Done is Better than Perfect


Note: A version of this post was originally posted to my personal blog: http://larsmartinson.com/done-is-better-than-perfect/

In 2003 I started work on an illustrated story that ultimately took me 13 years to finish. Dr. Darley and the Case of the De-boned Children, on the other hand, took me just one month.

To be fair, these two projects were pretty different. The 13-year one was a lengthy, three volume graphic novel, whereas Dr. Darley is a short visual novel [ YouTube link about visual novels ].

So I’ll admit I’m comparing apples to oranges. But on the other hand, in the time it took me to do the 13-year project, I could have hypothetically done more than 150 one-month projects. When I think of it in those terms, I consider it quite a staggering improvement in terms of productivity.

A number of factors contributed to me to completing it as quickly as I did, but what really sealed the deal was completely revamping my artistic approach on a fundamental level.

In the past, I had two goals in mind as I worked on projects:
1) Strive for the highest quality I could muster.
2) Finish it in a timely manner.

Needless to say, these two goals are at odds with each other. The longer you spend improving and refining, the less likely you are to meet a deadline. And in the past, I pretty much always allowed the first goal to trump the second.

And while we tend to idolize the uncompromising artiste, there’s a danger to that approach, especially if you’re a perfectionist. A danger that you might push the deadline back time and time again, and end up working on one thing for, cough, more than a decade. Whoops!

Which led me to the approach I adopted for Dr. Darley:
1) Finish it within a certain time frame (a month in this case)
2) Make it as good as I could with the time that I had.

Obviously it’s pretty similar to my previous approach, but with one important change: the priorities are reversed. For this new approach, finishing it by the deadline is what mattered most. Even if that meant resorting to stick figures and letting plot holes slide. Finishing it on time meant success, finishing it late meant failure.

So instead of striving for the impossible ideal of perfection, my first priority was to first finish something, anything, that could technically be considered “done”. That involved dashing out a clunky script and slapping together placeholder images, with characters being represented by blobs of color. I had that bare-bones version done in about 10 days. It was complete in that you could read it from beginning to end, but it was pretty awful.

The remaining 20 days were devoted to racing against the clock to try improve it as much as I could. This was an iterative process. I was constantly reevaluating what the weakest component was, devoting just a bit of time to improving it, and then finding the new weakest link and trying to improve that. I started by improving the art, so that each character was represented by a rough sketch rather than a blob. Then I did the same for the backgrounds. Then I returned my attention to the script, and tried to tighten that up a bit. Then the overall user interface. And then I returned to the characters to polish them up a bit. And so on and so forth.

Often I had to make tough choices. The original script called for two more locations than the final story has. But with the clock ticking, I asked myself: do I really need these, if drawing them will eat up two precious development days? I ultimately decided no, and reworked the script to omit them. In one case, I think the story would have been a little better with the extra location in tact, but in the other case, I thought my reworked version actually worked better.

Pretty much every aspect of this thing could be improved if I gave it another couple weeks. Probably the biggest flaw is there is literally no sound or music at all, which, I’ll admit, is a pretty big omission for a visual novel.

Maybe I’ll revisit it someday and make some of those improvements, but for now, in the spirit in which it was created, I’m content calling it "done". Or at least done enough to release in prototype form. Instead I’d like to move on to another project, and try to finish it in a similar time frame. Maybe I’ll give myself a little more time so I can add music and tweak a few things, but I still want to shoot for around a month in any event.

My short term goal is to finish a few projects in roughly the same amount of time, but to improve each one bit by bit. Then if I reach a point where I think these are ready for prime time, I might devote more time to one of them.

But even if I return to more lengthy ambitious projects, I like the idea of getting a rough, readable version done early on. I think that’s a good exercise to help define the scope, especially if you’re like me and tend to let projects spiral out of control.

Get Dr. Darley and the Case of the De-boned Children

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