The Problems with Student Projects

Having been at the university for more than a year now, and with only about a year left before I graduate, I’ve seen a lot of student projects come and go. I’ve worked on several myself, but through my time here, I’ve noticed some fundamental problems with student projects. These problems are entirely treatable, so long as the motivation to correct them is there, but it seems they are ignored more often than not, and because of this, the game suffers. All too often, student projects fall apart and are never completed, but I don’t think most of the students on these unsuccessful projects truly understand what went wrong. This post will focus on some of the larger, more destructive problems surrounding student projects, along with ways to combat them. Now, this is not to say that this is a complete list of everything that could go wrong on a student project, but rather, a list of the more prominent ones, as there are literally hundreds of things that could bring about the demise of a game – far too many to go into. Read on to learn more.

Why Student Projects Are Good

Before we take a look at some of the key issues with student projects, I’d like to take a moment to explain why student projects are beneficial. First off, it promotes teamwork, something that is crucial in the game industry, since games are built, in most cases, by diverse teams of talented people. Learning to work alongside others towards the same goal is a valuable skill you must learn if you want to make it in this industry. Along with teamwork, it also promotes good communication skills. Because you will be working with people who may speak a different language than you in terms of development and discipline (not actual languages), you will need to learn how to effectively communicate with them. Oftentimes, designers will have trouble communicating to programmers, while programmers may have trouble communicating with artists, so learning how to communicate to different team members effectively before you actually get a job in the industry is important and will make your life easier. Working on a student project also shows that you are capable of making and, hopefully, finishing an actual game. Student projects can make great portfolio pieces, act as learning opportunities, and can even get you noticed by industry professionals. If a studio sees that you actually made a working game, it looks a lot better than the student with the same degree that only has documentation and schoolwork to show them; they can clearly see your skills in action, and any strengths or weaknesses you may have had during the project. In addition, student projects are not limited by all of the constraints typical game studios are, so they are a great way to show off your creativity.

The Next Big Hit

The Problem: Everyone wants to make the next big hit in games, but this is rather unfeasible, especially if it’s a student project. The simple fact is that you most likely won’t have the resources, money, people, or time to create the greatest game ever. That’s not to say that you can’t make a game that is successful, but be careful not to set your sights too high.

The Solution: Keep your scope small and simple. Large, complex games take a lot of time and resources, which you likely won’t have at your disposal. Think of ways to make your game stand out in other ways, such as unique and interesting gameplay, and take a look at Independent Games Festival and Game Jam winners. Lower your expectations for the game in terms of extreme success, and keep the game itself small. If you start small, and create a fun, playable and polished game in a short amount of time, you can always add a few extra features afterward.

Further Resources: Top Two Reasons Why Student Projects Fail

Scope/Feature Creep

The Problem: The team wants to make a great game, so they keep adding more features and expanding the scope until the game becomes a monster they can’t tame. This goes along with the “Next Big Hit” section above, and can lead to complete failure of a project, as well as bad time management.

The Solution: Keep the game simple and expand on it once it’s playable. Stick to the pre-production, and remember that you can always add new features later on. If any cool ideas for new features come up, jot them down and keep them stored somewhere for later use. The key to avoiding scope and feature creep is focus on what immediately has to be done to make the game even remotely playable; if the game isn’t playable, there’s no sense in trying to add new things to make it better. Follow the pre-production through to the end so that you have a completed game, then you can add more to it, but only after the game is complete.

Further Resources: Seven Steps for Avoiding Scope Creep

Time Management

The Problem: Bad time management can easily lead to the failure of a project, and can be attributed to a number of things, including too large of a scope, scope creep, bottlenecks, individuals, and more. The majority of times I’ve witnessed bad time management were on projects with deadlines (for IGF, etc.) and on projects that lasted too many semesters, where those that started the project had already graduated.

The Solution: Proper time management skills are extremely valuable, especially in the industry. If your project is having issues with this, take the time to figure out where the bulk of the problem lies. Use the “Where is the Time Spent” resource below to help evaluate what could be holding the game up. Once determined, talk with those team members about improving their time management; you may want to recommend the second link below. It the issue lies with the entire team (not the game), put together a meeting to discuss how to improve this. If there are deadlines involved, make sure that those deadlines are clearly communicated to the entire team, and that everyone understands what must be done before then. If the game seems farther behind than it should be, you may want to try making a schedule and/or reevaluating the scope.

Further Resources: Where is the Time Spent? and Managing Your Time

Lack of Documentation

The Problem: Students seem to hate documenting anything, and will either not document at all, or not document effectively. These are bad habits to get into, since documenting your work is rather important in the industry. Without documentation, there is no clarified vision of the game, and miscommunication can lead to all sorts of problems during development. Not documenting effectively can also cause the game to fall apart.

The Solution: Get into the habit of documenting everything; it’s good practice and will help solidify your game. You also need to keep all documentation up to date and it should be edited often to avoid discrepancies during development. Furthermore, ensure that everyone on the team has access to the most up to date documentation at all times, since there’s no point to having it if no one on the team can see it. Good documentation is the backbone of the game, so take the time to do it, and do it right. If you’re unsure of how to document something, talk with your leads, other team members, or professors.

Further Resources: The Importance of Documenting Your Design

Know Your Limitations

The Problem: Someone, or possibly everyone, on the team is trying to learn new skills at the same time the game is being built. While developing games is a learning experience, you need to know your limitations. If the team has to take the time to teach one member how to do everything, that’s taking time away from working on the game. If no one on the team knows anything about developing games, all of the time will be spent learning rather than building. Another problem with limitations is that one team member will try to do everything; this leads to bottlenecks in development where things get backed up because everything falls onto that one overwhelmed person.

The Solution: Know what your and your teammates’ limitations are, and don’t jump into a game project without knowing how to do anything. Learn development skills before joining a project and you can spend more time making the game work instead of learning how to make a game work. Don’t take on tasks you can’t deal with, especially if you don’t actually have the skills involved. Putting on too many hats can be a common mistake, but it’s important to divide work up so one person doesn’t become bogged down or overwhelmed. Know what your limits are and abide by them to use these projects to fine tune and show off your skills.

Further Resources: Top Two Reasons Why Student Projects Fail

Insufficient or Lack of Leadership

The Problem: Because most of the team members become friends through the process of development, leadership can often suffer, especially if there isn’t a professor looking over their shoulders. Since the students become good friends, they don’t want to tell their buddy that he needs to step up his game. Insufficient leadership on the students’ part can really destroy the game from the inside out. On the other hand, it could be that there is no student leadership, and everything is run by a professor. This situation is okay for a class project, but for a student project, which takes place outside of the classroom, it really is best to have students at least partially leading each other.

The Solution: First off, let the students lead if they aren’t already. That’s not to say that professors can’t help at times, but this is a learning experience for students to prepare them for the industry. If the friend issue is a problem with the leadership on the team, the leads need to realize that they have to put their foot down sometimes, for the good of the game. Good team leaders should be able to communicate effectively, in a friendly but professional manner. Since leads should be the ones the rest of the team goes to if they have any problems, it’s also important for them to listen to and deal with the problems accordingly. For any leads on game projects, I’d definitely recommend reading the book below.

Further Resources: “Team Leadership in the Game Industry” by Seth Spaulding

Not Enough Playtesting

The Problem: Sometimes the game is not playtested during development, or very rarely is. You have to playtest your game to ensure that everything is working as it should, to make sure that it is fun and playable, to discover and fix any bugs, and much more. If the team doesn’t play their own game, how will they know if everything is working properly, or if it even works? It’s also imperative to have other people play your game, and provide feedback. When the only people playing the game are the developers, it can be difficult to tell if the game is fun or not, and developers will often see what they want to see rather than what’s really going on, especially towards the middle and end of development.

The Solution: If the team isn’t playtesting the game regularly, try setting up designated playtest times. If a particular team member isn’t playtesting, and their work is being affected by it, someone should talk to them and explain, in a friendly but professional manner, why they need to test their work. You should also get other people to play your game and give you some feedback. This should be fairly easy, especially if you are an on-campus student. So long as those who play provide honest feedback, almost anyone can playtest for you, even if they aren’t a gamer.

Further Resources: The Catch 22 of Playtesting Games



This covered the main reasons why student projects typically fail, and although there are many more, I hope that this article will make you reevaluate your own project and hopefully fix any of the problems that could lead to failure. If you’re just starting up a student project, keep these things in mind – I know I will. Thanks for reading, and as always, if you have any comments, questions, or criticism, feel free to speak up!

    • Tyler
    • March 20th, 2011

    Another issue I see a lot is lack of motivation. It can be difficult at times to keep team members motivated to work on a project that has no immediate gain. There is no payment or recognition on many student projects, so the only reason to work on them is the long-term goal of improving skills & portfolio material. At times, that is not enough, and team members will fall back on their work within a project.
    However, this is a problem that is only existent in a portion of students, many are able to stay motivated without any additional incentives.

    • I actually disagree. Long-term student projects are already barking up the wrong tree, because they take a lot of time and resources students simply don’t have, and it is better to have a small, completed game than one with a giant scope that never goes anywhere. If a project has a large scope and is long-term, the students working on it will lose motivation simply because there is no immediate goal. If the majority of students involved are unmotivated on a particular project, that project should be reevaluated, especially in terms of scope.
      Keeping members motivated is something that needs to be addressed by the leads of the project. Read “Team Leadership in the Game Industry” by Seth Spaulding for more on this. If it is an issue with certain individuals, and they simply don’t have the motivation to work on a student project, they should reconsider their career choice. Making games is about passion, and if they have no motivation to make even a student game, they clearly are lacking that passion and will not make it in the industry.

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