A Word on Release Deadlines (from someone who sucks at keeping them)

EDIT (3 October 2020): I just remembered that Michirin also had troubles with her computer during the development of MajiKana, so I made mention of that.

Hello, Popfan here! This is going to be a bit of a different type of blog post that I was originally going to just write as a Twitter thread instead, but with the scope I’m anticipating it to be, I figured it’d work better here.

So, as most of you are probably aware by now, Touhou Gouyoku Ibun got delayed yet again, and you’ve got people who are absolutely pissed at it. (One clown with a particularly bad case of brainrot even went around claiming that ZUN is responsible for the delays, another clown is using the delays to try and make himself look good and push his own fangame.) Admittedly, I haven’t been following the events too closely until now, so I don’t have good enough of an overall picture to provide accurate commentary on the situation, but from what I can tell, the issues are lack of communication and transparency on Tasofro’s end (something that Unabara Iruka, the lead programmer of the team, has acknowledged and taken the L on by now), as well as just a series of unforeseen circumstances.

Keep in mind that we are in the middle of a global pandemic right now, and if it isn’t team members falling ill that’s disrupting production, then it’s likely the mandated social distancing making it impossible for all of the members to work as closely with each other as they may be accustomed to. Granted, many small-scale hobbyist dev groups (particularly ones that I know personally) are composed of members from literally all over the world who each do their part for a project from the confines of their own home, coordinating their work via Discord servers or similar means of communication. They obviously wouldn’t be as affected by social distancing, at the very least not with regards to their workflow. I don’t know exactly how Tasofro usually work together, and it might have always been with everyone at home, but given that they all live in the same country and show up at conventions like Comiket and Reitaisai, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of them having a shared office or something, either.

Of course, mental health plays a big role in work ethic and productivity, too, and in this day and age in particular, it’s more volatile than ever.

The point I’m trying to make is that deadlines aren’t a binding contract. They’re not a 100% guarantee for when a game will be released, least of all when we’re talking about an indie dev team, a group of friends making a game for fun, or even a solo developer, and if you’re the type of person who gets angry at a game for not getting released and then takes that frustration out on the developer(s), you honestly need to check your entitlement. Missing a deadline doesn’t mean the dev team is lazy, and even if they are, so what? A notifications feed full of angry and destructive messages isn’t going to boost their morale, and if you’re at the point where you wouldn’t even buy/play the game anymore but still feel the need to harass developers, log the hell off, go outside, and touch some grass.

With that out of the way, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my own relationship with deadlines, as those of you who know me also know that I don’t exactly have a good track record with meeting them. To hopefully give you a glimpse inside a developer’s mind.

Personally, I’d come to see them as a way to boost productivity, such as back in 2017, when I wanted to release the demo version of COL in October and the full version no later than December. The idea was to get everything done before October (all the stages, bosses, endings, assets, you name it), then spend the next two months on testing, fixing bugs and making balance adjustments. I was actually able to meet the October deadline for the demo, but unfortunately missed the December deadline because creative drought kicked in and I couldn’t come up with anything for the final boss theme.

Still, though, with those deadlines in place, and the desire to meet them, I was able to complete pretty much half the game (i.e. finish all the stages and make the endings) in less than three months after trucking along for over a year barely finishing the core engine and part of stage 1.

The above is one of my only few success stories, though. For an example of a project that went horribly wrong, let’s look at MajiKana next: We started development on that in early 2015, aimed for a demo release in early July, nailed it, then expected to have the whole game done by the end of the same year. It would have been simple enough: just 8 stages with maybe a few unique setpieces here and there… but then we got contacted by Super Fighter Team wanting to create a genuine console port, and we began to feel like the game had to look a lot more impressive.

And that was the beginning of the feature creep that eventually killed the game. We added different types of magic projectiles that were simple enough. Then we had the idea of adding different melee weapons, each one drastically changing the way the game is played: the quarterstaff in particular greatly expanded your moveset by adding sliding and wall-jumping, and of course stages then had to be designed to accomodate for the possibility of having or not having those moves available to you. The flail was meant to work kind of like the whip in some Castlevania games in that you could hold down the attack button to fling it around, but it looked like a mess, and despite the fact that it was the lead programmer’s idea to add those weapons, he could never be bothered to go back and make it look more believable.

In an update video released towards the end of the year that showed off those new features, we had to announce that the game would be delayed by a few months, since we’d spent so much time just implementing the new weapons that we’d barely even gotten started on stage 3. The new deadline given was “Spring 2016” — and then came work on the stage 3 boss, which, without giving away too much, was at least two screens tall, and very involved. It was a nightmare to program and get everything working, and by the time it was all done, we had to realize that it wasn’t a terribly fun or engaging boss fight. Michirin and I were already brainstorming ideas for how it could be improved, but our lead programmer was starting to lose motivation to work on the boss.

To add insult to injury, Michirin also ended up having some serious technical issues with her computer, which ground productivity to a halt even further. Another update video later, we once again had to delay the game’s release to “it’ll be done when it’s done”, but… well, you know how that went by now.

Mental health has been playing an active role in the delay of my projects, too, especially in more recent years: Dextrous Yet Destitute was supposed to be finished by the end of 2020, but due in part to a particularly nasty mental breakdown in the summer of that year, I ended up losing a lot of weeks both to the breakdown and the subsequent recovery. In the end, it took me until April of the following year to finally complete and release it.

Granted, by that point I’d learned to stop setting hard deadlines for myself. Nowadays it’s more a case of “I’d really like to be able to have this thing done by this date”, such as with the v1.20a update for COL, which I hoped I’d have ready in time for the anniversary. While I had originally looked to deadlines as a way to keep me productive, it was this year when I came to learn that productivity comes from staying organized and allocating time of your day to dedicate to your work and nothing else. Nowadays, when I do set a deadline, it’s usually a soft one for myself; I don’t set hard deadlines unless I already have the thing 100% done and I’m just waiting for the right time to release it.

That’s just me, though, and while it does work for me and I would recommend others to give it a shot, too, not everyone does, nor does everyone need to. As long as deadlines are set, there will be ones that’ll be missed and then people who set them will have to make the choice between setting a new deadline or just saying “it’ll be done when it’s done”. In any case, next time your favorite developer is postponing the release date of a game you were really looking forward to, consider what could have gotten in the way, and respond with compassion, not anger. No developer wants their game to get delayed, so they’re usually not doing it out of malice towards their fans or consumers.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I apologize if I was all over the place with it.

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