The Duke Nukem Forever team.
Wired has just posted an article called "Learn to Let Go: How Success Killed Duke Nukem" (Hat Tip: The Escapist)
The story is a fascinating one, and one that deserves to be turned into a full length, esque novel.
Despite 3D Realms formerly being a multi million dollar game development studio, I think the lessons to be learned from its demise are actually more relevant to Indie Gamers then Corporate ones. Indeed, 3D Realms virtually was an Indie game studio, reliant on only its own funding for game development.
From observing various forums, and from reading emails that have been occasionally sent my way, I do believe that there are many Indie game developers with a similar mindset to the head honchos at 3D Realms. So, I have attempted to re-summarise the points from the articles again, in a way that is relevant to Indie game developers. Here are the five symptoms of what I call Duke Nukem Forever syndrome:
1. Lack of a deadline
Duke Nukem Forever's deadline of "When it's done" harmed the development far more then any tangible one could have.
Deadlines create stress, and stress is, unfortunately, a natural necessity for the completion of any task, even ones that are as subtle as getting out of bed in the morning. A deadline not only forces us to work towards getting the game ready for shipping, but also forces us to jettison trivial "Nice to have" elements that are simply not worth the value they bring to the game. A personal example is that I have worked on dozens of game projects, yet the five completed games hosted on this site were all made to one deadline or another.
The reality is no game is ever "Done", every game out there could be improved. To paraphrase George Lucas, games don't get finished, they get abandoned. You just have to let go when you've done enough.
2. Limitless resources
Millions of dollars allowed 3D Realms to develop Duke Nukem Forever over a decade while releasing very few other titles.
Okay, so unlike 3D Realms, most Indie Game teams will never have millions of dollars at their disposal. But they do have a resource that most Corporate Game Developers do not have: Time. If an Indie game developer has a day job, then they can continue living comfortably even if their game will never see the light of day, hence why a deadline does not always get created in the first place.
3. Lack of a plan
According to ex-3D Realm employees who were interviewed for the wired article, there was no plan of what the final game would look like.
Without even a basic plan, Indie game developers can flounder off in any direction on their projects. It is like being a Rugby player who runs around in circles rather then charging for the opposition goal post. A plan does not need to be comprehensive for successful completion of a project, but at any time in development it is helpful to be able to know these two things: The vision of where the end goal lies, and what the next task is.
"A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision with a task is the hope of the world" - Donald Zimmerman
4. Futile pursuit of perfection
The immense expectations placed on the game by both fans and developers, combined with rapidly advancing technology, meant that Duke Nukem Forever could never reach the required level of perfection.
Lots of Indie gamers, particularly ones that have never released a game before, want to make their next one the game that puts them on the map. An example is the Jet Force Gemini 2 fan project, whose track-record-less developers have for years have been promising a game with next-Gen graphical quality, but so far with virtually nothing to show for it (Still, it is good to see that they have apparently switched to UDK rather then trying to build their own engine).
However (And correct me if I am wrong) but no one in the modern era has ever made an Earth shatteringly good game on their first attempt. A game developer shouldn't necessarily judge the success or failure of a project by comparing it to other games, but should instead consider how much the game improved on his or her last.
5. Team size disproportionate to the vision
While the credit sequences in modern games roll on for what seems like an eternity, from the photograph it looks like the names of the entire Duke Nukem Forever team could be placed on a single screen.
There was a time where a small team of developers could produce blockbuster games, perhaps with a single programmer, artist and sound engineer. However, in the modern game development era you need huge teams in order to compete with the amount of content put in games developed by multi million dollar game development juggernauts.
You don't need to have a big team to be an Indie game success - just look at Braid and World of Goo. However, like those games, if you're going to work with a small team then you need to keep the content low-key.