Programmable Series – Know Your Limits

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Your concept is coming together and designs are falling into place – now it’s time to start implementing your game designs into something tangible. Having a hardware target in mind is a great start, but the important questions begin to build from there. Can that hardware handle your game? Do you need to support additional peripherals? Is the play intuitive on that hardware? What if you want to port to other platforms later on? As these questions pile up you’ll need to focus on the limitations of the hardware, software, and even your design.

HatKidTease

Currently, computers and mobile phones are the most common platforms that games are released for. This is likely because they are considered the easiest and most cost-effective to develop for. Many games of the past and even console exclusives were developed on computers and then migrated over to their ultimate console destination. Additionally, with the ease of digital distribution, this makes the most financial sense, especially for independent and small development studios. Reducing production costs allows for funds to be distributed to other aspects of a game’s development and by removing the variable of physical media, the cost of a game to both publishers and consumers can be drastically cut – if you plan to release a physical version of your game then you’ll need to consider these costs early on in development.

If you are an independent developer, then your budget is truly your first big limitation. It’s difficult to gauge how much money you will have spent when everything is done before you’ve even started making your game, which can often be one of the biggest failings seen in comes to new studios and developers. Gears For Breakfast, the developers of Hat In Time seemed to show realistic goals regarding their budget when asking for funding and had been working on the game for free, regardless of any potential financing, showing that they were truly dedicated to the game’s production. In contrast, the Kickstarter funded Midora serves as an example of a project that fell short in this aspect. Though the game was funded by meeting its target Kickstarter goal, the developers were looking to outside investors and even considered creating a different game to provide additional funding.

If your game seems too ambitious for the budget it probably needs to be scaled back to a reasonable goal. For example, if you are planning to get outside assistance for your game in the form of artists, musicians or even programmers, you’ll want to look into the costs of hiring them early on. Know how you are going to market your game once it’s done – don’t expect to be able to simply throw it up on a digital marketplace and have people discover it on their own. Once your game is public make sure to price it in range you truly believe players are willing to pay. Most gamers will opt for a big budget mainstream game over your smaller unknown game if they are similarly priced. Don’t be afraid to dream big but keep your expectations realistic when it comes to budget and scale.

Midora

Hardware will be your next big limitation to investigate. While it may seem obvious that you’re not going to be able to design 3D games for the Game Boy, for instance, you may not be aware of the technical limitations and specifications of more current hardware – although some systems seem like they are capable of a lot, they may be more limited than you realise. When looking at portable or home consoles from a design standpoint, you’ll need to be aware of video and audio limitations such as colours and maximum resolutions, as well as bit rates and available audio channels for sound. From a programming perspective you’ll want to pay attention to things like available memory and processing power. From a physical perspective, look at the available button layouts and other control interfaces. If you design a game with traditional buttons in mind, they likely won’t translate as well if the system uses motion controls or a touch screen. When looking at home computers as a platform, ask yourself if a mouse or keyboard is suited to your title, or would a controller be a better option for your players?

If you have the chance, you should consider offering your players as many control options as possible, including alternative control schemes. Think about how you would play the game if you had a disability or were left handed instead of right handed. Control options are an effective yet simple method of expanding your game’s accessibility, within the limitations of the hardware. On dedicated hardware the makeup of a controller is often less flexible without additional peripherals – consider offering button re-mapping to implement a degree of customisation without the need for physical changes to the hardware.

If you decide to port your game to multiple systems you will need to review the above items for each piece of hardware. This can be incredibly time consuming and you may even have to redesign elements your game based to fit around hardware or control limitations. When looking back to the early 2000’s you can see many interesting examples of titles that have been adapted differently for multiple systems –  Tomb Raider: Legend was released during the industry’s transitional period between the original Xbox and Playstation 2 and their successors, the Xbox 360 and PS3. Not only was the game ported to all of the current and previous generation consoles, it also recieved a dedicated handheld version on the Game Boy Advance, which vastly differs to home consoles from a technical standpoint. Of course, differences in graphical fidelity would seem like an obvious difference between hardware, but the GBA version’s variations extended far beyond this – it was a completely different game. Given that it could not handle the 3D graphics that the home consoles were sporting, thus leading to the gameplay becoming essentially impossible to transition, it was completely redone as a 2D side-scroller, different in genre as well as concept.

It’s very unlikely you would run into a scenario quite like this as an independent developer, but it’s a great reference when it comes to looking at all of the possibilities there are for porting a title. When porting a game to multiple systems you want your game experience to be fairly similar across all of those platforms, so knowing the ins and outs of your chosen hardware before you begin the design process is extremely important – it will likely be far easier to adjust your designs early on in development rather than trying to completely rebuild your game to work on another piece of hardware.

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Finally, it’s important to recognise the limitations of you or your team as developers. Don’t be afraid to admit that you have room for improvement – acknowledging where the weaknesses and strengths of those involved in your project lie can help to make maanging and improving your project much easier. In terms of design, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback! If you put something together that you’re not confident about, ask a friend or family member for a second opinion – of course, you can also make use of various online outlets for criticism and feedback should you feel inclined. Many people do find it hard to take criticism, but it’s truly a great way to grow and develop your skills. Keep this in mind, if you’re working with a team.

This becomes especially important when working in a team and assigning roles within your project to best make use of each member’s strengths. Your artist might devise great theoretical ideas for game mechanics, but if they are uneducated on the programming and implementation side of each mechanic, they may be impossible to work into the development process. These may seem like common sense aspects, but when pushing towards a game’s completion, it’s natural that people may want to contribute to areas outside of their normal scope to help spread the workload. Help those people focus on their strengths and the areas of design they are best suited to contributing to in order to maintain productivity. If you are building a game completely on your own, it’s fine to understand that you cannot be an expert in everything – it’s okay to make mistakes along the way, which you can learn from as you strive to do your best. The more you work on something, the better the end product will be. You can be thankful when your game is finally done, knowing that you worked hard and planned ahead to know your limits!

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About Mike Clark (Chemical Taint)

*Indie game developer, specializing in classic and arcade style games. I design games primarily for personal computers and handheld/mobile devices. *Musician and part-time music producer. *Writer for Minus World's "Programmable Series."
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One Response to Programmable Series – Know Your Limits

  1. Pingback: Programmable Series – Self Inflicted | Minus World

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