Working Positively to Pursue a Dream: The Making of Turtle Sprint

As featured on Gamasutra.

Captivated by games since our respective childhoods, my husband and I began a journey to make meaningful games. Thus NDXP Games, our two-person team, was born. With previous backgrounds in Information Technology and Business Development, we have learned heaps about game-making—and ourselves—during this year long process. We have loved this experience and wish to share our reflections with you as we come to the close of the making of our first game, Turtle Sprint.

Before we jump in here, let me provide a quick background on our game and who we are to provide some perspective for the rest of this article.

Turtle Sprint is a casual obstacle game, built expressly for the iPad touchscreen. The game includes 20 levels of gameplay, an informative resource about the world’s seven sea turtle species, a user-friendly tutorial, and the occasional in-app ad. We plan to take a portion of Turtle Sprint’s revenue and donate it toward ocean conservation.

As for who we are, we’re Nefer and Nick, a married couple currently residing in the Bay Area. Nick is our programmer and technical artist. As if that wasn’t enough, he is a full-time IT Manager at a coding school. I am part-time business consultant and dedicate the rest of my time to our concept art, social media, and written content. When we aren’t engaged in these activities, Nick can be found playing Hearthstone while I see how many cats I can collect in Neko Atsume and fight for survival in Banished. We play Diablo III together and take part in outdoors adventure (when we aren’t being strangled by our cuddle monster of a tabby cat).

Reflection #1
The Challenge of Development Time

We frequently hear or read that a game’s development time must be extended and that a game’s release date has been postponed. This was no different for us. We predicted to finish this game—from concept to launch—in six to eight months. What we had not given enough consideration to was… well, the rest of life. A job change in the middle of our indie development slowed things down by approximately three months. We also have cooking, exercising, errands, tax season, and so forth to consider. And of course, our iPad broke unexpectedly about 3/4 through our development process. So we plan to tack on some extra development time for our next game.

How did we approach this challenge?

About eight months into this project, we came across an article called ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’ by Paul Graham, an English programmer, essayist, and venture capitalist. The Maker’s Schedule allocates several hour blocks to dedicate to a project and is meant to minimize disruption of the creative process. The Manager’s Schedule can be seen as a traditional appointment book with hour intervals for meetings and multi-tasking activities.

While we had practiced these types of time allocation before, this article really helped to outline our time management. We chose to dedicate two weekday evenings and one weekend day game development (Maker’s Schedule). We even created the term “in-house game jam” to refer to these times. We used the other days to exercise, hang out with friends and family, run errands, and relax.

It’s worthwhile to mention two thoughts here:

  • Time management is a skill and even after a year and a half, we continue to improve. Hence the use of “approach” rather than “overcome” in “How did we approach this challenge?”
  • We believe it’s important to practice the awareness of well-being, so our use of time allocation was flexible. Some weeks we’d use Tuesday and Thursday to work on our game. Other weeks we’d use Monday and Friday. Sometimes that feeling of burnout or just a crappy day is inevitable.

Reflection #2
The Cost Analysis of a Social Life

Ahh… the bittersweet choice to hang out with friends or work on our game. It’s a wonderful feeling to feel wanted and to see friends and catch up on life. By nature, my husband and I are somewhat introverted so we enjoy spending time with friends in small group settings. Personal and comfy, you know? But this preference began to work against us because we spent more time with one or two people at a time instead of working on our game. And this really adds up over time. (add visual)

So as time passed, we were frequently invited to hang out—and we frequently said no. No matter what, it’s a difficult choice and can be rough on interpersonal relationships.

How did we approach this challenge?

We made a conscious decision to keep our one weekend day as open as possible (remember, our other weekday day was usually dedicated to our project). This way we could run errands, visit good friends and family, play games, binge on Sherlock or Star Trek, you name it. As this behavior of time management grew into a habit, it became easy to schedule outings for weekday evenings since those evenings provided short development hours anyway.

Another modified behavior was to hang out in larger groups rather than our usual 1-3 people gatherings. It’s been a fun change to get everyone together but we also made sure to make some separate time for the people we love most—even if it’s just a texted 5-minute conversation.

Reflection #3
The Choices of Game Design

When we flushed out our vision for Turtle Sprint, we thought we were making a simple game. We were wrong. While the gameplay experience is simple and straightforward, the backend development was not. We chose to implement levels that needed to be individually created and built rather than an automated design such as an endless runner or random event sequences. We animated our sprites (crabs with moving legs) instead of making them stationary.

How did we approach this challenge?

We did our best to be cognizant of simple vs. complex design during the rest of our development. But we chose not to forsake quality for simplicity so there wasn’t much that we felt we could change. I guess the bottom line is that we realized we had made the process a little more complex than we wished for and that hindsight is 20/20— then made peace with ourselves. It certainly didn’t hurt to learn to recognize ways to increase workflow efficiency.

Reflection #4
The Mess of Stress

When a project is the start of a personal dream, the emotional highs and lows are all the more intensely felt by its creators. One of our most challenging experiences we faced was the inability to balance work with play. When we focused on relaxation, we felt guilty about not working on our game. When we worked hard on our game, we felt like we didn’t have any time to unwind. As we fell behind our self-declared schedule, friends and family would excitedly ask if our game was on the App Store yet—and with heavy hearts, we’d say no.

The emotional toll fluctuated from excitement and happiness to periods of frustration, worry, impatience, imposter syndrome, and feelings of stagnancy. We worried about not hitting our milestones in a timely manner, how our game would be publicly received, publishing blog posts on a consistent basis, and thousands of other nagging thoughts that kept us awake in the middle of the night.

How did we approach this challenge?

We began with a series of conversations about well-being, stress, and our habits at that point in time. We agreed to work on being self-aware and to communicate with each other by asking about and reporting on our various states of mind. But this was only the first step.

At some point during this trial and error period, we implemented the ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’ method into our weekly routine. It took time to grow accustomed to intentionally blocking out time for development, but we saw positive results—and created a habit. Even when we experienced an off day and didn’t want to work on our game, we would work on it just a little bit to continue this habit. By doing this, we continued to feel like we were making progress, however small. Several months passed when we barely touched our game and we were able to ramp back up to hours of development by beginning small and staying consistent.

Our approach to the concept of time-scarcity began to morph too. We used to say (and we’re still working on it) that we were too busy to hang out, go for a jog, clean the car, and so on. We are now more honest with ourselves and say a task or activity is not a priority. By doing this, it has become easier to recognize our top priorities. Obviously, our health is important to us so we should never say we’re too busy to go for a walk (and make sure we take a walk when we get to a stopping point in our work). To help illustrate this point, check out this 99U article on the time scarcity trap.

As you might know, I studied psychology in college. I enjoy learning about new approaches to thought and lifestyle, which is how we came by the work of Kelly McGonigal (known for her work in health psychology, as a Stanford University professor, and twin sister to game designer Jane McGonigal). Kelly has proposed a fascinating field of thought—that we can make stress our friend by using it to improve our mindset, as an opportunity for growth, and as an indicator of a purpose-driven life. We just began to implement this concept into our mentalities and believe it will have a positive effect in processing our stress. For more on this concept, please check out McGonigal’s TED talk and 99U conference recap.

It’s really cool to say we’re game developers and affirm this with the existence of Turtle Sprint on the App Store. I guess we could say we’re hobby developers—that seems to lessen the pressure of failure—but we’re here to make games. The prospect of failure is scary as hell but hey, life as indie devs is the life we aim to build.

So if you identify with this aspiration and you are hard at work on your own indie title, we wish you positive productivity and well-being! Making a dream come true is constant and hard work… and absolutely thrilling. We hope you’re able to make use of this article to benefit your own journey and please don’t hesitate to share your own top tips and reflections for the betterment of us all!

___

Nefer has a deep appreciation for positive and meaningful gameplay experiences. Her background in psychology and lifelong gaming habits have contributed to her journey of co-designing games at NDXP GamesTurtle Sprint is coming to the iPad on August 12, 2015! 

2 thoughts on “Working Positively to Pursue a Dream: The Making of Turtle Sprint

  1. khumail thakur

    January 13, 2016 at 3:24pm

    Hey i am really happy to see someone pursuing their dream to be game devs. I too, very much like you’ll , want to be a game designer and it is really difficult in my country but i am baby stepping my way towards it. I wish you’ll a great year ahead in game development and hope to see more games from your company and hope you build a big team. Best of luck and stay positive !

  2. Nefer

    February 25, 2016 at 10:25pm

    Hi Khumail, thank you so much for taking the time to send such kind words! I’m wishing you the best of luck and lots of productivity for your journey in becoming a game designer. I’d love to hear your thoughts as you progress! Thank you again and happy 2016. :)

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