Monthly Archives: December 2013

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.

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.