A story of product management from my personal life

Vectonic Game - Product Management

Making video games is my favourite hobby. It enables you to create something engaging and expressive while honing relevant real world skills as a bonus. In my free time for the last year, I’ve been developing a video game called Vectonic. It’s a game where you control a hovercraft that can jump stomp on other hovercraft to destroy them. It’s conceptually not all that complex  – yet due to my horrible newbie product management, a simple idea spiralled way out of scope.

Two months into the development of the game, in its purest most enjoyable form, the game was complete. It had the feel I wanted, the look I wanted and the features I wanted. Can you see a possible problem with this picture? It lacked everything most other people wanted.

At what stage did I validate any of what I’d made with other players? (Players who didn’t care about hurting my feelings.) Three months into development and an entire month after I felt like I’d finished. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the first mistake I made in product management.

The feedback I got was that the core concept was good but it was just missing… “something”. It was the most infuriating feedback I could fathom. How could I possibly do anything about something that non-specific?

I didn’t properly press the question, dig deeper or propose features that would improve it. Worse still, I’d disregard (and later remedy) clear and direct feedback – misinterpreting it as people “just not getting what I was going for” and even worse because features simply seemed too much of a hassle to implement.

After this began the long period of trying to fix a game people didn’t particularly want. The code for the game was so awful I’d be embarrassed to show any colleagues and worse still it was so poorly abstracted it would be hard to expand on. I bit my tongue and hunkered down on the dreaded refactor. Weeks and weeks spent cursing myself for the code I’d written only a month earlier. By this point, I was a few months into my career at HealthEngine and I’d gotten a stronger appreciation and handle for good coding standards. Each night I could take new learnings to improve the code to a state that I could bear to share it.

I’ll be honest, I was improving the code with no real idea how I was going to improve the overall experience once I had it in a more manageable state (my second biggest mistake). The game was finally in a state in which I could add features with ease. It’s a strange sense of pride you get from a refactor. You have something you spent maybe twice as long on, but that looks, plays and feels the exact same. Only you know how much better it is! It all begs the very obvious question: Why not just code it well from the beginning? Excellent question. I don’t have a good answer for it. Only that I was lazy and didn’t know what I was doing on my first game project.

Trying to understand how to improve the overall experience, I play-tested the game again at the Perth Games Festival – to a much better reception too. I’d gotten better at validating the things players did and didn’t like. I was finally beginning to get into the swing of things.

It was around this time I began taking an interest in product management. This entire time I’d been operating as a one-man, self-managed development team. I picked out a copy of Marty Cagan’s ‘Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love’ from the HealthEngine library. The words resonated with me and I began to see the methodology to deal with the apparent chaos I’d been swimming through.

Every mistake along the way that seemed so inevitable has been all too avoidable – if I only knew. I regret a lot of my decisions but I LOVE the regret. The regret reinforces the lessons for me (masochistic – I know) so that I avoid them in the future.

Flash forward to now: Vectonic has been has been released on Steam. You can check it out here. It’s cheap and really fun – so get amongst it!

As for me, I’ve gotten better versed with the principles of product management by watching the way product managers at HealthEngine work and with first-hand experience at events like the HealthEngine Hackathon and the Global Game Jam.

For those interested: I made a small game called Worf Worf’s Wild Walk for Valentine’s day that’s free to download here. I made it inside of a weekend with the goal of making a minimum viable game. Also with a rapidly prototyped soundtrack, I had fun performing live for my play-tester.

Written by Bob Hayden, Developer

We’re hiring! If you think you have what it takes to work at HealthEngine, hit us up.