Class Prompt: The Art of Closing

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In spring 2020 I taught a Technical Game Design class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. The full set can be found here. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

With the end of our semester fast approaching, let’s talk about “closing” this week!

I use the term “closing” for a set of related things:

  1. The final stage of a project or milestone, where you’re trying to take it over the finish line.
  2. The skills that one uses during that final stage.
  3. The mindset of wanting to close: not leaving loose ends, wrapping up work in a finished state and moving on.

When I interview job candidates or look at resumes, something I look for is whether they have finished projects under their belt, and how many. One finished project is far preferable to two or three almost finished projects. Closing a project is hard, one of the hardest things in game dev. It is hard psychologically, logistically, and sometimes technologically. The best way to build this skill is through experience, and the best way to demonstrate it – short of finishing a game with someone – is by showing a body of completed projects.

When you’re first starting a project, you see huge movement every day. On your first day, you create something from nothing! Throughout the prototyping stage, you’re often making big, sweeping changes. You might introduce whole new features, overhaul entire systems. Prototyping is all about testing the extremes of your game and finding the fun. And, in early stages, your game is full of possibility: it can be anything, do anything, and every new mechanic opens up new space to explore.

But closing and polish are the opposite. You might spend days working on a single bug, or hours tweaking a single value back and forth, trying to get it right. You might work for weeks on something, playtest it, and then have to redo it to respond to feedback from your leads. The amount of impact you see on the experience from a day of closing work is miniscule in comparison to prototyping. And in this stage, instead of feeling like the project is limitless, the possibilities narrow every day. There are fewer possible outcomes the closer you get to the end. You may even be cutting features and content.

This can be draining, tiresome, for many of us. A sort of purgatory. The saying “the last 10% is 90% of the work” can feel very real. If you’re someone who loves the beginning of projects but struggles to finish them, then you need to practice closing!

Some of my advice for closing a project:

  • Get organized. Make lists. Take joy in those moments where you can check something off and know that it’s done.
  • After weeks of closing work, look at an older build of the game: it will viscerally remind you that all those little tweaks and polish are making a BIG difference, in aggregate.
  • Keep an eye on the prize: your high-level goals, the experience you’re trying to create. It’s easier to let go of cut features or cut content if you remember that it’s in service of the more important goal of delivering the experience to your players. It’s also easier to know what to cut or prioritize if you focus on your main pillars.
  • Game design isn’t just construction, it’s sculpture: You’ll spend the first half of your project building up features and content. You’ll spend the last portion removing the excess and finding the strong shippable core.
  • You’ll ship bugs. Lots of bugs. The key is not to fix them all, it is to find what must be fixed to succeed, and then let the rest go.

Question Prompts:

  • Have you ever had to cut something from a project that was painful at the time, but, looking back, was the right decision?
  • When finishing a project, have you ever had to choose between two different bugs or features, knowing that you wouldn’t have time to do the other?
  • If so, how did you choose?
  • In your current project, what are your pillars, the vital core that you can’t compromise?
  • If you had to cut 33% of your features, which ones would you cut and why?