Know When To Fold

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done.”

– Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”

An industry of gamblers

Creative work is a gamble.

Each time you sit down at your computer – or your notebook, or your easel, or whatever the tools of your specific pursuit may be – then you’re betting you can capture something from your mind and convey it to your audience’s. It might be an emotion, or a concept, or a story, or simply an image that existed in your mind that hasn’t existed in anyone else’s yet.

Game devs are usually capturing an experience, and it’s usually supposed to be fun. It may be many other things as well (consider Papers, Please, or This War of Mine, or With Those We Love Alive, none of which are primarily fun) but most frequently, game devs are in the business of capturing and conveying fun.

(When people are having fun, they’re not bored. When people are bored, they stop playing, which is the opposite of what we want.)

Like any other creative endeavor, game development is unreliable. Sometimes we capture what we want in our games, and then we celebrate our success. Sometimes we don’t, and we lose weeks or months of progress trying to figure out what went wrong. Often, key insights manifest right after we need them rather than before. (In one of the most painful anecdotes I’ve heard about writing, N.K. Jemisin recounted how she threw out 80k of The Kingdom of Gods and started anew because she’d written it from the wrong character’s perspective.)

This is why we miss deadlines.

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

– Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

That isn’t to say that we have to miss deadlines. Production (in game development) is the science of manipulating the odds for creative success within a deadline and budget. This can be accomplished by scoping appropriately to the deadline, tracking progress, keeping an eye out for upcoming risks, and being prepared to sacrifice features and reduce scope as needed.

But what if you’re not willing to sacrifice features?

Then you ask for an extension. Or you miss your deadline.

About Shufflecomp

All of this is a roundabout way to let you know that I didn’t submit my ShuffleComp game. I listened to my song options, settled on two for inspiration (“All Things at Once”, by Tired Pony, and “Magic and Loss”, by Lou Reed) and then settled on an initial design that looked feasible within the time available.

But the more I worked on it, the more I saw that I wanted to make changes from the original design. I tried out the Inklewriter platform initially and then shifted to Twine because I wanted CSS. I added art and macros that weren’t in the original plan. I made significant changes to my prose style as I learned the voice of my protagonist.

Each of these changes brought me closer to the heart of what the game could be – something wild and dark and beautiful. But the schedule slipped with every change.

I could have cut back and created something more like my original design. I chose not to. But competition deadlines don’t move (at least, not for the sake of one competitor), which means I chose to miss the deadline.

There’s a certain bittersweetness to the decision, because not cutting scope means I’m not going to finish this game right now. Instead, I’m going to take all my design notes, file them into my archive, and lay this game on the stack with all the others I’ve set aside. Because there are only so many hours in the day, and because I have to prioritize where my working hours go.

Most of these games don’t see daylight. But over time, the concepts get repurposed, and the ideas get rebuilt, and progress continues overall even when it stops locally.

Know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em.

Here’s a glimpse of the game I didn’t finish.

shufflecomp 1 shufflecomp 2


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  1. This seems to be happening a lot this year. I also ended up shelving a plan that grew too ambitious for the time allotted (though I ended up submitting another tiny game). Juhana and Baf were also in the same boat. (Maybe this means there will be an uptick in ambitious song-inspired games in IFComp!) I think a month is just a bit too short for a comp, especially one like ShuffleComp that has specific prompts. It’s long enough to make people hesitant to do Speed-IF quality games, but not long enough to make IFComp-quality games. I think you made a great choice in giving 3 months for ParserComp, along with the looser theme.

    • I know a bunch of people dropped out this year, but I still think ShuffleComp’s length is fine for what it is. If I’d started with a smaller concept or aggressively avoided feature creep, I would have been fine.

      In my experience, game concepts are like goldfish – they scale to the size of the available time window. A larger time window wouldn’t have helped me, because either I would have started with a more ambitious concept, or I would have failed to enter entirely. (Probably the latter. I suppose that technically would have helped me.)

  2. I had a crash and burn too, but it’s more I like the idea I came up with enough I want to give it the time it deserves.

    Unlike, say, roguelike 7-day type challenges, an incomplete game doesn’t really work in this form.

  3. I can certainly sympathize with scope/feature creep. The goldfish analogy is perfect. I do hope that the ambition you felt to make the game more than it initially started out as means you’ll eventually un-shelve it. That “excited about the game” feeling is hard to nurture sometimes!

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