Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Catalog of Excuses

- or -

Why You Cannot Be An Independent Game Designer

Here are the "reasons" the game industry tells you why a game design document cannot be written by an independent, free agent designer and then sold as such...

You Become A Utility, And Your Value Becomes Diminished Significantly
This excuse is exactly what the principle of Silicon Knights, Dennis Dyack, said recently. According to Dyack, if you become a free agent game designer, you become reduced to "a commodity".

This one makes me laugh. It reminds me of the old-school industrial executives who implemented the Workers Compensations Acts we see in various countries, ostensibly to "protect employees" after suffering workplace injuries: these acts were made mainly to prevent workers from suing their employers.

Pray tell, Mr Dyack, are your internal designers not already commodities? Or do they work purely for charity?

The fact is, at some level, we are all commodities. We are all objectified at some point or time. When you get into many professions - indeed many facets of life - the question of when one is objectified and when not is complex. But you can't just paint it black and flush it down the toilet. Any great artist, for example, makes a work that is transparent in its execution and speaks from their non-objectified humanity - and yet executes it as an object-like creator: like a machine (i.e. using skill, knowing tools, code or grammar or math, calculating effects, manipulating light, color or mood, and so on). Martin Buber wrote an entire book on this, I and Thou.

Personally, if I'm going to be a commodity (i.e. a worker getting paid to produce x-number of pages having y-quality in the form of a design document), I would rather prefer to be in control of my own destiny thank you. I appreciate your concern for me Mr Dyack, but you can let me off my leash now. (I think the statement says more about your fear I may discover my own freedom - and, God forbid, not be your peon any more - than your concern I may [gasp] be objectified.)

Ideas Are A Dime A Dozen
There is legitimacy behind this excuse, but more than likely it is a cover for fear or laziness.

Legitimately, many gamedev professionals are confronted by bug-eyed, enthusiastic noobs who like to play a lot of games but have no idea what it takes to make a realistic piece of software. That is when this reason is not an excuse.

However, this said if you are in any entertainment business - like the game one - you know your lifeblood is hit-based. A "hit" is not the middle of the bell-curve - it is an outlier: that little one in a million thingy at the far end of the graph. (See I know what an outlier is because I'm a game designer and know a lot about probability.)

Now, since you need hits to survive, your job is to find them - meaning your job is to find outliers. Therefore, your job is to roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and actually sift through those thousands of dime-a-dozen ideas actually looking for the one that is a diamond. This may seem like too much work, and it may hurt your little brain and make you sweat, but really it is done in other industries all the time. Time to get your hands dirty.

A corollary to this excuse is as follows: If a person with a professional and realistic demeanour - a person who speaks clearly, writes well and so forth - tells you they have a great idea for a game, and it is written up in a well-crafted and -organized design document - you are incompetent if you have not made a process to vet that idea/design.

A Design Document Does Not Tell Us You Can Execute

Actually, a design document can anticipate many gameplay and development issues that may arise. So you can't really stand behind this excuse. If it is written well, by and large you may assume its author can indeed execute.

And if the concern is that by looking at a designer who is not attached at the hip to a team, that too is not an issue. Hiring teams, finding middleware is not an issue. Just buy out the designer, take away control (though reward him handsomely, offer him a job, and reward him for any sequels you will make), and you will not need to worry about execution. You can build the company that needs to execute the game. What's important is whether the design works or not.

We Don't Believe In The Genius Game Designer
This one is widespread, but it was recently stated by Alex Seropian. It's hard to criticize Mr Seropian - after all, Wideload Games has done us all great help by introducing into game development the core-team/outsourcing model familiar to film production (which, thankfully, gets us away from the bloated 100-person internal game development studio model... and all its problems [cough - sequels - cough cough]).

However, I just have to ask Mr Seropian where he gets his information from? How does he know that genius does not exist? Has he done an exhaustive survey? Has God reported this to him - presumably in a white light vision: "Alex, rest assured - there are no game design geniuses, so you aren't missing anything..." I would point out that much of the Western world is founded on the premise that genius exists, and the acts of those geniuses spanning back centuries. I'm not claiming I am a genius, but for God's sake... don't you think it's worth it to figure out if that assumption is true before making such a shotgun claim? How, indeed, do you know what you're missing?

This is particularly ironic when we learn that Sid Meier wrote Civilization essentially as a lone genius game designer - which has come out recently: "Meier remained remarkably private about Civilization during the early development process. 'He rarely let anyone else play the games until he thought they were pretty solid,' says [Bruce] Shelley. For months, [assistant designer] Shelley was the only person allowed to see prototypes of Civilization in action. Other MicroProse employees commonly visited Shelley's office to bug him about the duo's current project, pestering him not to be stingy with the latest Sid Meier masterpiece; they were anxious to try it out themselves."

Someone should have informed Sid that he was not allowed to be a game design genius. (Thank God they didn't.)

I suspect that what this excuse really amounts to is the following insecurity one may imagine in the form of soliloquy: "I have laid awake at night and realized that when I took the full stock of myself as a game designer, I saw competence, experience, some talent for making things fairly fun - but I did not really see a truly truly deep vision for what a game could be. So when I hear of others who claim to have such a vision - who claim to possess it and badger me about looking at it - it frightens me. I don't like to be frightened, so instead of facing that fear I will refute their claim and live happily in the bliss of my ignorance. Besides, they're only games after all..."

Man, Don't Talk About It - Just Do It
Well... First, we aren't all programmers (though it's invaluable to know at least the basics of programming). And even if we were, having a programming mentality might actually impinge our ability to come up with something original (like, say, a game that explores a complex facet of human life [something a generalist designer would focus on], rather than a challenging series of puzzles or something technology-driven [what a programmer would be drawn to]...).

Second, this is just a circular argument. A person stands up and says "we can do things better". Your response is "man, just do it the way it's always been done". It's pointless. It would be better for you to simply not say anything, because there are enough dismissive spirits out there that have moss growing on them. Get outta my way, man! I have a vision for a design but no interest in:
  • Programming it all on my own (again, I'm not a programmer);
  • Trying to convince a group of indie developers - typically a cluster of post-adolescents - to work for free for a year or more to build the proverbial "vertical slice" of a game to pitch to publishers. If the design vision survives such a hazing I would be surprised. Not to say a design shouldn't change as it undergoes prototyping, but the indie-team vertical slicing process - with too many chiefs not enough braves - can take an idea for a new bicycle and transmute it into a "canoe with wheels" pretty damn quick.
In the end, you say a game design cannot stem from an individually-developed concept and I say it can. So we disagree. But I have the stronger position. Why? People who say something cannot be done without really investigating it are usually proved wrong. History has shown that.

If you drop off a design document, you've only done 5% of the design work involved in making that idea a good game, and it's the easy 5%
This excuse comes from one of the comments to this very blog entry. What's ironic about it is that the commenter is oblivious to the limitation of their own understanding of brilliance or genius.

Genius is not a brute force quality. You cannot measure it by how much suffering it undergoes to get something done. No. You measure it for what it does. In fact, if it does it effortlessly, then it is all the more brilliant.

Let me put it another way. If you are hunting and going to shoot a dinosaur with a rifle, maybe 1% of the energy involved will be that expended by your body to hold and aim the rifle at the target. The other 99% will be from the shell as it explodes and sends the bullet forward with enough kinetic energy to make the kill. This said, a cynic with limited imagination would conclude that the energy spent to actually aim the rifle is really insignificant since, if you measure it, it's minuscule compared to the energy needed to kill the dinosaur. Well... it may be a small proportion to a bean counter, but it is in how that small proportion is spent that makes the difference between a year's supply of dino steaks and just firing off into space.

Translation: A cynic knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.

If you cannot understand why the initial spark of a concept and the first blueprints that will set the direction of a venture true are so incredibly crucial... well... I think nothing I can say will help you see.

The Average Publisher Gets Far Too Many Submissions
A variant on the Ideas Are A Dime A Dozen excuse, above. All you are telling me here is that it would be too hard. That if you actually "let the floodgates open" - if you actually accepted submissions of independent design documents from lone designers (or small teams) - there would be too many to go through.

Because you can't let the proverbial floodgates open, you use the arbitrary excluder of forcing design submissions to be advanced to the form of a vertical slice (which I have written on elsewhere). Again, an arbitrary hurdle thrown up not to find better designs, but merely to "cull the herd" of incoming ideas that come your way.

Well... You make money. In the film industry they have an entire system in place to get a screenplay from a lone writer's desk all the way to a finished piece of celluloid. There are agents, there are the readers of studios, often screenplays are adapted from novels, plays, magazine articles and so forth. All of these things are vetting mechanisms that don't require the screenwriter go out and shoot the first 30 minutes of his science-fiction action movie. I'm sure you can come up with something equal to that.

How Would You Feel If You Made A Game Company And Then Some Outsider Asked You To Look At A Design?
During a long, brawl of an IGDA thread someone asked me this (to paraphrase): How would you feel if you made a game company but then some guy from outside approached and asked if you would take a look at his game idea?

My answer is simple: If that guy has a better design than anyone inside my company I would feel grateful and lucky.

(What is normally said is any game company already has a roster of ideas it wants to make, so won't consider an outsider's. It's a non-reason, but a popular non-reason.)

However, I don't propose game designers pitch designs to game companies anyway. Instead, I propose that design agents appear, these agents package independent designs, sell them to funders, and that a company be built around said greenlit game design; a company that will later be sold lock-stock-and-barrel to a marketing entity (probably a publisher) - less (hefty) fees for the designer and (outsourced) developers, and fees to exercise ancillary rights and so on (should the design be turned into a sequel, movie, T-shirts, etc).

Design Is A Team Process
So what? Film is also a team process; a helluva lot more so than games. (Ever been on a cold location on the 14th hour of production? With a dangerous stunt about to be executed? That makes game development "collaboration" look like kindergarten my friend.) And yet screenwriters are able to independently sell screenplays. Screenplays which are shaped by other creators - the director, actors, art director, cinematographer, etc - to ultimately make the final film. And yet filmmakers are not tied together in the arbitrary collectivist team - stuck together for years making the same games over and over; and the leads get their names on the box.

Certainly there is nothing to say that a design document, once drawn up and sold, could not then be altered as the other important parties - art director, producer, lead programmer and so on - become involved.

Get over yourself. You're just scared.

You Need To Work Up From Within A Company
As in, if you want to be a game designer you need to get work with an existing game company, work there for a few years to get yourself established, and then propose a game.

This excuse diverts attention away from the matter at hand - the actual game design you wish to propose - and focuses it on you, the designer. It assumes, basically, that the purpose of a game design is to be a stepping stone for a person to become a game designer - rather than to be realized for its own sake.

This excuse has a careerist outlook and is ultimately cynical and rigid. Holders of this position cannot comprehend that a game design might need to be executed (and then turned into a game) - let alone that it could, say, actually change people's lives. To do so would require them to open their minds too much. No. Game design is just a means to power, money and fame. Sad.

If you or I are struck by a vision to make a really revolutionary game, trying to fit said vision inside this careerist box is going to be painful. Since this view's proponent automatically assumes designs in and of themselves are worth little (it's the designer that counts), you will have to let your design gather dust on a shelf for years while you build up credentials. And then, when you finally have time to revisit your design, everything may have changed. The timeliness of it may have passed (your design may have contained genuine commentary on current events, for example); your passion for it may have faded; the company you chose to work for now may be "looking for" a certain type of game that your design does not fit... Any number of things.

David Mamet said (to paraphrase) the ruination of many writers is that they think of themselves as writers. Then he draws a comparison to being a chairmaker. When you are a chairmaker, you don't sit around naval-gazing and thinking "Wow, I'm a chairmaker." No. You make chairs. If the chairs get better then you, by inference, are a better chairmaker. But the point is to focus on the chairs, not on yourself.

If you are a game designer you write designs. Designs to get made. What you need to focus on is those designs. This is precisely what book authors do, what filmmakers do, what architects do - they focus on the product. Yes, there are career elements (like you'll need to get work to support yourself while you write your design), but there is never a rule set by God in stone that young upstarts must serve x-number of years before they are allowed to reveal the work they have done. If there is, it needs to be torn down because it's destructive and it throws up barriers to the real prize - which is finding original design concepts, writing them, getting them made and in front of players.

You're Just Bitter
An ad hominem cop-out. Address my points, if you can - don't throw mud at me, personally.

And let's say I am bitter. So what? You know there was a time African Americans felt bitter (or internalized that bitterness to crippling depression) because the population at large simply assumed they were sub-human property. They wanted to be let out of the mental cage those with power had put them into, so as to gain their freedom. Would you dismiss their claims with a flippant "You're just bitter" remark? Look at the issues, not the mood of the speaker.

That is an extreme example - and I'm not saying that I'm a slave - but on the other hand, when you go to the trouble to write a damn good design, but nobody will (seriously) look at it - not because it's bad, but just because, arbitrarily it isn't done that way - you start to feel the air leave your lungs; you start to feel yourself suffocate. Like that character at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, who sees the world falling apart around him but, more so, the blindness of others to the threat. Archibald MacLeish said the duty of a poet is speak their poem before it rises as a cry in the throat. He acknowledges a great truth: that the passion and vision of a (potential) creator, if disowned or imprisoned, will turn inward and rip its owner apart. Why would the same not be true of game designers? Is it not a creative occupation? If it is, will its creators not begin to feel their voices rise into a bitter cry when their destinies are effectively controlled by cynical bean-counters who couldn't give a damn about getting something out there that needs to be gotten out, but only in cranking out formula?

This Argument Is The Toilet
Over on IGDA I got into an argument about this and felt the wrath of many being dumped on me. But I stuck it out. Someone asked why the thread hadn't been locked. The admin said it hadn't because every discussion place needs somewhere to dump its shit, then declared that this thread is a toilet.

Okay, it is a toilet. But it's through the absolute shit of life you sometimes need to go.

It's telling to call this debate a toilet. It acknowledges the darkness of feelings some have around this topic. I often wonder why, when I repeatedly call for the liberation of game designers - for a world where a game designer gets to have his name on the box (even if he isn't a Sid Meier); where he gets to sell a design and earn money for it and for its sequels and its spin-offs - that people dump shit on me. However, looking over history and psychology it's really not such a surprise. If you smash the master's house and set the slaves free, the slaves might often hate you more than love you. You offer them freedom, but freedom - as Erich Fromm tells us - is damn terrifying. So terrifying, people may set upon the liberator rather than face the frightening unknown freedom offers.

That's the toilet: that terrifying unknown.

I call for the freedom of game designers. The freedom for them to work and be known as individuals, their name always on the box. To be able to work out a design on their own, get an agent on their own to package and sell said design directly to a publisher (not as part of a game company), and to follow their creativity to its ends (instead of seeing themselves as merely a part of a larger herd known as a "team" or a "game company", always serving the top-down command of some high-up financial executive who knows little if anything about games). And I get shit on for doing so.

The toilet is there. But it's your toilet, not mine. If this world comes into being, you now must face the possibility that maybe you don't have the talent to be the game designer. That the bar may raise so high that games of today become laughably stupid to gamers ten years from now - much the way we chuckle at old films that, in their time, were viewed as high art.

It's your toilet. To stare into that shit - into that monster. To look into its teeth. If this world comes true, you know that simply serving time and building up seniority and "experience" will not disguise your mediocre talent from the world and let you design the game you dream to. Is your design talent mediocre? I have no idea. Is it scary to think it might be? Absolutely. But it's a fear that must be faced.

I think that people sense I believe very strongly in my own talent. Otherwise why would I so vehemently insist over and over again that we get the ability to open up the game and let individuals sell designs. Obviously I have designs I want to sell and I believe they are damn good. Recognizing the basic violence in the impulse of mimetic desire, I know this will draw hatred onto me. That others may perceive in me something they do not have, and will hate me for that. The dynamic of mimetic desire has been that forever. That's why I am adamant that I must remain anonymous. I don't want to become a scapegoat (which, in terms of my professional life, would amount to being blacklisted and effectively forbidden from working in game design - it may be a confining labyrinth, but I have to make a living).

Yes, I seek to free up the playing field for myself. But if one person frees it, it will become free for all of us.

All that has to happen is one person sell a design document independently. Once that happens, the whole structure will crumble and reform itself. You're a game designer (I assume). You must then know something of probability. What do you think the probability is that a designer will sell a design document as a free agent in the next, say, two to five years? Ten percent perhaps? And then in the years after that? You must know that if you keep rolling a ten-sided die over and over again, you will eventually roll a "1". It will happen. It's just a matter of time.

I think maybe you can see where I'm going. It's inevitable. Some day someone will do this. There are already sites like that are appearing for this very reason. Someone will sell a design alone, and then designers will become free agents and the crusted framework of game companies will come apart at the seams - the entire way games are made permanently altered. All it takes is one person to sell one design document and that will happen. Sooner or later that will happen. And deep down you know it. Then, no longer having the comfort of melding into a team of buddies and building up experience you will have to face the reality of your own talent as a designer.

Do you have what it takes?

That's the toilet. It's your fear. Face it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why The "Vertical Slice" Is Bad

I have heard that typical comment by publishers, "Hey make a demo if you want us to consider a new game idea."

Unfortunately, it serves the opposite effect. It hinders innovation. Not only that, it is needlessly harmful to young developers who need to be told that their game idea is not going to fly.

What would facilitate innovation is to begin talking at a much earlier stage - say with a written document - rather than waiting until an idea or design gets crystallized into something that just won't work or was never wanted to begin with.

You don't turn an architect away if they only have a blueprint, saying "How come you haven't actually built 20 per cent of your building for me to make a decision". No. You look at the actual blueprint, and any physical mock-ups, and then you say "yes" (to a next round of design) or (more likely) "no" - allowing the architect to go back to the blueprint, abandon the project, or (if yes) get onto the business of doing the remaining blueprints and hiring a construction company, interior designer, landscaper (etc) to get it made in a rational manner.

If you require people to make the infamous "vertical slice" of a game, what kind of an effect is that going to have on their design?

First, it is wasteful. It's one thing to get a "no" after a written document; but to, say, spend five years making (for example) a pirate game demo on your own then having a publisher say "Sorry, we already have a pirate game in the works" - thereby dismissing your product without even considering it - is just stupid. I mean, if you are going to apply for university, do you move to the university before sending in an application?

Second, it forces a demo team to use existing game technology. However, their concept may require new technology.

Third, if they are getting a team together to do a vertical slice the original concept now goes through a hazing process: it has to be sold to a crew of programmers, artists and so on, who want to work on it, who will want to change it, and certainly certainly are NOT going to spend a year or more making a demo for free on something really risky (translation: unless your concept already looks like an existing game out there [maybe with one extra doodad added to it], they probably won't get involved).

Fourth, making a demo is not a test of game design - it's a test of productions skills. Very often investors in games ask, "Can this company produce this game?" That should not be a question anywhere on the radar. Does a producer ask, "Can this screenwriter use a camera?" No. Does a corporate president or a mayor ask "Can this architect operate a crane?" No. The focus needs to be on design.

Fifth, by giving investors/publishers demos, they begin to think that game design somehow starts with the demo - that it magically appears out of nowhere. Translation: we make them stupid and lazy, because they don't have to hurt their brains trying to actually *imagine* something that is in a polymorphic state (such as a written design doc). We also make it seem that the innovation process is more akin to shopping than to what it really is. Innovation is not done with a shopping mentality - being presented with wares and then saying yes or no, picking and choosing among them. It necessarily requires imagination and visualization of its participants, and giving a demo skewers that. It makes the process and the publishers stupid. In the film industry, the producers (and stars and others who can greenlight a project) know that innovation doesn't start only after the cameras begin to roll - it starts at the very beginning: in the brain of the screenwriter. So they work directly with the screenwriter to get the script done right.

Sixth, no project should get ultimate funding to be made without a prototype first being made. That's what the demo is supposed to be - a prototype. However a far more effective way to do this is with what in other fields is a simple iterative R&D process. It simply makes more sense to expose concepts at an earlier stage, with a simpler prototype, like a tabletop or a design document. Eventually, you *will* make a vertical slice - but that should be done in tandem with a producer/publisher, not in some guessing-game process where the indie team has shot off on some direction and blindly hopes that what is made as an actual physical piece of code coincides with what a publisher wants.

In the end, the requirement for a working demo as a "price of entry" is just a cynical hazing ritual. It only occurs, sadly, because most game developers are quixotic and masochistic young men who almost fall over themselves to allow game publishers to utterly exploit them in a bug-eyed quest to become "paid to make games". (I have been paid to make games. Believe me, after you cross that line you usually start to notice that games are not really that much fun anymore - it is now a job.) Sadly, young men have a penchant for destroying themselves just to please their elders - they did it by the millions in World War One and they do it in their headlong quest to make publishers into passive wait-and-see types. The vertical slice does not make for a better game project - all it does is reinforce a culture of mindless action and sado-masochism over open communication (written or otherwise), a spirit of true innovation, and a sense of respect for others. Using a simpler means - like an early design doc or a very very early prototype (even tabletop) - to screen out projects that won't work, and accelerate ones that will, is a way to strengthen the innovation process, and reduce harm to the many whose game ideas will not fly.