Email dredging: Cutting polish and nonlinear results

This is part of an email I wrote to audio expert Alistair Lindsay about creative styles. I was trying to make clear my attitudes and methods on the creative process, and how they might differ from the traditional methods. After writing it, I figured it might have some value to others as well. So here it is, in it’s fully barely-edited glory. This isn’t a complete article or exploration of the subject, but I hope it may have some value to someone.

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I want to build Ludeon with a culture that follows a set of development principles and processes that I think will give it a distinct advantage. These ways of working and thinking and prioritizing and seeking creative success are different from the standard. They’re ideas I developed while working, researching cognition and creativity, and writing my book. You’ll be one of the first besides me to work with these concepts, so it’ll be interesting to see how other people take to them besides myself. I look forward to adapting it all for a team instead of for just me :)

I hope you aren’t bothered by me pushing you to work a bit differently than you might be used to. This will include asking you to find ways to cut corners and skip work where possible, and to ruthlessly prioritize down that which isn’t necessary. However, please understand that this isn’t a cost-cutting measure – it’s a methodology geared towards maximizing the final play experience given the time we put in. Let me explain.

It’s my strong belief that in games dev, speed is quality. This seems counter-intuitive, and it certainly flies in the face of traditional thought. But hear me out! 

It goes like this: the faster you can make progress, the more iterations you can do. The more iterations you can do, the better the game – but in a way very different from the improvement wrought by polishing individual assets. Speed is quantity, and quantity is quality - The more stuff you put out, the more the likelihood that one part of it will turn out to be really, really important and good.

Most stuff we do isn’t that important, really – I really think the final experience often comes down to just a few key pieces or insights. In BioShock, it was the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies, both of which were random artistic brainfarts pulled from a giant pile of random brainfarts. But those particular brainfarts turned out to be the foundations of a franchise!

When 1% of your work makes more money than the other 99% combined, there’s a highly non-linear relationship between time spent and the return you get. How long did it take Robb Waters to draw the first Little Sister concept piece (which is what created the idea of the Little Sisters)? I asked him – he said about 10 minutes. How much less money would Take Two have made if he had spent those 10 minutes polishing some other piece of art instead? Maybe $100 million . So what was Robb’s productivity per hour during those ten minutes? Over a $500 million dollars an hour! What was his productivity during the days he spent drawing things that got thrown out? Zero!

So this non-linearity is really important. It’s hard to grapple with and it defies normal concepts of measuring productivity and effort. But I think it’s worth focusing on.

Another example – we all know that most indie games make no money but a few are huge hits. All that really matters is getting in that hit category. And what’s the best way to do that? I don’t think the answer is “polish”. It think it’s “experiment”. Experiment a lot until you get lucky. Which is what I did with RimWorld - remember, I made 5 other prototype games (in two months each, cutting every corner possible) before hitting one that really worked. If I had been all about polish, I would be trying to perfect a fundamentally dysfunctional music-driven tower defense game. Depressing!

Basically, I’m saying that in a lot of ways, perfecting and polishing things isn’t what matters most. Especially in indie. None of us indie devs have the money to spend making things perfect like an AAA game. That’s not our advantage. Our advantage is agility and lack of corporate cultural encumbrance. It’s the ability to change direction fast, to try lots of crazy ideas and take risks. And very occasionally, one of those ideas turns out to be incredibly powerful.

I find it exciting. I hope you do too!

So back to how this is relevant to you. When you’re working on RW, you’re contribution isn’t just in doing the things you’re doing. It’s also in helping us in the process of seeking those things to do that have outsize impact in the market. We’re indie people – we can’t win the polish wars against EA and Ubisoft and all these other AAA studios. We need to do what we can do well, which is explore, be different, try and fail, be creative, express ourselves and hope people like us.

Yes, the game should look and sound good; it should be clear what’s happening; it should be enjoyable to experience audiovisually and have some fun touches and details. But the sounds you make that will really, really matter are those 1-10% of your work that will really stand out, that really change the experience, that really add something new, that people talk about afterward. It’s the Telecaster guitar riff from the trailer – never heard it in a video game, incredible! Honestly, when it comes to the Kickstarter, I think that riff could have been worth like 30 grand. It was a stroke of genius, hitting so many creative goals perfectly at the same time – the cultural connections it draws, its combined uniqueness and recognizability, the perfect emotional pump-up for the oncoming trailer.

So in the end, what I really want from you is not so much nine variants of meticulously perfected sounds for the muffalo which add some subconscious perception of quality to the product. I’m not playing that game against the AAA guys; it’s not one I can win and honestly I don’t find it very interesting. What I really want is the incredible cybernetic menu intro sound, the haunting guitar rhythm that touches your heart just right as a colonist starves, the weird machine noise language that expresses machine personality. I don’t know what you’ll come up with, or which of them will really work (that’s impossible to predict), but these are examples of things that really could become blowout creative successes. And it’s my belief that the best way to find those things is to work fast, save time, experiment, and ruthlessly and constantly prioritize.

So that got really long. Sorry I couldn’t make it shorter :) I admire you if you’ve even read this far. But I hope this continues to help flesh our your understanding of where I’m coming from creatively, especially in terms of methodology.

Also be aware that I have counterarguments in favor of polish I could apply here. I’m weighting my opinion in this direction as a way of communicating my thoughts to you most clearly. Also it’s 2:30am :P And responses including disagreement are welcome.

In case you care to look, the most influential book for me on this subject was probably The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb; I highly recommend it.

Designing Games and the heritage industry

Today I learned what the “heritage industry” is. And you can too, if you take a look a these two articles by heritage expert Matthew Tyler-Jones bouncing ideas out of Designing Games.

I do think there’s great value in cross-discipline pollination of ideas. Some people call it the Medici Effect – the observation that really groundbreaking thoughts come at the interface of fields that you didn’t think were related.

I wrote a response in comment to his second post.

Ludeon Studios is born

I’ve been working on an indie project called Eclipse Colony for a while now. I’ve just started creating a studio identity to attach it to. It is Ludeon Studios.

LudeonLogoOrange

Currently, the company is just me. And it’s a stretch to even call it a company, since I still need to do the business paperwork of registering it as such. But it feels good to have hit a point where this old vague dream is finally coming half-alive.

And again, as with the book, I did a lot of pyjama work on the product before I even started working on the business chassis to surround it. This time, however, I’m getting to making a public face earlier because I want to get the publicity ball rolling.

I plan on having a playable version of Eclipse Colony ready soon. We’ve had a few playtests that went very well. In one, a couple testers played for three hours straight and wouldn’t stop until 3am. The game is still full of problems, but I have a pretty good feeling about Eclipse Colony so far.

Check out the studio and the game.

On Game Trading

Since this issue is big right now, I’ll just weigh in.

Negative-Sum

Forget about money for a second and focus on the physical reality.

Used game trading is a massively negative-sum economic activity. All those trading shops have to be built and staffed. People have to travel there and back. People have to spend mental effort to hunt around for games at low prices in an opaque market.

Simply transmitting all the games over the Internet, with a universal and transparent pricing model, would be massively less costly in real wealth, physical resources and human time.

Twisting Design

Second, note how much used games twist design goals. I don’t like having to muck around with my design to make it monetizable, or freemium, or to make it into a long grind so people won’t trade it in.

Freely-traded used games mean that long-grind games like WoW bring 100% of the profits to the developer (since there is no trading), while short-but-awesome games like Portal and BioShock bring only a small fraction of the profits to the developer (since huge numbers of copies will be traded around, suppressing demand for the new copies). The end result is huge economic pressure away from short, rich games towards all this other stuff.

I’d rather the only pressures game designers were worried about was making a better game. Because this economic twisting effect is seriously affecting how we design our games, and not in a good way. I want more short, rich games.

We Already Live Without It

Funny thing is, we’ve had a trade-less online distribution system for years. It’s called Steam, and it works very well.

And Steam sales demonstrate quite clearly how low new (though not just-released) game prices can go in a transparent market that’s not being flooded by dirty dusty scratched copies of games from a store on the corner.

There’s no reason to make a console phone home every 24 hours, like the Xbox One does. But I really do wish game trading would go away. I think we’d all benefit in the end.

The Simulation Dream

This article is a written version of a talk I delivered at Ottawa International Game Conference on June 1 2013. I also posted it on Gamasutra where it got some good discussion, and designer Jiwon Ryu of Nexon translated it into Korean.

 

There’s an old dream in game design. It drives the design of games like SimCity, Dwarf Fortress, Tropico, The Sims, and Prison Architect. I like to call it the Simulation Dream.

In 1996, Starr Long, the associate producer of Ultima Online, talked about the game before release:

“Nearly everything in the world, from grass to goblins, has a purpose, and not just as cannon fodder either. The ‘virtual ecology’ affects nearly every aspect of the game world, from the very small to the very large. If the rabbit population suddenly drops (because some gung-ho adventurer was trying out his new mace) then wolves may have to find different food sources (e.g., deer). When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he’s accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities.”

That’s the Simulation Dream – the idea of making a complex simulation of a story world, which creates fascinating emergent stories as powerful as those you might write yourself. The idea bursts with potential. And it appears everywhere. Early in the development of BioShock, that game had an ecology too. There were three parts to it. Splicers would hunt Gatherers, who were in turn guarded by Protectors. The player was supposed to interact with and manipulate this ecology to survive.

But these dreams shattered. After its release, Richard Garriott said of Ultima Online:

Continue reading

The Design Landscape

This post has more comments on its Gamasutra version.

We usually think of game design as a process of creation where a designer conceives a game in their mind and projects it into the world. In this article, I propose an alternative metaphor. What if design isn’t a process of creation at all? What if it is a process of exploration?

The Library of Babel

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 story The Library of Babel describes a universe that consists of nothing but a gigantic library. This library contains all possible 410-page books. This means that somewhere in its near-infinite stacks one can find a book holding every combination of characters that can fill a 410 pages. It holds a book that is 410 pages of nothing but the letter a. It also contains a book that is all a’s except the last letter, which is b. And so on through every combination of letters. Continue reading