Columns > Published on May 26th, 2016

6 Game Development Lessons For Writers

When I read Spelunky by Derek Yu, the book about Yu's development of the game by the same name, I expected to be entertained, elated, and maybe a little lost at times. After all, I'm not a video game programmer. I tried to program Tetris into a calculator in junior high, and those wasted hours and pages of printed code represent the extent of my programming knowledge.

What I didn't expect was that the book would have so much good advice for writers. 

Below I've highlighted some of my favorite bits. This is by no means thorough or complete. Trust me when I say you should read this column, and then go out and get yourself a copy of Spelunky. The book, I mean. And, what the hell, the game too.

Lesson 1: The last 10% is 90%

Derek Yu attributes this concept to Tom Cargill of AT&T Bell Laboratories. Cargill's rule, in full, being that "The first 90% of the code accounts for 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time."

Basically, the last 10% of the work on a project takes as much effort as the previous 90%. Which, if you've ever tried to finish a long project, you'll know is true. Getting those last parts sewn up, finishing those last sentences, it's always the hardest. But you've got to finish. You're only 10% from the project's end. Sort of.

You'll also notice, if you're even a little good at math, that 90% plus 90% equals well over 100% (see that? I'm a writer AND I can math). Why the funny math? Well...

Lesson 2: We Always Underestimate How Long It Will Take To Finish A Project

There are lots of reasons [we do this]. The biggest reason is that we tend to come up with estimates assuming that we'll be working under perfect conditions the entire time: perfect health, working all day and all night without distractions, and everything going smoothly on the first attempt. We don't plan on getting the flu or getting burned out. We put aside loved ones who deserve our attention. We don't think about getting stuck on a programming bug, or being paralyzed by the sheer number of tasks that lay before us. We're not human beings when we estimate how long something will take—we're unstoppable robots fueled by caffeine and passion.

Oh, god. So true. How easy it is to make an unrealistic estimate of a deadline for yourself?

I that Derek Yu has managed to frame blowing a deadline as the fault of optimism as opposed to slacker-ism. And I think he's right. There are always unforeseen events that make us late, then later, then even later. Do yourself a favor, OVERESTIMATE your next project, and then if you finish early, consider it a pleasant surprise.

In truth, the only way to learn how to summit mountains, run marathons, and finish making games is to actually do those things.

Lesson 3: Don't Forget The Grind

As Yu puts it in the context of games, designers think of all the fun stuff. Designing levels, characters, things like that. What they forget, what he forgot while making Spelunky, is stuff like making menus and load screens, and...yawn. These things all need to exist, but man are they boring.

When working on a writing project, it's easy to think about the fun parts and forget the grind. It's why outlining is such a breeze! It's all new! Shiny! Full of that magic where it seems like a good idea to give a hardboiled detective an affectation like, I don't know, drinking Squeeze-Its all the time.

But you must grind. Without the grind, there's only an outline. No finished work.

Never forget the grind. The grind is who we are!

Lesson 4: Miyamoto's Saying

A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.

From the master who made Mario and Zelda, some very wise advice Derek Yu tried to follow at all turns. And you should too.

Not sure if your idea is a good one? Give it the Miyamoto test. If it solves more than one problem, you're on the right track. If it solves many, you're probably doing something super (Mario) right.

I'm so sorry I did that Super Mario thing. I'm sorry, everyone.

Miyamoto's rule applies to your writing too, whether it be plot mechanics, introducing a character, or managing an exposition-heavy scene. Hey, if you need a character to lay something out, that's great. Go ahead and have that scene do something else too, take care of some other business. When your work starts solving multiple problems at once, it'll really come to life.

Lesson 5: Why You Shouldn't Restart Halfway Through

The reason why people restart a project becomes obvious once you feel the temptation yourself. At some point in any project, you will look back on everything you've done and feel like you could do it all much better...sadly, it's the talented creators that get hit the hardest by this, because they're the ones that are most critical of their own work.

Naturally. Like Yu says, if you keep starting over, you'll never finish. Instead, you'll just hit the wall at different points, which will cause you to restart again, which means you'll just hit another, DIFFERENT wall at some point in the new version, and then start ANOTHER new version, and so it goes.

Your prose will change in the initial phases of a project, your intimacy with the characters, all of that. But don't go back and restart from the beginning. Keep moving forward.

Lesson 6: The Importance of Finishing

Most creative people are familiar with the first part of making something, and it's easy to mistakenly assume that the rest is just more of the same. It's akin to repeatedly climbing the first quarter of a mountain and thinking that you're getting the experience you need to summit. Or running a few miles and thinking you can run a marathon. In truth, the only way to learn how to summit mountains, run marathons, and finish making games is to actually do those things.


Yu wrote an entire blog post about this, including 15 tips to help you finish a project.

Any of you learned any writing tips from an unexpected source?

Also, is there anyone here good at Spelunky who can help a brother out?

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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