100 Experience Points
An Adventure in Indie Game Development

The Game Maker's Scalpel

One of the hardest things you’ll face when making your game is deciding what you’re going to do. And what you’re not going to do.

See, the problem is, pretty much everything sounds like an awesome feature. If this isn’t happening, you probably need to hire a game designer to dump new features on you. Or a few users.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s this constant onslaught of new ideas for your game that make it evolve into something that’s actually fun to play.

But you can’t implement all of these ideas. You just don’t have enough time. (Also because all the features will probably make for a very unfocused game, but that’s for another day.)

So the question is what features do you actually work on?

I’m going to introduce two ideas that are tied together here: a little tool that I call the Game Maker’s Scalpel, and the Moscow approach to prioritization.

The Game Maker’s Scalpel

The Game Maker’s Scalpel is the tool you should be using in the early development of your game. The Game Maker’s Scalpel, as I define it, is to ask yourself the following question about every feature that comes up: Can I achieve the ultimate vision of this game without this feature?

If the answer is yes, trash the feature immediately. (Actually, wait. Go back to your trash can and pull it back out. Now go stick the idea in a folder of ideas to look at later, after there’s a working version of your game, and you can sanity check your ideas against actual user feedback.)

But here’s the corollary, which is just as important: If something doesn’t pass the Game Maker’s Scalpel, don’t spend any resources on it. You don’t want to waste anything on features that may or may not be necessary to your game’s vision. No space on your whiteboard, no space in your grayboard (that would be your brain), no time designing them, no time prototyping them, and definitely no time implementing the code for it, or making the actual art for it.

If you’ve done this, hit yourself in the head with your computer. (For your sake, I hope you’re reading this on a tablet or phone.) Don’t do that again. Bad game maker.

Until you have a working alpha version of your game (I’m using that term a little loosely, I’ll admit) don’t allow any of your extremely precious resources, especially not your time, on anything but the things you are 100% certain are going to be required to reach the vision of your game.

Ironically, I think failing to observe the Game Maker’s Scalpel has been my very problem this last week, as I’ve gone and invested way more time than it’s worth on the art side of things. Granted, it has been useful, and I’ve begun to better flesh out my ideas for the artistic vision of the game, but it just doesn’t pass the Game Maker’s Scalpel right now. Smack. (Hey, at least it was a laptop, not a desktop.)

Can I achieve the vision of the game without this feature? Cull the cruft out sooner, rather than later, with the Game Maker’s Scalpel.

MoSCoW Prioritization

Let’s carry this idea on a little further and talk about an approach for prioritizing things that I’ve found to work extremely well in all of the software development that I’ve done: MoSCoW proritization.

For every feature that anyone dreams up, write it down somewhere. Then, take each of these and assign them to one of the following categories:

  • Must Have: Without this feature, no one will buy the game.
  • Should Have: Without this feature, people are going to complain. Some will choose not to buy it because it’s missing.
  • Could Have: People won’t miss this feature per se, but with it, people will think you’re awesome.
  • Won’t Have: The feature is valid, but won’t be considered or addressed in the foreseeable future.
  • DELETED!: This was a dumb idea and you should feel bad.

Of course, those first four “traditional” categories start with the letters MSCW, which resembles “Moscow,” hence the name. Breaking things down into these four levels go a very long way in sorting out how important things are, which is one of the big challenges that you’ll face.

This takes a little work, though. The people who have a hard time prioritizing to begin with will automatically start dumping everything into the Must Have category. Unless it’s a really dumb idea, in which case it goes in the Should Have category. So you have to force yourself to be honest when assigning things to a category. Better yet, get a potential user to do it and see where things line up.

Some people find it useful to say “no more than 25% of the ideas can go in the Must Have category,” though I’ve had mixed results with that. Turns out, for some of us, it’s easier to add three more dumb ideas to get the percentages right, than to the list than it is to truly move something from Must Have to Should have.

It’s interesting to point out that the Game Maker’s Scalpel will be cutting your priority list just under the Must Haves at the beginning of game development. Your SCoWs get cut out, like they should, at least initially. But the Game Maker’s Scalpel dictates that these lower priority things don’t get any of your time, money, or thoughts at all. Don’t let them get any air time. Make a note of the idea and move along. After all, most of them won’t get implemented at all, and the ones that do are likely to change dramatically, after your game has first contact with the players.