bookmark_borderRTS Game: Building the game, plan of attack

In my previous post I announced the start of my dream: building my own game.

In this post I will elaborate further about the goal I have set and how I intent to reach that goal. Writing a game is, like any project, quite a challenge. It is a continuous process of ‘zooming in’ (doing the actual work) and ‘zooming out’ (keeping an eye on the bigger picture). Only that way you can be sure you reach the goal in the most efficient manner.

Like any project, to keep it clear what to do, there is a list of tasks. It is wise to (ball-park) estimate how much time they will consume. At the same time there is a desired ‘launch date’. This brings a certain tension as you want as much value (features/tasks) done on launch date. Usually you have a minimal amount of tasks you have to get done.

Since I am now the developer and ‘product owner‘ at the same time I experience both sides. I need to investigate what to do to reach my goals. At the same time estimate and do the actual work.

This blog post covers the questions:

  • What needs to be done?
  • When will they be done?
  • What is the ‘end-date’?

What needs to be done?

In the grand scheme of things (zoomed out), roughly:

  • make the game ‘feature complete’
  • make my own graphics, sounds, etc
  • easily distributable & installable

What is ‘feature complete’?

I am heavily inspired by the first versions of C&C (RA), and I feel that to have a minimum playable game there should be at least:

  • 1 resource to ‘mine’ to earn money with (est: 8 hours)
  • 1 ‘power’ resource (est: 4 hours)
  • 1 faction to play with as a player (est: 0 hours)
  • A simple tech-tree (structures) (est: 8 hours)
    • Central structure to produce other structures (Const yard in C&C)
    • Power plant
    • Barracks
    • Factory
    • Refinery
  • A few units which have a Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanism (est: 16 hours)
    • Infantry
      • Two types: rocket launchers and soldiers
    • Light unit (fast, trike/quad)
      • 1 or 2 types
    • Heavy unit (tank)
      • 1 or 2 types
  • A (random generated) map to play on (est: 4 hours)
  • A very simple AI to play against (est: 12 hours)
  • A clear objective (ie, destroy enemy) (est: 4 hours)
  • A beginning and ‘end’ of the game. (menu to start from, and ‘game won/lost’ screen). (est: 8 hours)

And I think if you really want to push it you can shave off some features. I believe the first step is to get ‘full circle’ as soon as possible. Meaning you have a concept of a game. It has a beginning and an end.

From here on I can expand scope to my ideal game. But not before I have done the two other important things.

Estimation: 64-80 hours (20% deviation)

Make my own graphics, sounds, …

The next important part is graphics, sounds, music, story, etc. As for graphics. At the moment I use Dune 2 graphics as placeholders. Once I have the game mechanics in place and I know which units/structures I need for the minimum version I can start creating/getting these. So in a way they are not required immediately, but they are required whenever I want to commercially release my own game.

Changing the graphics will have impact on some implementations for sure, although I do set up the code as flexible as possible, there are always cases that I have not thought about.

There is a caveat. Creating graphics is hard. It is not my primary skill. To tackle this I could:

  • learn to create my own (? hours)
  • find someone else who is willing to do graphics for me (0 hours, but $$$)
  • find premade graphics in a market place and use that (4 hours searching, and $$$)

The same logic can be applied to Sounds, possibly Music.

Estimation: 0 – 10.000 hours

Seriously: this is a risk and I need to decide which strategy to get a more reliable amount of hours.

Easily distributable & installable

Release early, release often. It is a phrase I use all the time when I am working at clients. The same goes for my game. There is a difference however. Usually I work on mid-large web applications. There is no need for customers to install anything to use the latest version of the website. When an organisation has implemented Continuous Deployment, it can easily deploy new versions at will. Customers automatically have the latest version upon a new visit of the website.

For applications that need to be installed there are several platforms out there. There is a reason why the concept of an ‘App store’ is famous. It delivers a web-like experience.

There is a lot to win here, the first step though is to make sure any user is able to download a distribution for their platform (Windows, Mac OS, Linux) and able to install the game. I already took the liberty of wanting to support these platforms. So yes, I target the PC platform. No mobile, game console, etc.

In that sense there are a few steps to be taken:

  1. Offer a distribution somewhere (website? distribution platform? need to figure out)
  2. Provide an easy installation procedure (how? install4j? etc)
  3. Provide an app-store like experience. (use a distribution platform like Steam?)

Estimation: 8-16 hours

Estimation is based on creating an installer.

When will it be done?

Ok great, so there is a lot to do. So when will all this be done?

Lets bring a few numbers together. The estimates and the available time.

Bringing the estimates together

I just take the hours from all 3 paragraphs above, and sum them.

Min: 64 + 0 + 8 = 72

Max: 80 + 0 + 16 = 96

(I purposely did not add the 10.000 hours from the graphics section, it seriously is way too unsure).

So basically, I am estimating that 72 to 96 hours should be enough. Meaning, given an 8 hour work day it would take 9 to 12 days to get a minimum version which is distributable in the easiest way. Without doing anything about graphics, sounds, etc. (using dune 2 graphics as ‘stub’)

Estimated time needed: 72 to 96 hours

This excludes graphics.

How much time do I have?

To calculate the amount of time I have realistically I also do a min/max calculation. The minimum amount being the amount I am 100% sure of I have. The max being added hours I probably can spend, but I should not count on it.

Minimum hours are easy. I have at least 8 hours a week (1 work day a week) to spend. And every 8 weeks I take a week off to spend even more time. This means in a period of 10 weeks I can spend 14 days.

The max would be weekly 0 to 8 hours more. I can spend a weekend sometimes, an evening, sometimes more evenings. It really depends on a lot of things.

I like to think in periods of 10 weeks, I consider a full 10 weeks as an ‘iteration’. When working on Magic Gatherers we used this mechanism and it worked out pretty well. Also, every iteration had a particular focus. The first iteration there was ‘from idea to launched product’ for instance. For this game it would be different of course.

One other aspect with time is ‘when should it be done?’. The easiest thing would be to use the iteration end-date. Considering that the first work-day is within this week, this week is counted as the first of the iteration. An iteration of 10 weeks will mean the end date is 29th of october.


End-date: 29th of october 2017

Time available: 14 days to 19 days (112 to 152 hours)

Looks like an easy feat!… oh wait, I have seen this before. This probably means I forgot something. Ah yes, the graphics… and so much more unknowns. Looks like it will be a close one.

So when will it be done?

Yes, good question, so in this case I choose to use the fixed-time flexible scope approach. Although I do know if the minimal scope is not met I will not launch the product. Then again, I really DO want to launch a product so I probably will be very harsh on the scope and just make it fit.

This brings me to another topic, priorities and goal. What do I try to achieve with releasing something at the end of iteration #1? I will elaborate on that in a different blog post.


It looks like it is feasible to get a minimalistic feature complete game done within the first iteration. That would mean at the 29th of october (latest) a downloadable and installable game should be available.

However, there are more things that need to be done that were not explicitly defined in overall 3 phases. You can think of, writing dev blogs, youtube video’s for demoing features, a monthly in-depth video for Patrons and so forth.

The only way to know is to just do it!

bookmark_borderDon’t tell me how – tell me your intent

Since I have founded my own company, I have worked for/with multiple companies. During those times I made a few observations I’d like to share. This is one observation.

TLDR: Give a team an intent and the team will give you the best path to that intent (goal). A much better path (how) than you could ever figure out yourself.

A lot of (it) organizations work in iterations (so called ‘Agile’). Often using a process (but not limited to) called Scrum.

Whatever you’d like to call the process, there is a need to build things. This need is often presented as a list and is (should be) ordered by priority. In Scrum this is called the Product Backlog. This list is often discussed in so called refinement sessions where the Product Backlog Items are being prepared for the next (coming) iteration.

One of the questions I’ve heard is: “how much work/effort would it cost to do [backlog item] ?”.

This is a very useful question, but also a dangerous one.

Business/Product Owner/Managers – Be careful what you ask for! – Example #1

Lets use a more concrete example:

[Backlog Item] says: “As [Organisatie X] I’d like to have a JSON implementation so that I can work with [party Y]”.

Considering the question we posed (“how much effort..” etc), the answer will be a quantity expressed in Story Points, hours or whatnot. This is valuable information, as a business owner you can make the translation (roughly) to the amount of money this feature will cost. You can then evaluate if this ‘is worth it’.

You have the answer to your question. But did you actually get that much further? What did you miss?

Business: Use your team’s brainpower! – express intent! (business value) – Example #2

Lets reformulate the Backlog item so we express intent first:

[Backlog Item] says: “to offer service X to our customer(s) we’d like to send order information to [party Y] so that we can deliver orders to our customers.”.

Ah, so the intent is to ship orders to a customer which (apparently) party Y is only able to deliver!

This is a totally different question.

So where does JSON come from? Is it really required to send orders? Could we perhaps export a CSV (which might be way easier to do?)? None of these possibilities are explored in the first example. Simply because the question was asked differently.

Business: Be careful how you ask things to be done on your product backlog.

Team: ask for the intent when you’re presented with an ‘implementation’ question

Of course, with Software Development not only ‘the business’ is playing a role. In fact, working Agile simply means that we’re working together. As long as there is an ‘it’ and ‘business’ as separate entities you will never get the full potential and effectiveness of your people. True collaboration means that all ‘entities’ (people!) within the organization are (should be) working together to make that organization as successful as possible, right?

If that’s not the case for you, just get to know each other better (grab a beer?) first. 🙂

So back to the Backlog item. Considering you get a question as in the first example. How do you get to the intent from there?

One of those ways is to ‘ask why 5 times’. If you take that to literally you might sound like a spoiled brat. (although there is some sense in asking why all the time).

A bit more practical would be to ask questions like:

  • what will [implementation] happen?
  • what do you need [implementation] for?
  • once [implementation] is finished, what will it be used for?

Usually this leads to the intent. As in: “once we have a JSON message, we can send it to [party Y] so they can process orders”. The ‘so that’ part is important. If it’s not clear, don’t be afraid to ask. You don’t ask them because you doubt the business or their competences. You want to be professional, not wasting money, and delivering the actual value.

Business value usually is represented in money. When it is not about money, it usually is tight to the company vision. If you don’t think this is the case, keep asking.

Sometimes there are exceptions. Lets say your product needs a payment provider. And the company has a certain agreement to use Buckaroo for payments. Then in that case you might get the “build buckaroo to process payments” story. Although ideally it is not the story you want. (Especially if it is critical and getting buckaroo to work takes ages, while you know some other payment provider can be implemented with a fraction of the effort).

Team: By exploring intent, you can answer the ‘true’ business need.

This eliminates ‘waste’ on several levels. Waste in time, technology and missed opportunities.

So what does this boil down to? – trust your team

So what does this all mean? That you as manager involve your developers sooner? Preferable before you need to build up services/couplings with 3rd parties? yes!

Before you get into contract negotiation with these parties? yes!

That the team tells you how to process payments? you bet!

That the team decides when to go live? Yup!

Let the team think of how to do cross selling? Or how to make your checkout flow easier? (so don’t hire an external party to deliver a ‘report’ in the team, so they can ‘fix’ it). yes!

Give the team autonomy. (= responsibility). Give the team an intent, and the team will do their best to fulfill that role.

You have to get used to it.

It is exciting.

But above all, it’s awesome in many ways!

Go forth and be great!

bookmark_borderStuff I’ve learned #03

Another week has passed:

  • Unlike in Windows; in Chrome you cannot easily focus on your bookmarks bar with a keyboard short key on Mac OS X.
  • If you want to run rake tasks in your specs in a before block, be sure to set a line

    so you can re-execute them every time. Rake seems to remember which task has been executed, so you cannot execute it twice.

  • If you want to stub out STDOUT messages (like with ‘puts’) in your spec, use:
  • When in doubt, speak up. Always.
  • With Scrum, big stories are big risks. Split them up.
  • Don’t use PID files to remember which proces has been started and when it should be stopped. Especially if you want to reboot a deamon process automatically once it has died. Instead wait for it when the deamon has quit and act upon a not-normal exit code.
  • Sometimes using ‘git fetch -p’ is not enough to prune all your local branches (which do not exist anymore on remote). You can use a rather long command (see below, from stackoverflow question)
    git branch -r | awk '{print $1}' | egrep -v -f /dev/fd/0 <(git branch -vv | grep origin) | awk '{print $1}' | xargs git branch -d
  • With editorconfig (*) you can create code formatting rules, nothing new here, but editorconfig has plugins for a lot of known editors, (I tested it in Vim & Sublime), meaning you can now share these rules cross-editor. Now that is cool!
  • With C++, when your function argument is using const, and you’re calling a non-const function on that argument you will end up with a message like:

    “error: passing ‘const xxx’ as ‘xxx’ argument of ‘function you where trying to call on xxx’ discards qualifiers”.

    You can fix this by telling the function body is const:

     bool myFunction() const { /* code here */ } 

* Thx to Arjen about editorconfig.

bookmark_borderStuff I’ve learned #01

I am learning so much every day at Zilverline, and I’d really like to write them down some time and share. Mostly just because this way I can summarise what I’ve learned and carve it into my brains.

And it also gives me the chance to show you how awesome it is to be creating software at Zilverline.