Design Time #2

Balancing Multiple Projects

For this Design Time, I wanted to talk about why you may want to be working on multiple designs at one time, and then how to handle those projects. This post will cover time management, managing burnout, and project management, so if that sounds like something you want to read more about, let’s dive right in.

Why a little masochism is a good thing

When I first started work on my card game Kingdoms of Immacus, I’d listen to podcasts from other designers, and they’d talk about the numerous projects (in the low teens) they are working on. I was taken a little aback because I could not imagine working on the number of games these designers were working on at any given time. Granted, they were only doing the design part – not the art, development, marketing, and all the other things necessary to bring a game over the finish line. Some designers are all-in-one doing the entirety of the art, development, etc. I’m not sure how they do it, but now that I am working on multiple projects at once, I can share how I do it. Here’s the rub, it is stressful to do multiple projects at once, but this stress in small to moderate amounts is okay. It keeps your creative juices flowing, and it can fight back the ever-looming burnout.

Who would have thought more work would lead to less burnout? Well I know us creative folk like to stay busy. I know for myself, I like to stay busy, keep things fresh, and want to feel like I am hitting milestones in some for or fashion. More projects equals more business, more fresh ideas being investigated and more milestones. It’s okay to be a little swamped, just don’t drown in it. Let’s look at how we find that balance.

How the designer got their groove back

Juggling multiple projects is all about balance and flow. It’s very Zen, or it sounds like it should be. Sometimes it isn’t and that’s okay. Balance should be how much time you dedicate to each project and your personal time outside of designing. Consider the free time part of your daily schedule and make sure that is just as high of a priority as the design time. I’ve blogged about taking breaks before, and the best way to avoid burnout is to allow you some time to decompress, watch a movie, play some video games, or take a walk, anything that allows some time for self-care. Make each time slot whether it is for game design or fun, only about that one thing and avoid bleed over (no fun time during game design time, game design is fun enough!).

Not only can free time allow for some much needed unwinding, but it will also allow you to be inspired. I want to say most if not all great ideas come from inspiration from the real world. You can cheat your free time a little bit and consider it research if you are a workaholic like me. So that’s free time, but what about carving out time for the design stuff?

The way I balance out designing multiple projects at once is by creating a design flow that makes sense for the space I am in at any given time. Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of sitting still much with working two jobs 7 days a week and a lot of driving during that time. Thus, I create design time chunks. If I am on my lunch during work, I go outside and do some drawing since I won’t be around anywhere with electricity for my power-hungry laptop. After work is computer design time at a local Starbucks, and then the drive home is theorycrafting where I think about the mechanics of any particular game and how things can be tweaked and made better.

Weekends are a different beast with the long drive to my weekend job being the greatest time dump. During this time I like to listen to board game podcasts and listen to the content other people are contributing in the community. When work is slow, I like to do some art and then move to the digital work in the evening when I am free. All of these aspects of design are done in chunks that are best suited for what the limitations of the environment are.

Now if you are able to sit and do all your work in one space, that’s great, but I find the hidden benefit of jumping between aspects of development throughout the day and in different locales is a constant influx of inspiration and a change of scenery that makes the work feel a lot less like work.

Mucho mucho milestones

Over time I have realized how important milestones are for your own sense of accomplishment and progress. The issue with only working on one project is you eventually hit a hard progress wall. Kingdoms of Immacus ran into that once all the hard assets were done, and I was sitting around waiting for art to be made. That’s why Trolltem Poles got started. I needed to use my dedicated chunk times to have more content to fill those chunks like sketching and theorycrafting.

Once Trolltem Poles fell into that same trap of freeing up my chunk time, I started working on other various projects to fill that time. This allowed me to always be thinking about the next thing, while getting better at art and developing my skills. Oh but what about those milestones?

The great thing about multiple projects is multiple milestones. As soon as you complete one milestone for one game, you’ll be inching closer to the next milestone for another game. The only pitfall to this is eventually the milestones start to bunch up at the same spot in a bottleneck. Once the theorycrafting, sketching, and playtesting are done, you’re usually left with a ton of art and fine tuning. If you’re a solo dev doing all the things, then art is typically the rate-limiting step. Sometimes you can speed that process along, but I know that’s where I tend to peter out in the frequency of my milestones.

The pitfall of longer development cycles

The biggest pitfall I feel for working on multiple projects is the way it can extend your development cycle. Unless you are some godly automaton, it is much more efficient to work on one project from beginning to end with the same amount of output through the entire process than fractured efforts on multiple projects. If I get into a formatting groove for example, I am quicker at formatting a single game than three. Same goes for art or any other aspect in a game. The problem for me at least is your risk of burnout is higher than by working on the multi-project approach to game design. This leads to longer development cycles.

A game that would normally take X time to complete can take double the amount of time to finish or more. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as games tend to age like fine wine the longer they are in development. New ideas come to light as well as workable solutions to issues with the design. If you are just getting into the industry, there is nothing wrong with a long front-loaded development cycle. This will mean more consistent initial releases as the games will progress down a staggered release schedule that looks like: game A release à game B completion à game B release à game C completion etc. The biggest issue with a long development cycle is the feeling that creeps in you are not getting anything done or out the door.

The lack of any real release can lead to burnout as well. I have had this feeling myself of being in this design limbo and not making any real progress. When this happens it’s best to take a step back from the designs, acknowledge the progress you’ve made on each game, and make a new set of milestone goals to reestablish a path moving forward. I also take this as a sign from the design gods that I have reached my maximum number of games at any given time. For real progress doing solo development work, my threshold is 3. Any more than that, and I am doing all the games a disservice since my attention is so split.

Finding what works best for you

Ultimately, game development is all about what is most comfortable for you. Not all designers are going to do all the things themselves, so find that balance and flow that fits your goals and projects. This is just what has worked for me, but I am sure there is something in there that will work for other game designers. Blocking out your time, making time for yourself, and celebrating those milestones make for happy and healthy game designers.

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