dwlt.thinksOutLoud

On Time

If we are going to ask people, in the form of our products, in the form of the things we make, to spend their heartbeats—if we are going to ask them to spend their heartbeats on us, on our ideas, how can we be sure, far more sure than we are now, that they spend those heartbeats wisely?

What would feel arrogant to me would be asking you to spend 10 or 12 hours of your time a year watching my shit, and delivering something where we didn’t hold that time precious.

Genre Lineage

“Don’t follow in the footsteps of the ancient masters; seek what they sought.”

Matsuo Bashō

In my previous post, I made reference to films “quoting” other films, which made me think of some advice I’ve heard given to musicians several times: find out who your influences listened to; who influenced them? And then find out who influenced those influencers, tracing the lineage of your music.

The same should be true for game makers – what games influence you? Who made them? Who and what influenced those makers? What were they trying to achieve?

Doing so can be a vital way of understanding your genre, what you’re building on, what’s come before, and what you can make of it now: your own thing, with reference to what’s gone before.

Nostalgia Is Underrated

A comment I’ve often seen or heard from “gamers of a certain vintage” is something along the lines of “when I go back to the games of my youth, I’m always disappointed. Some things are best left with positive memories.

I certainly understand and have experienced that sentiment, but I also think it’s missing the point.

Watching the recent documentary on Jim Marshall and the invention of the iconic amp (Play It Loud), Pete Townsend talks about John Lee Hooker putting a mic inside the guitar to achieve distortion on a track called Devil’s Jump in ~1949. The recording of it isn’t what you’d call high fidelity, and I can’t imagine how the audience of the time reacted. It’s influence is undoubted, though, and I can understand that.

Similarly, the effects in movies will almost never have the same impact on today’s viewers compared with the original audience. For example, The Arrival of a Train, a 1 minute film of a train coming straight at the camera and the legend holding that the audience ran screaming for cover, or 1953’s The Thing from Another World – terrifying for the time, by all accounts, yet laughably tame by modern-day standards.

In Mark Cousins’ amazing documentary series The Story of Film, he regularly refers to newer films “quoting” scenes and imagery from older films. Compare the design of C3PO with Maria, the robot from Metropolis, or the entire end-scene of Reservoir Dogs taken almost shot-for-shot and action-for-action from an 80s Hong Kong movie.

Going back to games made 30 years ago and being “disappointed” shouldn’t be surprising, because you’re measuring them by the standards of today. Revisiting older games should be about inspiration, reminding yourself of those positive memories, and for figuring out how you can make games that make you feel that way again (or why the games you play now don’t make you feel that way).

Kindness

Paul Graham’s Mean People Fail:

It struck me recently how few of the most successful people I know are mean. There are exceptions, but remarkably few.

The essay reminded me of George Saunders’ convocation speech I’ve been meaning to post for ages (expanded on in Congratulations, by the way, I believe). Since it’s also his birthday today, I figured now was as good a time as any to do so:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Take It Out

My rule for designing a game is that anything I can take out of the game, I take out, as long as it doesn’t undermine the base part

Recent Reading

Troll Slayer, Rebecca Mead’s profile of Mary Beard in The New Yorker earlier this year:

“It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

Mary Beard

The Definitive History of The West Wing:

When we were doing the show our goal was nothing grander than to entertain you for however long we’d asked for your attention.

Aaron Sorkin

Steven Johnson (one of my favourite writers) interviewed Bill Gates about his foundation:

And so I think the idea that people are worried about problems, like climate change or terrorism or these challenges of the future, that’s okay. But boy, they really lose perspective of what’s happened over the last few hundred years. And how science and innovation have been a central factor of that.

This article is the best insight I’ve found into how VC for software companies works:

Unfortunately software startups have the opposite characteristics of what Tom Perkins taught the VC industry to look for. Software companies have relatively low technical risk and high market risk. You know the company could deliver its product. The question was would anyone want to buy it. As I said before, market risk is generally not worth taking, so the intelligent VCs had to change their business model.

Hepworth’s Law of Improvement

Saving this for future use, from David Hepworth (emphasis his):

There’s improvement, then there’s the kind of improvement which is recognised by the user and finally there’s the kind of improvement which is both recognised and valued by the user.

Blizzard’s Design Rules

With the news that Rob Pardo is leaving Blizzard, it reminded me I collected his “top ten” design rules from Blizzard at a talk he gave at GDC 2010 and never posted them. There are probably more detailed write-ups elsewhere, but here they are in bullet form:

  1. Gameplay First
    • Concentrate on the fun
    • Art, design, programming all in the service of fun
    • Design isn’t more important than others
  2. Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master
    • SImple mechanics to begin with
    • Easly play
    • Actually: easy to learn, almost impossible to master
    • Provide lots of depth
    • Trying to build depth first – harder and takes longers
      • Do multiplayer first, then singleplayer
      • Accessibility second
  3. What is the Fantasy?
    • What is the expectation?
    • Where is the fun in that?
  4. Make Everything Overpowered
    • Take everything to 11
    • Every unit, class should feel unstoppable
    • Doesn’t cost anything to make something epic
    • Applies to story and world too
    • Avoid balancing to mediocrity
    • Celebrate big differences in the game
  5. Concentrated Coolness
    • Make each feature the coolest, most concentrated expression of gameplay
    • Limited amount of complexity a player can process
      • eg vehicles ruined class system since you could use clas
      • StarCraft 2 has 16 units per race
        • Killed old units to introduce new units
  6. Play Don’t Tell
    • Play as much of the story as possible
    • Use text/voiceover/movies to enhance the story
      • eg 512 character limit on WoW quest descriptions
      • bad eg 2+ minute monologues in Diablo 2
  7. Make It A Bonus
    • Players respond better to incentives
    • Path of least resistance should be most fun
    • Don’t fight player psychology
      • eg “Inspect player message”
      • Randomness & progressive percentages build up (designed randomness)
  8. Control is King
    • Controls should be as responsive as possible
    • Sacrifice “cool” for better control
    • Players unlikely to complain about slightly bad controls
    • Done well becomes a key skill differentiator for players
  9. Tune It Up
    • Easy to do, hard to do well
    • Plan for tuning hooks
    • Know who you are tuning for and why
  10. Avoid the Grand Reveal
    • Check in often and get lots of feedback
    • Difficult to tell if an idea will work
    • Must be set up to fail
    • Iteration is critical to Blizzard dev process
    • “If you can’t build that culture, it won’t work”
    • “Want people to say ‘can you help me make this better’”
  11. Culture of Polish
    • Polish doesn’t happen at the end
    • Team gets to make their favourite game better
      • Make sure team loves the game
    • Cross section from other teams and preview players to feed back into the game
    • Every voice matters – Don’t ship until it’s ready

On a related note, Pardo also mentioned something called “Strike Teams”, which were also mentioned by Dustin Browder in this interview about Heroes of the Storm:

“We have a process here at Blizzard called a strike team where we get a bunch of people who are not on the game teams, well they’re not on the game team making the game,” Browder explained. Different people come into projects they’re not a direct part of, play through the content that has been created, and give their feedback.

“And it’s the most brutally honest experience you could possibly have in your life. They’ll just look at you point blank and say, ‘Well, you’re not gonna release this cause it sucks, right?’ I mean they’ll just tell you whatever.”

To me, that all sounds a bit like Pixar’s Brain Trust system. (Read Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. if you haven’t already.)

In Production

Last night, I attended a UKIE/Scottish Games Network session on the new tax credit system for those games things. The fact I ran away at the end is no reflection on the session itself, which was very informative, but more of the fact I wanted to go home.

Anyway, one thing that struck me was the terminology in use. Generally speaking, the industry talks about “games development” or about games being “in development”. That sounds fine, but the word used last night over and over was “production”, a word I’ve used in the past when trying to differentiate between prototyping/noodling and actually making a thing. I think more people should use the word “production” in this way, because the scheme interprets “development” as an exploratory phase, for example attempting to identify the viability of a mechanic – which explicitly isn’t allowed as part of your claim.

It sounds like a tiny technical pedantic detail, but it is on such tiny technical pedantic details things can fall through. It also puts things on a par with other industries (a film “in development” is not the same and equal to a film “in production”). So if you’re planning on using the scheme, be careful on how you word things in your supporting documentation. And it should make things clearer to people inside and outside the industry, which can only be good.

How Early Is Too Early?

Reading “Can Godus be fixed?” by Christian Donlan this morning on Eurogamer, a section of the last paragraph stood out:

In truth, it’s still hard to pin down what, if anything, 22Cans actually wants Godus to be. It’s probably often this way in development. Maybe a team really needs to “experiment, fail, and experiment again,” to quote Molyneux, even if that’s under the harsh, critical glare provided by hundreds of customers who have already paid up for the ride.

I haven’t followed Godus particularly closely (read: at all), but the above strikes me as a failure to manage expectations (on all sides). Reading the comments on the article further reinforces this, with some defending the current state of the game and others feeling like they’ve been cheated because they already paid up for it.

Finding the fun, particularly on an experimental or “reinvention” project, can be tricky, and can take a while. Even when you have strong reference points and a fairly clear idea of what your design pillars are, it can be tricky. The problem Godus seems to be having is that they’re building out infrastructure for the game before they’ve figured out what core play is.

At Vlambeer’s GDC session on their experience with Nuclear Throne last month, Rami mentioned that at one point on the stream they’d had to explain to viewers that they had to program what happened to bullets when they hit walls. To anyone involved in development, that seems like a silly thing to have to explain, but many people clearly have no idea how games are made.

Nuclear Throne looks to be a successfully managed Early Access project – it helps that Vlambeer had a game jam produced prototype (and arguably a stronger fanbase), but I also think the fact it’s fairly clear what Nuclear Throne is trying to be helps with audience expectation (subconsciously, at least). People know what they’re getting into and Vlambeer aren’t building foundational game engine bits because they’re using Game Maker. They had something that was fun from the very start of Early Access, so players can immediately see the potential and understand what the game is.

Godus on the other hand, has different expectations everywhere you look – some of the audience just want Populous 4, but that’s perhaps not what 22Cans are trying to achieve. Either way, it’s clear they’ve let people into the process far too early – it’s not obvious what they’re trying to achieve with the game when you play it, and as a result journalists and players are reacting poorly to it.

So it seems to me that Early Access (and equivalents) can be the right thing, but only at the right time. That right time varies from project to project. It will be interesting to see how Godus fares from here on in – is the reputational damage done at this stage irreparable, or can the project be salvaged?