Trials, Triumphs, and Lessons Learned from 8 Successful Video Game Releases and 3 Humbling Failures

In June 2021, I made a decision: I would create my very first game and more specifically a yaoi visual novel. It all started when I stumbled upon the 2021 Yaoi Jam page on And like a fairytale, my game dev journey started.

This wasn't my first attempt at making a visual novel. In the past, I had tried to create visual novels with two different teams, only to see each project collapse when the team leads abandoned them. It was disheartening to witness everything crumble, with no one left to carry on those projects.

Drawing from my experience in project management from previous jobs, I knew I could step up as the project lead for this new endeavor. However, a leader without a team is powerless, so my first order of business was to start searching for a team.

How my game dev journey started -- The story behind "The Prince's Heart".

The Prince's Heart
The home screen of "The Prince's Heart" visual novel.

Since visual novels are narrative-heavy games, I needed a capable writer. The first place that came to mind to search for one was r/WriteWithMe, a Reddit group dedicated to writing collaborations. Despite my initial doubts (that I wouldn't find anyone interested in making a visual novel game), I was fortunate enough to find a person willing to create the story for our game.

With a writer on board, I had solved the first part of the puzzle. Now my only challenge was to find an artist who could bring the character sprites and backgrounds to life. My next stop was r/INAT, a subreddit where you can find potential teammates to create video games. Finding one proved easier than expected, and after sending a few requests to a couple of 2d artists, I had a team ready to start the game. 

Now the real challenge was about to start. As a writer and game dev, I knew the importance of balancing creativity with practicality. Video games aren't books; they require assets to be made from scratch, and if you don't set boundaries, it's easy to overwhelm the art team, which is why I asked the artist about the number of assets she could create over a period of two months. With this information in mind, I communicated it to the writer, so she knew what the restrictions were in terms of sprites and backgrounds: 8 sprites in various poses and 11 backgrounds. Even with these measures in place, it soon became apparent that the workload surpassed our initial estimates. The work was just too much for a single artist to complete in less than two months, so in the days that followed, I enlisted an additional background artist, an audio engineer and composer, a GUI artist, and a voice casting director from the VNdevs and BL discord groups to support us.

Despite all the additional support we got, it was becoming apparent that the game would take longer than expected, roughly twice the amount we had initially projected, for a number of reasons:
  • The team consisted of junior game developers who were developing a game for the first time, so we underestimated how much time it would actually take to complete them.
  • Our team was also participating in another jam, which I'm going into detail in the following section. It's a no-brainer that this would increase our workload, but at the time it seemed like a good idea to participate in a short jam because I wanted us to have another portfolio piece and boost the team's morale with a quick victory.
We ended up releasing version 0.7 of The Prince's Heart by the end of the jam, which featured the complete story, voice-overs, and audio, but with flat-colored backgrounds and sprites. As it turned out, releasing the complete version would take us another 2 months of work to polish the assets and release the final version of the game.

Lessons learned and contributing factors to delays

A key takeaway from my first experience as a project lead is the importance of maintaining a disciplined approach when it comes to defining the scope of your team's responsibilities. It is crucial to adhere to the agreed-upon assets from the outset and consider if further reduction is possible. Even the most seemingly insignificant alteration can trigger a domino effect, causing the project to spiral out of control.

O2A2 Jam: Dragon Gazer -- The first game I completed was the second I started

Dragon Gazer's promo artwork

O2A2 Jam was taking place during the Yaoi Jam. Unlike the Yaoi Jam where there's no restriction regarding the number of assets, word count, etc. O2A2 jam has several restrictions for the game devs (and trust me it was what we needed at the time).

Since O2A2 Jam lasts for only 1 week, the content needs to be no more than 1.000 words, and only 1 sprite, 1 bg, and 1 soundtrack is allowed, it's more likely to be completed. People tend to be more focused when something takes place for a few days, a couple of weeks at most (like a sprint). Due to the restrictions, game devs need to be creative enough to create a compelling story in a short amount of time. While the Yaoi Jam was taking place, we took a short break with the team to complete this one since it was short, and at the same time, it would boost motivation since the yaoi jam was a marathon. Eventually, we managed to complete the game in a few days. If I remember correctly, I submitted the game 4-5 days after the jam had started, and we were so excited we released our first game. This recharged our batteries to keep going with the Yaoi Jam.

Lessons Learned from a short jam

If you're new, with a team you just met, jams that take place during the weekend or last up to two weeks are your best bet. If they succeed, you'll have a game to add to your portfolio, and if you fail, then you just lost a couple of weeks of work at worst.

Fighting Grief by Developing multiple projects.

The events spanning from 2021 to 2022 will likely leave an indelible mark on my psyche for the rest of my days. Right after completing "The Prince's Heart," my father contracted COVID-19, and shortly after Christmas, he passed away. As if this blow wasn't enough, my grandfather succumbed to grief exactly two months later, on his birthday, in a cruel twist of fate. My grandmother's dementia worsened, and she lost touch with reality after my father's passing. Reflecting on the events of those two months and the hardships I endured still feels surreal to me. I won't delve into the specifics of the challenges faced during that time or the lingering unresolved matters they left behind – that's not the focus of this post. What kept me grounded amidst the chaos was my dedication to developing video games. Pouring myself into coding, writing, and game design served as a kind of therapy. Each new game project offered a refuge from the grief. I eagerly accepted every game dev offer that came my way. However, taking on too much eventually led to my downfall. I bit off more than I could chew, and the repercussions of my overloaded schedule would soon become evident.

I managed to release "The Prince's Heart" just days after my father fell ill with COVID-19. At that time, a fellow writer approached me with a request to adapt his Twine script into a visual novel (VN). This project presented a unique challenge due to its intricate branching narrative. While Twine made crafting complex narratives seem effortless, translating those intricacies into a visual novel engine posed its own set of challenges, from naming conventions to tracking branching paths using flags. On the bright side, creating assets for this VN was relatively straightforward, as Re:Shape was intended as a mobile game for Android – offering an opportunity to diversify our portfolio.

Given that many of my colleagues were junior developers, progress on our projects proceeded slowly, affording me the chance to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. Consequently, I found myself juggling production, game design, writing, and programming duties. Production consumed a significant portion of my time, prompting me to explore joining another team, either as a programmer or designer. When I stumbled upon a newly formed group, I couldn't resist.

The project lead, a junior programmer, recognized my production skills and enlisted my help in organizing the team. When we settled on an idea, the project leader stepped back, leaving me in charge of production and design for "The Sinking of Dream Chaser." The challenge lay in using Unity, an engine I had little experience with. Despite internal struggles, I chose to continue with both projects simultaneously.

As my workload grew, I sought to lighten the burden by recruiting another programmer for Re:Shape, but with no success. Eventually, I coded the mobile game myself.

A year had passed, and my team and I had completed four games. The only game pending release was "The Sinking of the Dream Chaser," stalled in the programming department due to my unfamiliarity with Unity. Lacking the energy to learn a new engine, and with another Yaoi Jam approaching, I opted to start a new project, despite being a bad idea. Drawing from my experience crafting visual novels, I implemented strict guidelines akin to O2A2 Jam to ensure timely delivery. With a team of three artists, we divided the workload into manageable chunks. This phase of my game dev journey proved relatively smooth, given my experience and the project's manageable scope. In a stroke of luck, I recruited two additional programmers, one of whom was highly skilled, enabling us to complete "The Sinking of the Dream Chaser."

With 2022 coming to a close, I participated as a producer/programmer in a couple more projects that were successfully released.

I had finally released eight projects, and then it all came crashing down. I hit a wall.

My Unfinished Games: A Journey of Acceptance

Now I had three more games to finish: Calamity Sin, a 3D horror game with fixed camera angles reminiscent of the original Resident Evil 2; Town of the Damned, a sprawling visual novel boasting around 300k words; and Rogue Shifters, a Yaoi VN with gameplay elements, clocking in at approximately 50k (written by me).

Several factors contributed to these failures: the lack of programming support, scope creep in the first two projects, mainly due to the demands of parenthood. Mental pressure mounted from all sides, and I made the difficult decision to pull the plug. These games loomed large for a small team. Don't misunderstand me; I thrive on challenges and the desire to see projects through to completion. However, sometimes it's wiser to acknowledge failure and let go.

Reflections on my Game Dev Journey

Both successes and failures have yielded valuable lessons. It's now clear to me which paths to steer clear of. Firstly, when faced with a complex project, it's wise to exercise caution, and having an experienced team or leader at the helm is a necessity. Secondly, I've discovered a preference for contributing to projects as a Technical Designer or Programmer, rather than assuming the roles of project lead or producer, opting to take a backseat instead.

Going forward, I'm planning to release commercial games with a modest budget while maintaining a close-knit team, typically comprised of fewer than three members. Engaging in indie game development without financial backing can be both exhilarating and challenging, so it's important to always choose battles you can win.


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