Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Stifling Atmosphere of Game Development

My latest comment on Gamasutra - in response to responses where there is the view promoting the typical notion that all things in game development should be standardized (what a mouthful...).

I got an idea. How about trying to make the game industry less like a bureaucracy and more like an entertainment industry? One of the first things to do is stop being afraid that a person might not be a cog in your machine - looking, walking, talking and thinking like everyone else - and start being willing to look at their quality as a potential creator and take some chances on the unusual.

You want to know why all games look, smell, act, feel the same? Partly its because of the cult-like nature of game companies - with their focus on homogenized sameness.

Of course, if we did let go of the homogeneity thing, that would probably mean that (gasp) the game designers would demand their individual contributions be recognized - complete with their name on the box, a demand of a more substantial compensation, the ability to move from project to project as they (as opposed to their corporate masters) saw fit, and so forth.


Paul said...

I think I'm the "jackass" you're referring to. :) I believe you misunderstood my comment. My point is the sameness we already have is stifling creativity. "Studio A has a brutal programmer interview, so we should have one too." In the end, all of these studios interview based on how much math and code you have memorized. Rather than figuring out if you're a resourceful and creative problem solver, hard worker, and innovator that will work well with your company and the type of games you want to make. We're probably turning away the next Will Wright or Sid Meier just because he can't write a collision algorithm from scratch on a white board during an interview.

All of this comes about because I've been through the interview ringer a few times, worked for both large corporate and small indie studios. One of my inspirations for going independent and starting my own studio was to avoid the whole process. The other inspiration was how repressing and corporate working for someone else had become.

That said, standardization at certain levels will naturally happen and make sense to do so. Otherwise, we'd make a new programming language for every game we make. We'd reinvent how characters are modeled and animated for every game. Then who has time for innovation and creativity?

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Paul, well put. For that I will remove references to "jackass".

My only concern is the "standardization" bit. To me it is the whole drive toward standardization that creates this kind of "mono-think".

Anonymous said...

Um, no offense but why would you hire a coder that couldn't draw two circles on a whiteboard and tell you the criteria for whether or not they intersect in a logical manner? Same for 2 squares? Because that's 2 collision tests right there. I'd be very worried about an engine coder that couldn't do such a simple thing.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

I think, Anonymous, that Paul means that there is a difference between what you know and what you can imagine. Sure, there are probably lots of guys who are advanced coders - and competent, but do much brilliant stuff. However, if you spot a novice with imagination you might be better off going with him. He'll get the coding in time, but more important, he'll bring a sizzle others don't have.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what kind of "imagination" you think can come up with a better circle test than has been developed over zillions of games with collision.
Perhaps you could show me some innovative tests for 2 circles colliding that haven't been thought of before.
Games are new, geometry is not.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what kind of "imagination" you think can come up with a better circle test than has been developed over zillions of games with collision.
Perhaps you could show me some innovative tests for 2 circles colliding that haven't been thought of before.
Games are new, geometry is not.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, let me rephrase what I am getting at. People can be as imaginative as they like, but it is the ability to *deliver* the imaginative thing that seperates profits from dreams. Sure you can hire a coder that can't do collision and let him dream up cool stuff all day that he cannot implement it. If that's the case, either he will have to learn it, which is totally unknown if he even can, or you're going to hire someone who can. To completely dismiss knowledge and skills irrelevantwill put you in the position of never shipping.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...


What sells games is not that buddy can do a geometry test. You don't see "Brilliantly coded geometry testing!!!" on the game box. What sells games is a new slice of the human dream refashioned interactively - in a form we call a game.

The efficient geometry test is only the price of admission. Both a mediocre game and an excellent one may have stable tech behind them. After that what gets you to the winner's circle is the creative prophecy stuff.

I know you programmers must absolutely hate hearing that.

Anonymous said...

I think you seriously underestimate the work involved. Its easy to get excited about your "vision" but you must buckle down and do the work at some point.
The difference between knowing and not knowing is not a "bad answer" as opposed to an amazing answer, its having something vs. no solution at all.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

No, Anonymous, I don't underestimate the work involved. What I correctly understand is what the critical criteria are.

People don't buy work. They buy vision. You can hire workers. You can measure them, you can define them. You can put out ads to find them based on these criteria and accurately know what you are getting.

You can't hire visionaries. You can't hire true creativity. All you can do is hire people who come close and then hope they can do the job. Because true creation is not about replicating the past, cookie-cutter style - it's about doing the truly new. Creation is not a process of fitting the pegs into the slots. It's a matter of exploring; of creating new things out of thin air.

People with a machine-like attitude crush the most valuable life out of things, in their need to make them conform to external standards - to fit the cookie-cutter. We may require them to do the work, but they sure as hell should not be in charge of where we, as a society, go. Whether that society is game development or the larger world. (In the larger world we were giving the mechanical-thinkers free rein during the Cold War - guys like McNamara and so on - and they almost wiped us all out.)

Anonymous said...

Maybe you can explain your statement that you can't hire visionaries. I think there are alot of people that look at a company like Microsoft as a place that does exactly that.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...


I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

Are you having trouble communicating?

Son of Bryce said...

I understand exactly what Paul is talking about as I believe I've been discriminated in a job interview before because I didn't match the criteria on their "checklist" well enough. Despite them acknowledging the quality of my work.

I believe this has to do with a need to keep things standardized. To my knowledge, generally speaking, for a game to come together you have to have a team of 50 people that are highly skilled in one or two particular areas. That way you can build teams like Legos and still get a large project done fairly efficiently.

It's great if you can have a team like Valve -- smaller team where everyone has a variety of skillsets -- but how can that work on a larger corporate level? Your "Will Wrights" and "Sid Meiers" are gonna be hard to find so what are you gonna do with a bunch of average workers?

And to address what anonymous is talking about, there definitely has to be a balance. You need to have your hardcore excellent coders to get the job done. But in my experience, the better the programmer, the less creative they usually are. And lacking creativity in games is a definite no-no. Games have to be "fun" after all.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Yes, son of bryce, but your image of the development team assumes you are going into hardcore, fullblown production. If doing a small prototyping project,a "lego-block" team is unnecessary - and in fact, probably ill-suited to the task. That's how you get around that. Prototyping should NOT be about efficient production - it should be about learning and experimenting; it should be about trying to fail in interesting ways. And who cares, because you're burn rate is so small in a tiny little prototyping team. Once you get a good prototype together, that's when you roll out into your lego-block team - adding one block at a time to the organic beating heart of the original prototypers.

Anonymous said...

Valve is a great example, but they do not hire visionaries.
You have to have the skills to make what you come up with to work there.
It is that combination of design and tech skill that is making them successful.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Valve is more of a technology company than a game company. They have been making the same 2 games (Half Life and Team Fortress) for the past 10 years. Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Portal didn't even originate inside Valve. So to "have the skills to make what you come up with" pretty much means you're indoctrinated in seeing games one way - you'll always make the same thing over and over and over; always see games inside the same narrow box.

Also, if you've been listening to what I've been saying, you'll know that visionaries never want to be "hired" in the ordinary sense. They want to work on one project at a time (so they can pursue their creativity, wherever it leads), get credit for what they do (instead of being lumped in with a team in true socialist groupthink manner), and get a residual for their particular contribution.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that a signal characteristic of a visionary is that they want to work on one project at a time. Its just patently absurd.

I dislike playing this game that people that sit around and dream up cool ideas are "visionaries" and people that implement said cool idea are "worthless drones".

There is another name in the industry for people that sit around and come up with "really cool ideas" and don't have the foggiest idea what to do with them.

Valve is a tech company, rofl. Good one.
Done here.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Two people.

One comes up with boring ideas and can implement.

The other comes up with great ideas and can implement. However, he doesn't implement direct code, maps and so on - implements a blueprint which can be used by others to build the project. This kind of person is a generalist. In the film industry he is a director; in construction he is an architect.

It is nothing new. It is the game industry that is hung up that game design is about technological implementation (it is not - it is about understanding people and worldly processes and describing those with words and charts).

(By the way, you said that these people "sit around". I didn't. That's your shit, not mine.)

Anonymous said...

No, no. The shit is your blog. Deal with it.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

That's a non-response. You might as well have said "la-la-la-la, I can't hear you, la-la-la-la".

Scott Jon Siegel said...

"People don't buy work. They buy vision."

I don't believe for a second that that's true. Nobody buys vision. Vision is the equivalent of "good intentions," and we all know that good intentions don't mean a thing unless they can deliver (something about the road to somewhere being paved with them).

No, people buy product. Frankly, anyone can dream up visions for games, but it takes skill (and, yes, WORK) to take vision to a pragmatic level and turn it into something tangible.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

No, Mr Siegel, they do buy vision.

There are tons of games out there, done with expert craft, that are all deadly. Wow. Awesome graphics. So what? None of them have vision. They are all forgettable.

Yes, it is true you need execution, but you are in the camp that sets up a false dichotomy between vision and execution - that says "to hell with vision; we need execution". The reason why that is done is because vision is the hardest thing to judge - and if it's so hard to find, then it must be unfindable, right?

Well, it is findable. But it takes work. You have to roll up your sleeves and find it.

Charles said...

I guess my only question, and one I would hope you might address in a future blog post, is how we get from here to there?

Part of the reason you have these developers setting up small companies is that there needs to be some transition period. I feel like part of that is just making it possible for game designers to support themselves independently, even if it means being distracted by boring actuarial work.

When we grow a culture where it's simply expected that companies come to developers (instead of absorbing them, which is the predominate trend), then maybe we could think about a world in which game designers can move from project to project.

The fault then, might be with the developers, that they continue to choose money and stability instead of independence, more than with the suits.

Either way, I'd like to hear more about what you think about the near-term future.

Anonymous said...

I think its funny that you dis Valve for doing EXACTLY what you are after. Picking up quality game ideas and nurturing them.

Grassroots Gamemaster said...

Valve? What does Valve do? The same game over and over and over again. They've been on Gordon Freeman for 10 years now. HL2 frankly is the same damn game as HL - just different graphics. (I mean, for sure Valve develops good technology - but it's technology, not game design.)

And also, who is Valve? Where did Valve go to school? Did Valve have any bad experiences growing up that would have influenced the development of it's voice as a creator? You speak about an abstraction - like Valve - as if it is a person. But it isn't. It's just a company. What counts is the *creators*. Let's give the power to the creators.

Son of Bryce said...

Valve is a collection of creators. A team with a commitment to make the "same game" better -- according to your analysis.

I find it awkward that you have such a seemingly personal vendetta against Valve. Especially when it seems that they might be a company that actually exhibits ideas that you're trying to express.

The creators aren't limited to a label (ie animator animates, designer designs) and all team members have an active role and say in development. Also, Team Fortress 2 is a great example of them pushing to break free of the "homogenized sameness", which them taking big steps to create a first person shooter that doesn't "look, smell, act, feel the same". Maybe you can search for reason to diss the gameplay but the game simply has brilliant art direction. I would appreciate it if more companies took the effort to come up with non-generic Halo/Gears of Wars visual styles.

No, I don't know anybody at the company personally. I just admire the work. :)

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

Hey man, I don't have a vendetta against Valve. It wasn't me who brought them up. But by the same token I'm not going to say they are the best thing since sliced bread.

The whole idea that everyone "has a say" exactly indicates the problem with their approach. It's collectivist groupthink - an approach that ENSURES nothing brilliant, unusual and ultimately trend-setting will ever get made. Why? Simple. Somebody can come up with a brilliant but unusual idea but all it takes is one guy on the team to say "I don't get it", and it will get diluted back to the comfortably familiar. In other words, it's a prime way to take new cuisine and boil it down to hot dogs.

Valve does awesome tech, and really good shooters - but how many times do you have to go through a battle against grunts who mumble radio chatter to each other before you realize you've been here and done this a thousand times before? (Even if it really is a whole lot more pretty this time.)

Lion-Gv said...

I thought this might rile you up; it is an example of the entertainment industry acting like the game industry, so to speak:

Grassroots Gamemaster, said...

That's too bad, Lion. Hell, even Bambi made kids cry.