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Early Retrospective

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It's been a while since I've posted. Unfortunately I've had several real life obstacles come up that have really cut into my programming time, and as I'm not a terribly good or fast programmer that has been doubly challenging. Plus, I was unsatisfied with some of the functionality of my console game library and ultimately decided to port it to SFML, improving it along the way. Essentially re-doing stuff you've already done when you want to make a game makes it hard to stay motivated.

I've also decided that my previous approach to this journal was less than ideal. I think that rather than posting walls of text about my plans, I will do better by posting descriptions of things I've actually implemented along with any observations I've made about what did and didn't work. I'm still always interested in any comments, questions, or critiques on anything I've posted. Especially critiques.

But to kick things off, I wanted to share some observations I've made as an amateur developer.

You should work every day. There's so much work to do in developing a game, even a small one or a demo, that it's easy to be overwhelmed by it. It's also easy to be overwhelmed by what feels like a lack of progress. That's why working every day is so important. The amount of work that you can realistically do in a day forces you to work in smaller units. And even if each day's work doesn't seem like much, over time your accomplishments really add up to significant progress. Not to mention it can be hard to pick up where you left off with a gap of even just a couple of days. If your code is like mine, it's not commented as well as you think and your design approach isn't as clear or obvious as you thought.

You don't need to work with your compiler or IDE every day. Design is work too, and good design especially is a lot of work. Spending your energy putting together a solid design or approach to a problem is at least as productive as hacking some lines of code together. I've found that when I've fired up Visual Studio I feel pressured to write lines of code, and I am not skilled enough to design well on the fly. Poorly designed and/or poorly written code will likely need to be fixed later, and for me trying to program without insufficient thought in advance costs me quite a bit of time rather than saving any.

Design is the most difficult programming task. When I'm working on design for a feature I want to implement, I identify the specific problems that need to be solved by the code I write. Without a clearly defined problem to solve, my code tends to come out as a big mess. It's functional for my immediate needs (like testing and prototyping), but tends not to be very expandable or flexible. This leads to either very convoluted implementations of other features later on, or a significant re-design of that section. Since I've ended up doing the design more rigorously eventually, there isn't much reason for me not to do it upfront. In all cases so far, writing code to execute my designs has been far easier than creating the designs themselves.

The job of a software designer is to manage complexity. Okay, I stole that line from Code Complete (2nd ed., if it matters), almost certainly misquoting it in the process. But it's true. Even programming tasks that are well within my level of technical ability dissolve into rubbish if I forget this concept. Making software is hard, and if you cannot break what you are doing into chunks small enough that you can hold each one fully in your mind while you're working on it you will run into trouble. I try to check myself by reviewing at intervals: What is the exact purpose of this section of code, or this function, or this class? If you can't answer this question for the section you're working on, you are extremely vulnerable to losing focus and having that section not work as you intended. You might get lucky, but generally (for me) there's no happy ending when I can't provide such a definition immediately.

Implementation is experimentation. For a fairly low-skill programmer like myself, even after intensive design work some of what I write just doesn't work well. In these cases I have tried to come up with entirely different approaches than I attempted previously, using my poorer try as a reference. It's important to recognize that even though a section of code may produce something like the result you want it can still have any number of problems. You can't be afraid to refactor or, if necessary, re-design any portion of your work. Any problem that you notice isn't just going to go away on its own.

Focus on one task at a time. It's easy to bounce around to all of the different tasks you need to complete to make your game, which in turn can make it very difficult to stick with the specific feature you're working on. Often a simplified or dummy class version of a game feature is enough to let me test what I'm developing, but the temptation is always there to do more. This has been especially true for me in the case of very interesting features. But I know that if I let myself be distracted from necessary work I can quickly fall into a habit of leaving tons of half-finished features behind me. This is bad for prototyping, because there will be a lot of work with nothing demonstrable to show for it, and also leads to poorer design, as above.

Even a good design isn't sacred. Even with very little advancement on the gameplay features of my project, I have recognized that a lot of my ideas are unlikely to work all that well. This includes features that I have designed down in minute detail. Among others, my ideas on a schedule-driven game as well as Mad Libs style actions seem like they would not be much fun. While it's a shame to not use the designs that I've put a lot of time into creating and can implement, it would be much worse to have a game that forces the player to engage in clunky and un-fun activities.

A beginner's designs will typically not be that great. There's always something to improve, but at some point you have to produce some code and test it out. There is almost certainly a better, cleaner, faster, more elegant approach than what you've done, but you won't know what it is because you're a beginner and not an expert. A lot of the difference between a beginner and an expert is experience, and you won't get enough of that if you constantly rework sections of your program to improve them; you certainly won't finish your game. Write something that seems like it will work, and then test it under a variety of circumstances. Then ask if you are getting the results that you want. If not, then try again. If it seems like it's working as you intended, then move on. If there's a problem that needs to be fixed, I promise you it will come up later. Until then, keep working towards completion of your project, not perfection of one tiny segment of it.

A lot of things a game needs don't feel like game development. My current project will use a menu-based interface. But developing that interface means working on things that have nothing at all to do with the game proper. The most dispiriting thing I've experienced so far has been imagining all the exciting features I want my game to have (designing specific characters, locations, abilities, and so on) and then sitting down to create popup windows and properly functioning menus all night. It's necessary to do, but approximately 0.001% as fun as actually working on game features has been.

Use what you already know. Following from above is my strong recommendation that you use skills you already have to make a game like the one you are envisioning, even if you don't think that it is ideal, if you want to get to work on the "game" parts of your project quickly. If you know Windows Forms, use those to make your game interface at least for the prototype so that you don't spend a lot of time learning things like setting up an interface in SFML. It's good to develop your skills by learning new things, but working on non-game elements of your project isn't fun in the sense that creating game features is. I really wish I had just used a simply number based menu and input system in my prototype rather than trying to create fancier GUI-style menus. I'm a better programmer now than I was before, but not much further along in my game's design or implementation.

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