When we decide to make a project, we typically don’t assume that the project will fail, that members will ghost us, that we’ll be hit by real life problems. But these things do happen, and quite frequently.
Whether you’re working solo or with a team, it’s important to sit down and make backup plans. Why and how? Let’s look at that today.
what are backup plans?
Backup plans refers to your plans for the future if things don’t go perfect (which they won’t). Backing up your assets and files is important, yes, but not what I’m talking about here. This is specifically about plans, possibilities of a future that may or may not happen.
why should I care?
When you’re working solo, you’re much more flexible with change- after all, you’re doing everything. However, when you’re working in a team setting like game jams, there’s a lot more on the line. You have deadlines to meet, team members expecting a finished product they can add to their portfolio, etc.
Things happen. Things will happen.
If your team project goes completely smoothly with no road blocks, no deadlines that have to be pushed back, no major changes, then you’re lucky. Because more often than not, life happens.
what should I plan for?
Let’s set up an example.
You’re leading a large team, around 10-20 people, for a game jam. The game jam is only 1 month long- perhaps it’s NaNoRenO, the annual 1 month long visual novel jam in March. Your team consists of volunteers, most of which you’ve only just met. The game will be a dating sim with 3 routes and full voice acting- already, this is a hard feat to achieve for veteran devs if everything goes smoothly.
Now let’s throw in some road bumps.
What’re you going to do if the person who’s doing backgrounds is procrastinating and won’t meet their deadline? What will you do if all 3 of your musicians ghost* the project? What’s going to happen if the writer for one of the routes goes MIA without having written a single word and it’s the last week of the jam?
These are all scenarios I faced when leading projects for NaNoRenO. If I hadn’t been thinking ahead, the projects wouldn’t have finished on time- or worse, not at all.
* “Ghosting” means a person has stopped responding and seemingly vanished.
Here’s some bad scenarios I want you to think about:
- What happens if my [sprite artist, musician, route writer, editor, programmer, etc.] ghosts me?
- [asset] is taking longer than planned to make. What if I think the deadline won’t be met?
- The scope we planned at the beginning is too large now.
- [person] on the team has to leave immediately. Who will finish their half-finished work? Can it be finished, or is there a conflict of styles?
- [asset] is finished, but it didn’t come out how we want or won’t fit the game.
- The game won’t be finished before the deadline.
- [person] on the team is butting heads with [other person], which is straining the working relationships and their progress.
- [person] is not working well with anyone and actively being a disruption.
- The person working on [asset] isn’t responding to messages.
These are just some of the scenarios you might run into on a group project- and keep in mind, none of them are mutually exclusive. Any and possibly all of these could happen, including more.
Let’s go through some now and list out some potential plans.
what happens if my sprite artist ghosts me?
Your sprite artist isn’t responding. Maybe they’ve started on their work, maybe they didn’t.
When I ran teams, I would make sure I had backup artists before the jam started– multiple people who can do a task. We would assign one or multiple people to do sprites (such as one person sketching/lining and another person coloring).
If your sprite artist leaves, ask another artist who can do sprites to finish them. If this doesn’t work, the sprites might have to be redrawn from scratch.
In the case that this doesn’t work, you may have to recruit a new artist in the middle of the jam or use the half finished artwork. Your last choice might be to use stock sprites- already finished artwork from Lemmasoft Forums or itch.io.
what happens if my musician ghosts me?
Sadly, I’ve had this happen to me before. We recruited 3 musicians to split the workload between them, each composing 2 piano pieces and working together to coordinate. One of them didn’t realize this was a volunteer project and so we weren’t concerned with copyrighting assets, and left without a word soon after. The second ghosted around the same time without a word. The third tried to take up the slack, but composing an entire OST by yourself in just a couple weeks is nigh impossible.
We ended up using the 1 piece of custom music we got for the main menu. For the rest of the OST, I found creative commons pieces that fit.
Similar to the artist problem, you can try to find someone else- or have a second musician- and if that fails, CC assets are fine.
interlude 1 – a small aside
I’ve mentioned using Creative Commons assets a few times so far. For some people, this may be scoffed at. In my eyes, my highest priority was shipping the games on or around the deadline- that was my commitment I made upfront to the people who signed up for the project. I’m pretty good at sizing scope for myself, so I knew the projects I’d outlined were doable and wouldn’t take 5+ extra months to finish.
If using CC assets sounds absurd to you, then don’t. Make a different backup plan. Or perhaps only use the CC assets for a brief time while finishing the real assets. These are all just suggestions- it’s your project under your management.
the backgrounds are taking too long to make and deadlines are being missed.
Backgrounds are easily one of the hardest parts to finds artists for. When I ran applications, we’d have 100+ people volunteer, and we’d be lucky if 3 of them were applying for backgrounds. If you find a good background artist willing to work with you, treat them very well.
So what are you going to do when you want 8+ backgrounds and only have 1 artist? You should highly consider splitting this role up- maybe one person will do lining and flat colors and another person will do shading. Talk to your team members.
If you have a background artist(s) but they’re not getting done fast enough, talk to them about it. Don’t take “I’ll get it done I promise” as an answer, especially if you’d heard it before. Sit them down and ask what you can do to ease their workload- don’t accuse them of anything or insinuate it’s their fault, even if it might be. Ask them if they’d like someone to work on coloring or lining and such. Ask them if someone else working on other unfinished backgrounds would be helpful. Talk to them about options.
the scope we planned for is too large to finish in the time frame.
When you plan out your game, you should have an idea of what is core to it. What does your game absolutely need? What can it not ship without?
Once you have that, expand from there. What are some parts that would reinforce the core ideas, but not essential? List things that are like support beams, but not load-bearing ones. Components that help round out the game, but aren’t pivotal.
Now we get to the extraneous stuff. These are things that you might think your game needs, but it doesn’t actually.
For Enamored Risks, I wanted the player to be able to change their pronouns and the main character design. However, because we decided to have 3 love interests, we prioritized that over the player customization. Having a customizable MC is fun but increases the scope by more than you’d think- not only do you need another sprite(s), but you also need CGs for each MC design, a selection screen for the MC, any writing changes you’d want to implement based on the gender or look of the MC, and proper bug testing to ensure the correct artwork & pronouns are showing up. It adds a lot of work, so we scraped it for Enamored Risks as it was a month long project for NaNoRenO.
Be quick to cut extraneous parts out if there’s a chance they will delay the game. If we hadn’t cut out the MC customization early on before full development, we would have wasted time (and our volunteer’s efforts) creating artwork for the character and much more. When you have such a tight deadline and people working for free, don’t waste their time.
this piece of music didn’t come out how we wanted it to and now it won’t fit the game.
You’re working with a musician and they send you a finished piece of music that doesn’t fit with the rest of the game. Maybe this was because of miscommunication, rushed deadlines, or something else. Regardless, now you have a finished piece you don’t want to use but someone spent their time on it. Here’s some possible ideas:
- Use the piece. Find somewhere in the game for it to be used-a small scene, a special screen, the main menu, during the credits, just somewhere.
- Ask the piece to be edited. If the piece can be changed to better match the rest of the game, ask. Talk to the musician about it and see if alterations are doable.
- Let them keep the piece. If it really cannot fit in the game and can’t be edited, ask the person if they’d like to keep the piece for their own projects. Explain the problem in nice terms to them and thank them for their efforts.
- Add the music to an in-game music gallery. If the person is completely unreachable or has ghosted, they are most likely still expecting their work to be included in the game in some form. Because you cannot work out with them changes, including it in a music gallery but not in the rest of the game is a compromise you can do.
Above all, talk to your teammate. People who join game jams and do work for them expect their work to be used. Don’t waste people’s time.
interlude 2 – unusable assets
I’ve ran into the situation above before where we were given a piece of music last minute and it didn’t fit the style of the game. There was no time for edits as the jam was almost over and this was the only piece of music the person was able to complete. In the end, I used the piece for a small part in the game and found CC assets for the rest of the OST. I had some complaints about the mishmashed styles, as the custom piece didn’t fit the rest of the soundtrack, but nothing terrible.
The person had put in effort to finish the piece, and while I knew it was in a rush, I knew it wasn’t in malice. They wanted to contribute to the project and did their best, so I didn’t want to throw their efforts away.
If you don’t value people’s time, they’ll realize it and won’t value yours.
a person on the team isn’t working well with others and causing disruptions.
I’ve yet to find a large volunteer group (10+ members) work smoothly without any drama, whether it’s small roadbumps or project-shattering troubles. Finding people suitable for roles is hard enough, but finding people who work well together blindly is nigh impossible sometimes.
Set boundaries in place beforehand such as proper conduct and expectations out of members. Realize your own boundaries and expectations beforehand and temper them- do you expect everyone to type professionally? Should people only discuss the project or are jokes and social discussions allowed? Not everyone thinks the way you do, and not everyone thinks the way each of your team members do.
When you get a complaint about someone, sit down first and see if there’s a reason for this behavior. Are they lashing out because their workload was too big? Are they overstepping boundaries because their role wasn’t defined well and they think they’re doing their job?
You should always try to work things out first and understand why they’re acting in such a way. Talk to the person. Don’t accuse them of anything. Don’t say you received complaints about them, at least not at first. Just talk things through, maybe even in voice chat. If the person is hostile to you when you discuss their problems, it might be time to let them go. Inform them succinctly and let them know that this project isn’t working out for them- don’t give them a long, drawn out essay on why you’re letting them go.
If their work was not crucial to the project and has to be used (for example a character route script is crucial, unused concept art is not), you can work with them to let them keep their work. Remember, even if you find out that they aren’t a good fit for the team, they’ve still put in time into the project.
Be ready to fill in their shoes with someone else. Who will finish their work? Will there be any fallout from losing this member? There’s a lot to consider before canning someone.
the person writing a character route isn’t responding to messages.
This, sadly, happened to my team for NaNoRenO 2021 when we were working on A Pinch of Magic. The second to last week of NaNoRenO we realized that one of the route writers had stopped communicating with the writing director. We gave them some leeway with communicating as we’d worked with them before, but deadlines were coming up. Plans had to be changed.
I had 2 choices:
- Hope they come back and have their writing finished before the jam ends (as it still needed to be edited and coded)
- Assume they won’t return and assign the work to someone else
With just over a week until the end of NaNo, I went with the later. We started contacting the other writers, who were all done by this point, and asked if any of them would volunteer for the role. They all declined. We didn’t push, as they had signed up for one role and already completed it- taking on an entire route wasn’t a small task.
After we asked the writers, I asked the other directors. They both declined. At this point, I had a few directions I could go:
- Hit up recruitment channels and try to add someone new to the team, wait for responses, and hope they can deliver before the deadline
- Cut the route entirely and apologize to the artists who had already finished artwork for the character and the route
- Write the route myself
If you’ve ever read A Pinch of Magic, then you’ll know Kiana is a romanceable character and that I went with choice 3. For the very last weekend in March, I sat down and wrote her entire route from a barebones summary.
This wasn’t a perfect choice. For one, the route was rushed and several thousand words shorter than the other route, something some players point out in their reviews. For another, it was exhausting! I spent 2 full weekend days writing it when I could’ve spent that time making sure everything else was going smoothly, marketing the game, etc.
However, this was my choice because I didn’t want to let down the people who had already invested time into the route, namely the artists.
When it comes down to it, what will you decide?
wow that was a lot
Project management, when it comes down to it, is all about risk management. Planning around roadbumps- both how you avoid them to begin with and how you navigate around them when confronted with new problems- is a core part of leading any team.
Transparency and solid communication are fundamental to good project management, but so is planning. Before you make your next recruitment post, I hope you consider what I’ve talked about today.
Phew! I didn’t mean for this to become somewhat of a postmortem for my previous group projects. However, I don’t think enough devs consider planning for pitfalls. If you are serious about seeing a project through to completion, make backup plans!! Even if you’re a solo dev, itemize some parts of your project in regards to scope.
I wish you all well this game jam season! Be sure to share your projects in the DevTalk server for visual novel development.