How do you keep yourself focused when writing a game?

So I’ve been writing interactive fiction (inform, twine) for years. And I mean years. And in all that time my total number of finished games is… 0. And it’s worse than that, I don’t have any games that are anywhere near close to completion.

I know exactly what the problem is, of course. And it’s a kind of scope creep. I start writing, and almost immediately get distracted by the programming. I often have “wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments that both distract me and lead to the project getting so complicated that it becomes unwieldy. And of course the longer I spend writing a game, the more my ideas change and the more I want to go back and rewrite or reconfigure what I’ve done.

I know the advice that’s normally given (write a play through end to end and then program that, keep the project small etc), but I can’t seem to help myself. I also know that having fun tinkering is part of the fun anyway. But I’d be interested in the strategies people use when they are writing a game to keep things moving without getting distracted!


It sounds as though you’re suffering from perfectionism. I’m the same. I’ve been writing IF for 20 years now and I’ve only released 7 games. None of them felt completely finished when I released them and I’ve gone back and made changes to most of them post-release. But I did release them. At some point you have to stop, and say to yourself this is good enough. If you’re like me, you’ll have all sorts of feelings of insecurity when the game is finally out there. I always feel sort of naked and exposed. In your head will be all the things you wanted to implement but didn’t, but your audience won’t know about those and will judge the work on its own merits. You’ll learn far more from your beta testers and those gracious enough to write a review than you will if you keep your work to yourself and endlessly tinker with it. Set yourself a deadline, be strict with yourself about the scope of your game and finish it. It won’t be perfect, but you’ll enjoy the thrill of having other people play and enjoy it, you’ll learn from the experience and your next one will better.


My advice is to join a jam and tell EVERYONE you’ve joined it and are working on a game for it. It’s major accountability and a hard deadline. The pressure is on!!! And your perfectionism is limited.

Also, yes, there are tons of cool things we can do in our games. But a game with all the cool things is just bloated and has more style than substance. Pick 1, 2, 3 AT MAX cool features to put in each game. Decide what they are going to be ahead of time. And do not creep.


This is so true. I learned a college course worth of game design from the first two playtests given to me by @Warrigal . He is literally the reason my games are any good at all :joy:


I agree with this but I would add that you should avoid telling everyone everything about your game before you release it. It’s very tempting to tell people all the clever ideas you have, but be aware that doing so can sometimes scratch the very itch that prompted you to start writing it in the first place. Tell people you’re entering but keep the details to yourself (and a few trusted friends / testers.)

Yes, and save 4, 5 and 6 for your next game!


It helps me to make a “complete” skeleton of a game that can be played but is missing most descriptions and puzzles.

That way the game is always done, you’re just improving it.


lol, Brian.

what helps in keeping focused is the “hack fuel”, that is, caffeine and/or teine.
also, fuel combined with tester’s report push brain cogs into high gear, trust me…

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.


So, I have rampant ADHD and while I am medicated, I still get scope creep.

However, in recent years, I’ve managed to turn that around, and now I have scope…recession?

So it sounds like you’ve been trying project outlines already, but that can simply create a meter stick for you to measure scope creep with, which can be kinda demoralizing.

And then you feel bad because you still haven’t finished anything in a while, but then you get excited because now you get to work on another thing! If only you could get excitement from progress, right?

And that’s the actual problem. Novelty tends to be more exciting than long-term progress and organization. That’s valid, and there’s no fault of personality in that or anything.

Some things to try:

  1. When you have an outline, estimate how many weeks each component will take to do, and multiple that by 100. That’s how many progress points that component can hold. Some components can hold more, but that’s a starting estimate. Every hour or two of progress, give yourself a progress point (or three!) on the component you were working on. You’ve accomplished something! These will slowly add up towards your goal!
  2. If you feel like you want to add a new component, ask yourself if this might be a tiny novel detail, or if it will greatly add to the players experience of your game’s goal. You don’t always want to add things to distract or weigh down the player. Even really large games have so many things because they complement the one thing the player is playing your game for. Whether you decide to add it or not, write the idea down in a separate file for later. We’ll come back to this!
  3. If you still want to add the component or detail, then you must create a new progress point total for it, which will visibly increase the distance to your goal. If the component really will have an impact, then that increase is justified. The idea is this will offset the allure of novelty, and the points will hopefully reinforce working on current stuff.
  4. If you’re starting to hate the project, then try switching to a different component for a bit.
  5. If you still hate it, then there’s a chance that you’re spending too much time per day working on it? Sometimes people will jump into something fun, and then squeeze all the fun out of it, and only then will they take a break. Some devs and writers set a time limit for themselves. My personal time limit is unreasonable, but most people who use this method often take a break after 4 hours, and will only go back to it the next day.
  6. If you still really just need to work on literally anything else but the main set of components, then give yourself 2 points on every component for sticking with it so long, and choose one item from your separate list of things to add, and work on that for one or two days maximum. Don’t add points or a total for it, but treat it like a bonus side quest.
  7. Once you have your main components done and working, then you should have a game that is minimally-functional and focuses on doing a specific player experience competently, at minimum. A lot of time has passed, and you’ve done super well, and take a moment to reflect on what challenges you’ve overcome. Go ahead and max out any totals that still have points to go, because those are done now! At this point, go to your separate ideas list and start adding those. You already have a completed game, and now you’re free to add as many details and flourishes as you want, because you can freely decide at any point when you’d like to release it. If you feel scope creep lurking again, then you can just say, “Okay, let’s release this now”, and then start working on a “second edition” or “post-comp” version, if you want to!

This is how I released I Am Prey after 16-18 years of not releasing anything at all.

Other things to try:

  1. Set a deadline for yourself. A good estimate would be three main components every two months for a really intense schedule. One component every two months for something a bit calmer. Make sure to share this deadline with at least 3 people. Disclaimer: This can have negative mental health consequences, depending on how you perform under pressure, and you need to remember that your life outside of your hobbies takes precedent. Mileage may vary on this one. Do not continue if it starts to have negative effects.
  2. Maybe wonder if your hobby is just working on stuff and the metric of how many releases you’ve had is kinda arbitrary. That is absolutely valid, too. At the end of the day, the stuff that brings us joy provides structure and meaning against the darkness, and that’s way more important.

Prior to releasing my adventure for the recent TALP Jam, I had never completed a text adventure game. Having a deadline really focused me on completing something (not necessarily the best I was capable of delivering, but certainly, in my opinion, a good finished product). As someone else mentioned, being a perfectionist can end up with you having nothing to show for your work - better to create something whole and then iterate it/improve it, than to have nothing to show for it.

I’d also recommend saving your ideas - you don’t have to put them all in one game. What makes thematic sense for the game you’re writing? Anything that doesn’t make thematic or narrative sense, just jot that idea down to use in a future game and then forget about it. You can always revisit it once you’ve finished your game to decide whether it needs any extra gizmos.

My approach with my next project (motivated and inspired as I have been by the adventure I wrote for the Jam) has been to revisit one of my previous aborted attempts to write a game. The paper design is mostly done, so it just needs implementing:

  1. Break the game into logical regions (collections of locations narratively connected to a single area - a building, a forest, etc.). So for each of the following steps, I’m only focusing on one region at a time. When I’ve done everything for region 1, I’ll move onto region 2, etc.
  2. Code the locations and navigable routes between them.
  3. Code the nouns - both the scenery nouns from the locations in teh region and the inventory nouns for the items that can be found. Just the EXAMINE descriptions for now.
  4. Consider what a player might reasonably attempt to do with each noun and create a custom response to it. Again, this isn’t about coding the game logic that will progress the adventure, just providing some depth to the game. Someone might think to sit in a chair or read a book, for example - it might not progress the game, but it’d be nice if there was a custom response to that.
  5. Game logic - implement how each item interacts with the region to progress the adventure (this is the most complex bit, so you could break this into smaller chunks, too - perhaps per noun).
  6. Test - fully test the region, moving around, manipulating items, and progressing the story elements in that region.

Then repeat for the other regions. You’ll notice that step 5 gets longer because a lot of your nouns will probably need to interact with other nouns outside the region in which they were found. But what I’ve found is that you get a sense of progress and momentum. In the adventure on which I’m working at the moment, you can ‘solve’ the first region within 6 commands, even though there’s loads more to do in that region that’s relevant later in the game.

And there’s a concept in software development of an MVP - a minimum viable product - for the first run through the above, don’t overengineer the game with lots of cool features, ideas, and responses. Ask yourself what the minimum amount of information, coding, tweaks, etc., you need to do is to create a game that you can play end-to-end. Then you can always think of cool extra things to add to the game, additional error checking, additional puzzles, additional verbs, additional custom responses, etc.

As a final point, I’d also say that you can collaborate with someone else on your game. Maybe you’re weaker on designing than coding, or maybe writing, or whatever. If there’s a adventure game design skill you’d like to develop, I’m sure you’d get a dozen offers from people on this forum to work with you to push through whatever you feel are the obstacles to you completing a game. Even just having a scheduled Zoom call with someone to discuss progress can motivate you to have something to show them!


If my reply is too long, then this idea is absolutely crucial. It’s easier to have something that works minimally, and then detail it later, because you can release it at any time after that.


See, I never really understood this idea. For me, the effect is the inverse.

I sometimes get a half-formed urge to write IF. The moment I sign up for one of these competitions, all inspiration and drive is gone, replaced by a bottomless pit of anxiety. Before that point, nobody’s looking; after it, I’ve ensured I will be judged, by an audience that has probably seen stuff far above my ability to produce. The least shameful option at that point is to either bow out quietly, or (if sufficiently motivated) to plod along and hope for the paralysis to wear off.

(It does not.)

I don’t want to be a wet blanket here, or claim it cannot work. It’s just frustrating. I just want to note that procrastination and paralysis can rise to the level of a disorder, and for people of that stripe, such tactics are at best ineffectual.


Yeah, it’s hit-or-miss for me. Some projects it motivates me, other projects it’s like “what am I doing???”

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My particular approach for the past year is to commit to a single project, and then write a newsletter about my progress on that project. That way I can get outside pressure and support, and also work through my thoughts on the project.

I’ve also asked a friend to be an “accountability partner”. I want to enter IF Comp 23, and so I gave him my plan for that, and we discuss whether that is reasonable and achievable. It’s not his project, so he can give me the tough love and outsider perspective that I need. He’s good and requests actionable milestones. It keeps me and my estimates accountable.

Any of the edits to my grand plan have come from those accountability meetings, but mostly from my own impetus. Realising that a whole act of my game would be a lot of work, for no strong purpose and without any strong ideas… I chopped it, even though I thought the idea might be cool.

Another idea is to organize an alpha or beta test of your game. Or at least some testers at a particular time. It gives you a time to work towards, some minimal playable thing, and then you get outside perspective. Because you want to finish it and give it to other people to play, right?


As I mentioned on another thread, my hard drive is full of half-finished games that were intended as game jam entries. On the other hand, two of my released games started life as entries for game jams with strict time limits. I ended up with the “complete” skeleton Mathbrush describes and I later fleshed them out into full-sized games. Yes, it doesn’t work for everybody, and it doesn’t work for me every time, but it might be worth a try.

In your case though it seems as though you have a full-sized game that you’re trying to finish, so this advice probably won’t work for your current situation. I think you just need to make up your mind not to unpick what you’ve already done and redo it. It sounds a bit like you’re knitting a scarf and spending one day knitting and the next day unravelling it and starting again in a different colour. Try to resist doing this and you’ll make more progress.


I think this is really helpful, thank you. My problem is exactly that I keep getting distracted away from the plan because e.g. implementing a fully functioning smart phone is far more fun than fleshing out all the dialogue of a conversation that actually advances the plot. And halfway through the smartphone, I realise I need an email messaging system, and halfway through that…

I do like the idea of quantifying the effort rather than just listing the milestones, as well as adding the new ideas to a “maybe later” list rather than jumping straight in. My hobby definitely is the fun of learning how the systems work and what I can do with them, but it would be nice to have something to show friends and family for all these hours I’m spending in front of the computer!


Yeah, I’ve been testing that approach a bit. There’s something to it, I think. I did manage to finish one game no problem, but that was a translation of a 1997 IF into the Swedish, so not my own work.

That’s not really it, though your words are appreciated. I’ve been writing I7 snippets for yonks; I work as a programmer, and the toolchains for I7, I6, Dialog, Twine, Ren’Py or even a general programming language are all explicable and present no real roadblock.

Implementing itself is trivial. Examples abound. Motivation, imagination, inspiration and engagement does not. The inability to focus, crippling anxiety, a brain motivated toward self sabotage; these impose the real barrier. Again, this is me. I’m not here to put a damper on everything, and I’m not trolling for pity.

It feels frustrating, that’s all. As if you’re a one-handed person trying to discover a way to tie your shoes like a regular dude. And then you go online to google it, and you find this, repeated incessantly: “the first thing you need to do is announce you’ll do it on stage; it’ll motivate you to grow your arm back faster.”

I understand why. I don’t feel anyone is doing anything wrong, not really, and their willingness to help is admirable.

But to someone who spends intense effort to be able to do very small things, this societal notion that it’s just a question of rolling up one’s sleeves really does rankle.

(I did manage to hijack the thread after all, didn’t I? Shit.)


I don’t think you’ve hijacked the thread at all! Your contributions have been really interesting. I also don’t find the “make it all public” particularly helpful. My imposter syndrome tends to kick in for that case, and I find avoidance strategies more tempting. Such as getting diverted down rabbit holes and scope creep…


One thing that’s definitely helped me a lot for independent projects is starting to track progress. Breaking down the whole game into a spreadsheet under different categories of work like writing, programming, music etc.

Even if the game is in flux, I can at least approximate:
“There’ll probably be about 15 scenes, I’ve done a first draft of 3.”

I found a lot of my meandering came from having no concrete measure of progress. It’s easy to tip away aimlessly at a project if it feels like anything you do is spinning your wheels. And implementing features can be more satisfying because there’s a very tangible end goal. But having my spreadsheet where I could see “Oh hey, I’ve actually written a whole quarter of the game now.” made the mountain of writing more tangible.

Also for fun feature concepts, I’ve started spinning those off into their own future projects. Thinking of fun things to do with text like “Oh what if there was text that was only visible if your affection meter was high enough…” gets set aside in the ideas doc, because it’s better to have a story built on that idea specifically. Rather than inserting that into a game where it’s otherwise not really needed, just because the mechanic is neat.


Oh, I’m sorry! I was actually replying to the OP and using something you’d said as an example. I should have been clearer.


Björn, I get this too. I used to write notebooks with all of my fears and anxieties around creativity and sometimes I leaf through them and read what I wrote ten or fifteen years ago, and it’s all anxiety and self-sabotage, and it’s all very self-critical and accusatory. I spent a lot of time comparing myself unfavourably against others. The good news is that, for the most part, I don’t feel that way any more. I still get creative blocks, but I’m definitely not getting in my own way nearly as much as I used to. So change can and does happen and perhaps you too will find your confidence grows in time. I’m still not as productive as I’d like to be, but I don’t beat myself up about it nearly as much as I once did, and that definitely helps.

Edit: I thought I’d made this post a direct reply to your post, Björn, but apparently I still haven’t got the hang of this forum!