Scope is something that every game developer struggles with at some point.
Even after releasing several games, you can always get caught working on a project with too much scope. Today I’m going to talk about what scope is, how to manage it, and how to cut (or add) scope to a game project.
What is scope?
Scope, put simply, is the entirety of the project— it’s the amount of assets, the story of the game, the amount of levels / areas, the budget, you get the idea. The scope of a project is how big the project is.
Sometimes we get carried away with making games. We think of all these great levels we can add or plot details or characters, but end up losing sight of the main project. Scope left unchecked can kill projects. So, how do you keep it from getting that bad?
How to manage scope
Your main combatant for keeping scope small is to always keep it in mind. Make sure that you’re keeping things small and manageable— adding content is much easier than removing it. One way to keep it in mind is to check over things and determine how important it is. This is something that becomes easier the more games you make and have to do this on.
Careful planning and sticking to an outline helps manage scope while a game is in development. At group meetings (if you’re working with a group), talk about the scope. Go over upcoming parts and make sure they’re still important. Shelve ideas for later if they aren’t important— you can always come back to them later.
Let’s say you’re too far into development to keep track of scope as you go along. The game has been in development for too long and you’re in the midst of it and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s times like these that we get out the knife.
This is our scope-cutting knife! Stab your project.
…Okay, maybe not anything that severe. Let’s go over some potential areas you can cut out:
- Levels / areas / locations
- Character / equipment upgrades
- Side quests
For games that are more story-driven, make sure all of your characters are needed. For my current in progress game, Asterism, I’ve removed 2 main characters since the completion of the first draft. The first was one of the members of the main party— I removed him because there were too many party members to give a backstory to each, so I gave his lines to the rest and had one less character to worry about expanding. The second was an antagonist turned friend— his backstory was too contrived and bloated the amount of work.
Make sure all of your backgrounds / maps are needed. If you use one for only one scene, consider rewriting the scene to use an existing background. Or, consider adding a character graphic to the scene rather than characters on a background.
The biggest cuts you’ll find when cutting scope is to take out features. A phone pop-up menu is pretty cool but typically not necessary in most games. Equipment upgrade trees and 10+ types of weapons are great but are extras for most RPGs rather than necessities.
Remember that cutting scope doesn’t have to be permanent— the purpose is to finish a project. You can always go back and add scope once the project isn’t in jeopardy and nearing completion .
Another way to cut scope is to find ways to shorten the time parts take to make. For example, you can resuse assets, use premade assets (namely sound effects), or use code (that you have permission to use). Finding a good engine that fits your project is another way to cut scope. An engine that fits will allow you to streamline the development.
Alright, now let’s say you’re nearing the end of your game and it’s too small. For some people this might sound impossible, but it’s happened to me before. For my first commercial game, That Which Binds Us, I had to go through multiple phases of adding scope, namely expanding the story.
When adding scope, focus on features that improve the game the most rather than adding anything. Here’s a few ideas on what to add:
- New art / music
- Character backstories
- Side quests / scenes
- More choices
- Additional settings
- New levels / areas
A good way to figure out what to add is to ask testers! Get feedback on builds and see what they want added. You never know, they might suggest something you’d never thought of.
But why should I?
Cutting scope becomes a vital ability the more you make games. I’ve seen (and been on!) countless projects that were killed because the scope was too large and was either not cut or leads refused to compromise. Don’t let your projects die!
tl;dr cutting features out of your game isn’t always a bad thing and can help the game release. You can always go back and add features!
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Scope cutting is something I talk about a lot as it’s an important design principle in any kind of project management. If you can’t manage the scope, you can’t finish the project, it’s that simple. I hope this helps, good luck on wrangling scope!