Post Mortem Series: Learning how to Assess Risk and Reward

DragonCoder here again to share some more lessons learned while developing Highway to the Moon.

This time I’ll be talking about a skill I had to pick up while in charge of the level editor and it’s associated code. In a way, it is a skill that at least got tested on every member of the team: Assessing Risk versus Reward.

It seems simple, and most everyone has used it at some point. However in development of video games, there is a different angle on how someone looks at risks and benefits of an action. When looking at, say, a new feature for an editor, there are many things to consider. First, the benefits: it may speed up how someone makes something, or make it more intuitive to work with data. Then, the risks: it may make old data obsolete so that any work up till now on a level or enemy is lost, or it may cause instability in the editor or engine, or it may slow down the game at run time. The biggest ‘risk’ however, was often the time it would take to make the change.

It was interesting to see how the priorities of certain benefits changed over the course of working on Highway to the Moon. At first, anything that would make working with the editors easier, or expand our ability to make new and interesting gameplay elements were sought after and implemented with little or no concern over the risks; we would have the time to fix instability, or to speed up how it would run. But as we neared completion, and we needed to make levels and art, the time investment to make things work more smoothly became a bigger concern. We started looking at how much time or effort a certain change would cost and how much it would save.

The interesting point when we started comparing time spent to end game experience benefit. Equating how ‘fun’ some feature or element would be to how much time it would take to make something was both fun and infuriating. It was a challenge to try to quantify something like ‘fun-ness’ while it was also painful at times to see ideas not be able to pan out because there was not enough time left to make it work.

However, I was fortunate enough to work with the crew here at Vernacular Games; we were able to lean on each other’s insight and perspective to help with evaluating the costs and benefits of any changes that we considered. And I think we are all better off for it.

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