/
Alternatively, choose a platform or genre that mitigates your weaknesses. What if you’re an artist that can’t find a programmer to work with? Try creating a visual novel or using a game engine that greatly simplifies programming for you. If you’re a programmer without an artist, keep your artwork simple. Tetris is one of the greatest games of all time, but has very simplistic art assets.
If you want to contribute but don’t have a lot of time, consider helping another team create minor assets. Even if you can contribute just one really good illustration to make the main menu look amazing, you’ve still added to that game meaningfully. Just be honest about how much time you can contribute to the team and don’t overcommit your ability to deliver the portions of the game you promised to complete.
5. Work with people you trust and communicate frequently.
A lot of teams fall short because one member of the team fails to complete critical areas of the game at the last moment. When choosing teammates, try to work with people who have proven themselves to be reliable, or at the very least, ask them for a sample of something they’ve created.
During the contest, frequently communicate with all team members about what you’re doing and the progress you’ve made. If you feel like you’re getting stuck or falling behind, let everyone else know so that they can adjust their work accordingly or help you. Problems are often a lot easier to resolve if you get help or admit that you need assistance. The workload can be moved around so that the project as a whole can proceed smoothly. Don’t wait until a bottleneck happens and other team members have to halt their work entirely while you catch up.
6. Work hard, but more importantly, work smart.
You have a very small time frame to complete the project. Use all of your time effectively and don’t procrastinate. The best path to success is to set a schedule and work consistently every day, rather than in erratic bursts.
Don’t fall into the trap of having to cram everything into the last few days of the competition. If you end up in “crunch time” pulling 14 hour days every day, your body and mind will become exhausted and the quality of your work will noticeably decline. It’s much better to get adequate rest and nutrition so that you can remain focused, alert, and efficient.
7. Talk about your game.
During the course of the contest, share screenshots of what you’re working on in the forums, with your friends, and on social networks.
There are a lot of reasons to do this. You’ll get feedback from unbiased people about whether your work is exciting or not, which can help you make meaningful revisions to your game. You’ll also be more motivated if you feel obliged to post your progress every so often. It might even help you win prizes! You never know.
You could even go so far as setting up a dedicated social channel for your game. Even if it isn’t useful during the contest, it could be useful later on if you continue developing the game after the contest.
8. Use your own work.
While the judges would agree that Streets of Rage and Super Mario World have amazing soundtracks, they are really looking to see and hear original content from your game. As tempting as it may be to use preexisting music or assets (a good composer is hard to find, after all!) resist the temptation to do so. The music of classic games is magical because it was a unique part of playing those games. You should create music and art that makes your game uniquely yours, even if you aren’t the next Yuzo Koshiro or Koji Kondo.
9. Allow adequate time for bug testing and quality assurance.
This is a critical step of game development that frequently gets overlooked. You can have the most innovative and fun game in the contest, but it won’t matter if the game crashes whenever the judges try to play it. The contest rules also harshly penalize major bugs. Keep in mind that the judges have to look at hundreds of games and will have very little patience for errors when there’s another game waiting to be judged. We were forced to disqualify several promising entries in last year’s contest because of glitches. Don’t let this be you!
Plan to spend at least 25% of your time (one week) playtesting and making sure your game works as flawlessly as possible. This may seem like a huge amount of time to cut from potential development when you only have 4 weeks, but trust me, it’s critical. You can always add more content if you finish QA early, but you can’t fix a broken game if you’re out of time. Good overall software performance and stability might seem pedestrian, but it’s the foundation on which your proverbial house is built.
Also, don’t let amateur mistakes like spelling errors distract the judges, especially if you have a narrative-based game. If English isn’t your first language, don’t fret. You can probably find a lot of people in the IGMC forums who would be willing to help you proofread your game’s dialog, provided you budget enough time for it.
10. Finish. The. Game.
If you enter the contest, resolve yourself to finish the game you begin. Even if it becomes apparent that you have no chance of winning, or that you can’t complete the game before the deadline, you should still keep working on it and finish it. Completing a game is, in itself, a great accomplishment that very few people can claim. The developers who are successful in the industry got there because they didn’t just talk about making games – they completed a bunch of terrible games first and learned from their failures. Even if you don’t win in the IGMC, who is to say that your game can’t become successful if you keep working on it? There are lots of successful games that are utterly ridiculous. At the very least, you will learn a great deal so that you can make your next game better and faster.
Good luck in the contest! Thanks for reading.