Traditionally, game development is focused on building up a system, releasing one or two demos for feedback, and eventually coming out with a complete project. In this case, “eventually” usually means months or years down the line.
But what if that could be different? What if a developer decides to generate the complete product first, then improve upon that with subsequent releases? In other words, instead of showing off an incomplete game and trying to finish it, why don’t more people create full games, and then make them fuller?
The idea may sound odd at first, but it makes a startling amount of sense once you dig into it. High-profile developers do it all the time: commonly, it’s the approach used for game development tools and frameworks such as flixel. In these instances, an initial offering is made available to the community and then expanded upon through subsequent versions (flixel, for example, currently stands at v1.25).
Games themselves also fall under this umbrella. It’s not strange to see multiple IGF entrants in any given year sitting on the beta phase, or adopting the label of “work in progress” despite the fact that they seem to be complete titles. Or maybe a long-term project has insisted on keeping its version numbers strictly below that solemn and final 1.0, racking up a long list of nines after the decimal point because they insist that it’s not yet done.
Dyson (now better known as Eufloria) was one of the games to take this approach, as was Spelunky. Both were fairly complete and playable long before their official finals (particularly Spelunky), and both enjoyed considerable media attention and swelling fan bases during their development. These games are only two examples among many.
So, how does this paradigm benefit us? Let’s count the ways.
(1) Motivation. More than anything else, releasing and marketing a complete game (even if you’re not yet satisfied with its level of polish) is a huge boost to morale because the product will be acknowledged, played and enjoyed by a far wider variety of people. With this approach, the first version of your game doesn’t merely garner playtesters. It actually secures you a bunch of fans!
(2) Feedback. If you’re prepared to take a few knocks, criticism from “real” players can have untold value. They’re frank, they know what they want, and they’re the best representation of your market because… well, they are your market. (On a side note, if you aren’t good at taking hard knocks, this article may help you out)
(3) Marketing. While demos and previews will sometimes be picked up by game journos looking for news, it’s much easier to construct, promote and hype up a product that people consider relatively complete. And don’t worry about blowing your marketing load too early: if your game’s good, reviewers will come back and do an updated report later!
So if you’re unmotivated, unseen, or otherwise struggling with your game development, consider going with this development style. It’s no guarantee for success, but it’s certainly a fine pick-me-up if you find yourself in a rut.