So you’ve decided to bite the bullet and are ready to make that video game. Excellent. You do a little bit of planning and you’ve got your game scheduled for release in three weeks time. Let’s get this done.
Week 1, got the basic gameplay loop done. This game is fun! Yes! Gameplay is a little wonky, but the fundamentals are there. Excellent, let’s continue past this prototyping stage.
Week 2, trying to get that gameplay right is proving to be harder than we thought. Why does our avatar slide that extra few pixels when the player releases the button, but only every second time? Man, what part of my code is doing that?
Week 3, finally figured out that weird control problem. Figuring that out revealed a few subsequent bugs that need to be ironed out. I’ll have to push the release back.
Week 4, alright. Almost there. Now I just need to add some menu’s, options, and a bit of polish. This shouldn’t take long.
Week 5, more polish. Almost there.
Week 6, game is release to the world.
You get the drift. No matter what you predict, your game will take longer. This is a well known phenonemon in the general development industry, those of us with a little bit of tenure tend to triple our estimates before we even verbalise them. That way someone else will triple it before it’s commited to on paper.
So it takes longer than you think. But just how long?
Factors that affect video game development time
There’s a lot of things that can affect how long your game will take. Let’s list a few:
- Do you have a game design in mind?
- Do you have a game design document?
- Do you have an engine in mind?
- Do you have experience with that engine?
- Do you have an art-style in mind?
- Do you have a source for music and sound effects?
You get the idea. The more you need, the more time it takes. It’s obviously impossible for anyone to tell you how long it takes to make a video game, but there are some general guidelines that we can use.
How much time does it take to make a Game Engine?
If you’re going to roll your own, or build on top of existing libraries, you’ll need to factor this in. Game Engine development can take anywhere from a couple of days, to years. The expertise needed to make a small functional engine is a lot higher than the expertise needed to make a small functional game from an existing engine (keep that in mind).
As an example, I made a 2D engine in about 6 months. It’s got quite a lot of bells and whistles, and it was my third engine developed. If I was to take away all the bells and whistles, it probably would have taken about 2 weeks, but it’s hard for me to remove the experience I had before making the engine. Without the bells and whistles, I’m fairly limited in what the engine can do.
Maybe a better way to look at this is how long will it take to learn everything you need to know? My engine was based on OpenGL for graphics and OpenAL for sound. Look at what technologies you want to use and then take a look through some websites that teach you that tech, or a book that teaches you; how long do they look? Because that’s what you’ll need to know, at a minimum, before you can even get started.
How much time does it take to create a Game Design?
So whether you roll your own engine, or build it in an existing one, your game needs to be designed first. Right? You’ve done that already? Oh, you haven’t really. You need to make a Game Design Document, for a million reasons.
But the biggest reason is planning. If you want to manage the scope of your game, and keep your development on track, you need to plan everything out before hand. Exactly how many power-ups are in your R-Type clone? How many high-scores will you keep track of?
I can’t say this enough: you need a game design document.
A good design document should take you a few hours for a simple game, maybe just one hour. For a more complex game, it might take half a day. For an RPG it should take you weeks because you need to write the entire story first. Basically the bigger your game, the longer the design document should take.
How much time does it take to code a video game?
Weeks. Months. Years. Depends on the size of the game. You can successfully complete a game, mostly complete anyway, in a 24-hour game jam. This only works if you come prepared, but the gist of it is that simple games can be made relatively fast.
Programming a video game really is just a factor of the number of features. When I say “features” I mean… things that are in the game. So if I can shoot bullets, that’s a feature. If those bullets break blocks, that’s a feature. If the blocks form a maze and some of them can’t be broken, that’s two more features. Each feature is generally small enough that you can program and implement it in half a day of actual work.
Then triple that to find out exactly how long everything will take. That’s how I operate, and it’s worked well for me. Your milleage will vary depending on expertise and skill, but I’ve heard from other developers that this is a good rule of thumb.
How much time does it take to do the art for a video game?
Much like how the time to code is a function of the number of features, the art is function of how much art there is. This is something that you would know up-front from your detailed Game Design Document.
Every character, every monster, every gun, every window, wall and patch of dirt needs an artist to create it. For some games, this can become overwhelming for new developers. For example, I love Final Fantasy V through to Final Fantasy IX, so I wanted to make my own JRPG.
Oh boy, I soon realised how ridiculous that idea was. The amount of art that is required for a JRPG is enormous. This is the same for many genres. Tetris doesn’t have a lot of art, but you might be surprised just how artistic you can make it look if you add art:
- Make the blocks look pretty
- Add some fancy backgrounds
- Add nice menu buttons that look rad
- Add special effects for when you clear various numbers of rows at once
And all that adds time to the creation process. The amount of time each of these takes isn’t as easy as programming, but let’s say you’re a competent artist (that’s why you’re looking at an art heavy game). A sprite should probably take you a day. But keep in mind a sprite is a character with all his animations. So in an old-school JRPG you’ve got four directions of walk cycle plus all the battle animations and reaction animations… and your JRPG has 12 characters in it… don’t forget the monsters, and backgrounds, and tile-sets for every town… you get the idea.
Art takes a long time. A dream duo for game development is a programmer and an artist. If you’re using a game engine like Game Maker, you can even get away with 2 artists for one programmer. These ratios aren’t to say “get a team together“, no, it’s just to illustrate that there is more time spent doing art than there is doing programming, at best, it’s equal.
How much time does it take to do the sound and music for a video game?
How much experience do you have writing music and capturing/manipulating sound effects? In my article on making quick chip-tune music you can create a music track in about half a day.
But if you want to make subjectively good music, it’s going to take you a lot longer. The amount of time spent programming and doing art will be re-used to write the music for the game. And depending on just how… epic and orchestral you want the music to be, it will take much longer.
In all honesty though, it’s doubtful you’ll have complex and amazing music. It will probably be simpler, chip-tune sort of music, because that’s what time constraints and ability often limits is to. That stuff will take a good day from someone who knows how to make music, per track.
The Sound Effects are a different kettle of fish. Generally speaking, they’re a bit easier than music. But if you have a specific sound in your head for that laser, you better be ready to spend a lot of time tweaking it until you get it where you need it. Otherwise, play a synth note and throw some filters on it and you got yourself a laser sound. Set aside a couple hours per sound if you’re a perfectionist.
Additional time needed
On top of all the above, you’ve got all the planning to do and all the media. Don’t discount the media, even if you intend to only release the game for free on itch.io. A really good idea is to create and maintain a devlog. Even if you don’t get a lot of engagement, putting it on the TigSource Forums let’s you know people are reading it, and that will help to keep you motivated and continuing.
You also need periods of rest and refactoring. Michel Mony talk about it more in his article Getting Games Done in 2020.
But one of the biggest things that increase time is the polish. Polish is super important for your game, it’s what seperates the good games from the great games. Players are willing to play a game that looks good, because that’s what they see, look. Make the game feel good, tween those animations, perfect those pixel placements, improve the UI. You can spend forever polishing your game, so it’s good to know when to stop, but you need to factor in additional time, as in week/s, to polish it up and then release it.