5 Tips to Narrow Your Game’s Scope

Lately I’ve been focusing my posts largely on level design, so today I thought I’d discuss something that plagues most game projects and typically resonates from their designs: scope creep. Scope creep is a serious problem, namely among students, but there are ways of combating it. This post will discuss five tips I’ve come across for narrowing scope, although it will not address scope issues regarding story.

5 Tips to Narrow Your Scope

  1. Identify and address scope issues early on in the design process.
  2. Remove unnecessary elements.
  3. Focus on the core of the game.
  4. Stick to milestones and deadlines.
  5. Avoid the “cool” factor, extreme innovation, and the big genres.

Scope Issues in Early Design

As game designers, we tend to want to put everything into a single game to try to make it the best, but this certainly isn’t ideal. While writing up your design document, you might find yourself adding a ton of features and mechanics you want to see in your game, but you need to stop and decide if all of them are really necessary. To do this, start by identifying the core gameplay, i.e. what your game cannot function without. Then, go through all of your mechanics and features and figure out if they are going to make the core gameplay more fun and interesting, without complicating things too much. If something doesn’t promote the core gameplay, it’s only going to mean more work for you and your team, which in turn keeps the game in development longer. When working on your early design document, try to focus only on the core gameplay and any features that promote it, but keep in mind the workload you are preparing. Remember, you can always add in additional mechanics and features later on in development, so try your best to stay true to the game’s core early on.

Remove Unnecessary Elements

Once your game is further along in development, scope creep will likely begin to appear. It’s much easier to address and remove scope issues earlier in development, but once you’ve committed and lots of hard work and time has been spent on code and asset creation, it gets much more difficult. The easiest way to narrow your scope is to of course remove things that aren’t essential to the game’s core, but this presents a new problem. While simply removing unnecessary elements from your game seems like the perfect solution, you need to remember that hours of work have been put into those elements, and cutting them means you just wasted all of that time. Instead of removing them entirely, try to find new ways of implementing them into the core of the game. Art assets can often be tweaked and used elsewhere, while code might be able to be reworked into another feature. If you do have to remove something entirely, don’t completely scrap it; keep it stored somewhere for possible later implementation.

Focus on the Core

As I’ve already mentioned several times above, it’s imperative for you to focus on the core gameplay first. All features in your game should support and build off of the core gameplay, so don’t try to add in mechanics that are way out there. For example, say you’re making a platformer and want to add in a shooting mechanic. Unless shooting is crucial to the game, you might want to focus on the actual platforming elements first, and you can always add the shooting mechanic once you’ve got that down. Start at the very core of your game’s mechanics and work your way up to the more complicated ones. From a programming perspective, it is going to be a lot easier to build the basis for the game and then simply add in extra mechanics later. Building a solid base for your game is extremely important, so try to keep it focused on the core and go from there.

Milestones and Deadlines

The time when scope creep is the most obvious is during milestones and deadlines, especially when you can’t seem to meet those milestones. If you’re having trouble meeting deadlines, it’s probably time to reevaluate your game’s scope, although keep in mind that this could be a result of other things within your team. Make sure your deadlines aren’t too close or that you’re asking too much for them. If it’s either or those two problems, a simple reworking of deadlines and what is due should help, unless of course there is a different problem with your scope. The amount of work being asked of your team should be feasible in the time allotted, and should allow for a little extra time for critiques and tweaking. If something isn’t feasible within a fairly short amount of time, it might not be worth the time. Time and labor are the driving forces behind your game’s success, so don’t spread either too thin or your game will suffer.

The “Cool” Factor, Innovation, and Genres

Scope creep can appear in a variety of ways, but the ones I’ve witnessed most often, especially among student projects, are the “cool” factor, extreme innovation, and over-complication. Student projects usually suffer from the desire to want to make it as cool and awesome as possible while often ignoring how it will actually work, hence the “cool” factor. While making your game cool is definitely a good thing, don’t go overboard and focus solely on making it so. Focus on making it playable and fun first, and remember that you can always add in extra things to make it cooler later on in development. You also don’t need to make your game extremely innovative. Now, I’m not saying you should just make another carbon-copy of Mario, but that’s not say you need to make everything in your game innovative. Having only a few interesting and innovative features is more than okay, but the completion of the game is more important than making it the next big thing. It’s difficult to innovate and be original these days, so instead, try to make your game stand out somehow and try to keep things simple. Simple projects are ideal since they can be completed fairly quickly and are certainly feasible for students. By keeping your game simple, you can minimize scope creep, churn out completed games faster, and spend more time on polish and adding extras. Along the lines of keeping things simple, you should pick a genre that is going to allow you to do that. Creating a game with a big genre, such as an MMO, is no easy task and will already require a rather large scope, so I don’t recommend making one, especially if you are a student. You want to make sure your game is feasible, so picking a genre that doesn’t require a massive scope will help that.

The best advice I can offer to help you narrow your game’s scope, aside from the tips listed above of course, is to never let your eyes get bigger than your stomach. Never take on more than you and your team can handle, and try your best to keep your game small, simple, and feasible. There are tons of factors leading to scope creep, and there are definitely more than five tips to help narrow your scope, so don’t feel like this is a definitive list. If you’d like to add anything you’ve learned, feel free to comment and let me know. Thanks for reading, and I hope this has helped a bit!

    • Avinash
    • May 28th, 2012

    Good Post.
    I liked it because of its simplicity. These are the commonly known facts but we never actually implement them because we are always in a hurry to produce the output.
    It is always good to consider these facts before implementing any product (both gaming and non-gaming). It actually helps a lot in implementing a much better product in a very less time.

    Good post keep it up.

  1. Nice post! And scope creep is surely a real thing not only for students – the temptation is ALWAYS there to add that one extra mechanic that you feel that is not 100% necessary but still would make the game stand. This kept happening to me (and kept taking its toll on my projects), even after I was making games for several years.

    Quite honestly, the moment I really developed the ability to cut loose endings and focus on the core was only when I started participating in Ludum Dare. You have 48 / 72 hours to deliver your project; there’s no negotiation and no margin. Being so close to the deadline makes it more obvious why keeping scope well under control is so important!

    So now at any point in development I make an exercise of asking myself: what if, for some non-negotiable reason, my game just HAD to be finished in exactly one month from now? Had I such a tight deadline, what are the 2 or 3 things that MUST be in the game even for it to make any sense? Nobody wants to cut anything, specially if it’s their dream project, but being committed to those 2-3 essential things first and then only building around them is what give games an essential feature: the mere fact of existing! Productions that fail to stick to their core usually end up being abandoned, which is a shame.

    Congrats for the post! 🙂

  2. Thank you, this is a great info!

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