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Anti-Design Philosophies, Part 1: Quantity Design
by Keith Burgun on 07/01/14 03:32:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

There are a few philosophical positions on game development that are, I would say, "anti-design". In this short series, I will go through a few of them. We'll begin with an article about what I call "the quantity design philosophy".

Recently there was a discussion on the Google+ development group for the game Hoplite. The creator, Doug Cowley, is making some improvements to the late-game and asking people for advice.

Then, sort of in the middle of the discussion, another game developer chimed in with:

"At some point you'll have to accept that it's impossible to make a perfect game and stop tweaking :) (Also, make more games!)"

This statement really angered me, precisely because it's such a common sentiment in the world of game development these days. Perfect can indeed be the enemy of the good, but really, who's even going for "perfect"? Are any games you've ever played in danger of being "perfect"? Perfect, in this context where a person is simply trying to do the right thing and improve their game, is a strawman.

Games Everywhere

First off, I don't even have to explain to you just how many new games are coming out every year. Not just AAA games, and not even commercial indie games. I'm also counting millions of hobbyist games that people post about on reddit or various other forums. The sheer number of new games is staggering.

And I also don't have to tell you that almost all of them provide no value to humans. Something like 0.001% of the new games that get made are interesting, deep, balanced things that a person can really dive into for even a day, let alone months or years.

Part of this is because there are more and more tools which make it easy to make games at all. By the way, that's a totally good thing. We want more people to be able to make games.

But we also want people to care if their games are actually good. Developers are asking us to take time out of our day, focus on their game, learn their rules, and sometimes even pay them money. That's all fine, but once we have done that, those developers owe it to us to give us something of real value.

The Philosophy of Quantity Design

So why are there so many crappy, half-baked games out there? There actually exists a philosophy of "quantity design". The quantity design philosophy goes a little bit like this:

"Make as many games as you can! Spend a week or two on a game, and then move on! You'll get really good at making games by doing this! Don't get hung up on working on the same game for a long time, that's a trap that will make you learn more slowly!"

I think the root of this philosophy is actually still a failure to understand that game design is a discipline. Indeed, starting and finishing projects every few months is probably pretty good, if you want to learn to be a better programmer, or if you want to learn to be a better general "game developer".

It's also easier, and probably more fun. Starting projects is really fun and exciting. Finishing projects is hard, but also exciting. Being stuck somewhere in the middle of a design process can feel like a "quagmire"; it's slow, annoying, and uncertain.

People also rightly fear that if they don't get it done RIGHT NOW, they never will. And often, this is even the case. Many times, they just won't finish the thing at all.

My counter-argument to that would be: sometimes, not finishing it is OK. In fact, if your game sucks (which again, covers most games), it's actually better if you don't release it to people and waste their time.

Further, to become a good game designer, you have to really struggle at trying to design a good game. And designing a good game is anything but easy. It will almost never take less than a year to design a good game, and usually it will take at least two, or three, or sometimes five. Sometimes ten, as is arguably what's happened with DotA and its newer versions.

The Debt

You're not entitled to people's time. And now that people have the internet at their fingertips at all time, that means you're even less entitled to their time. You're less entitled to people's time than ever before. This means that if you want to ask for some of their time, you really have to have given it your all. That's because these days, you're basically saying to them "hey, stop looking at THE INTERNET, and look at me instead!"

And then, once they have given it their time, you owe it to them to keep the game up to speed. If they find problems with it, fix the problems. If the gameplay is starting to become dull, find out why and fix that. If there are dominant strategies, rebalance it.

If you literally can't afford to do these things, then that is you FAILING to meet your responsibilities to the people who bought your game. Maybe you have some good reasons for why you failed, but you're still responsible, just as you'd be responsible if you owed someone $1,000 and for whatever reason couldn't pay it back. Sure, maybe you have a good reason for why you can't pay it back, but that doesn't mean you're not accountable.

Conclusion

I'm not trying to dissuade people from becoming a game designer. It is hard, but I think anyone who's interested should pursue it.

The thing is, if you're going to show people your stuff, you really have to make sure it's something special. You owe it to them. If you're pumping stuff out and expecting other people to care about what you're making, frankly, that makes you kind of a jerk.

There's nothing wrong with making games for practice, but if your goal is personal improvement, and not delivering value, then don't ask strangers to play.

The world doesn't need even one more generic, imbalanced, shallow or otherwise bad game. We do, however, need quality games. So if you're up to the challenge, and you have a concept that you believe in - go for it! Otherwise, quitting really isn't so bad.

In the next entry in this series, I will talk about what I call "Game Design Libertarianism". Stay tuned.


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Comments


David Cummins
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I have mixed feelings on your post. On the one hand I do feel deluged with crap games at times. I no longer even look at mobile app stores, they tire me. On the other hand I have never completed a game from start to finish. I have polished and ported other people's games, I have a graveyard of unfinished projects, but never something I could show to people as mine. I would be delighted to publish something, and I feel for anyone else who takes the express path just to get something out the door.

If anything I blame most the massive barely curated app stores that are so popular now. Imagine if you went to a movie theatre and each session was a different movie, most of them 15 minute home movies. Horrifying. The movie industry of course has it's own AAA problem, but let's ignore that for now...

What I truly hope is that anybody who tries to sell or promote a game would at least aim to make something that either has a unique twist or is very polished. Clones and no-concept games bore me to tears, and I hope that we can at least agree on that.

Keith Burgun
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"never completed a game from start to finish" seems like it should be "on the same hand" as "deluged with crap games", not on "the other hand".

Radegast Verizhnikov
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Yes. But you understand this after the fail or a lot of feedbacks from customers. When you make your own first game project you don't think about the quality or addictive gameplay. The only thing you want is global launch and first installs and payments. But it is vital only in mobile game dev. Attempts to release crap on pc or console are more expensive.I think there are no idiots who practices that.

Sam Stephens
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"And I also don't have to tell you that almost all of them provide no value to humans. Something like 0.001% of the new games that get made are interesting, deep, balanced things that a person can really dive into for even a day, let alone months or years."

I think this is a little harsh and dismissive. Sure, there are a good deal more bad games in a year than good ones, but I would never say they have "no value". I've never played a game that didn't do something right; that I didn't have fun with, or didn't teach me something about good game design. I get a lot of value out of just thinking about what a game did right or wrong. Likewise, even excellent games have design flaws that make them no less valuable. I know this is a design perspective to looking at games and most people don't think that way, but then what they value and consider good or bad is different from us anyways. The point is, games are valuable no matter how good or bad they are. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have well designed games though.

Keith Burgun
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If someone makes a game that is overall basically the same game as Fruit Ninja, but it's significantly worse, that thing has no value. Even if it has one or two merits in there, really, we already have Fruit Ninja, so this new "less good Fruit Ninja" is really delivering no value.

Sure, such a thing might have *academic* value, but *everything* has academic value. We're talking about value, as a game, for a player who wants to play a good game.

Charles Palmer
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I think if you'd said "no value to me" rather than hyperbolically "no value to humans" you'd be closer to the mark. There are lots of games, even some good ones which I deem of no value to me in comparison with the other things I want to do. Lots of people revel in things I find confusing or distasteful. It's part of life.

Further putting something out into the world is a lot more than most people manage and is almost essential for gathering feedback. Far from developers being responsible for your decision to play their game it's the other way around. Own your responsibility to make good decisions rather than being passive aggressive about people releasing things you weren't satisfied with.

Sam Stephens
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"If someone makes a game that is overall basically the same game as Fruit Ninja, but it's significantly worse, that thing has no value."

If a game is worse than Fruit Ninja, then obviously it does something differently than Fruit Ninja and therefore exists as it's own separate entity. It's like the Threes!, 1024, and 2048 case. All three games demonstrate the same basic concept. I believe one of them does it better than the other two. Yet, there are very clear differences between them that change how they play. So I don't see the redundancy between them. People play, enjoy, and pick up certain cognitive skills from all three games. If there's no value in that, then I guess games as a whole aren't very valuable to people.

Brandon Shelton
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I feel like this conversation is talking about two different things. I once played a demo for a game that was Missile Command, except it added all these minor things like being able to reload specific missile turrets and choose which turret fired your next missile. Those are quality changes to an established game idea which some people might like enough to pay for. But someone that makes a Missile Command clone and adds nothing to it? They probably shouldn't put that out there for the public to consume.

Charles Palmer
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Why not? There are other reasons than unique gamed design to share a game you've made with others. For example just demonstrating that you are capable of making it. The original article isn't just constrained to games people are trying to sell.

Ian Richard
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I hesitate to agree with you solely because quality is relative. Most of the games that our industry heralds as quality are ones that I refer to as crap... or you-know... a movie.

Most of the games that I enjoy playing are poorly rated by the average gamer. Many of my favorite's are rated between 60 and 75 on meta-critic. By industry "Standards" it's crap and "a terrible attempt for publishers to STEAL from us", but it better fits my needs as a gamer.

Besides, for someone who is learning to make a game, the cycle of make-release-get feedback is important. Even if they game they put out is crap to most people they can see how the players react and what they are looking for.

In a world of crappy bad games we don't need to stop making games... we learn from them. Demanding that only certain individuals can make games is quite frankly... being a jerk.

Ara Shirinian
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Keith, I get the impression that when the word 'perfect' is thrown around in the way you describe at the beginning, it is less of a case of a "strawman" strictly speaking and more of a case of most people unintentionally conflating the term 'perfect' with something that feels similar but is not quite the same thing.

I think looking from this perspective will make such sentiments less anger-inducing: The context of "perfect" here seems to be a stand-in to convey the idea that regardless of how far you have developed your game, you can always do one more thing to develop it a bit further, however increasingly precise or miniscule those things might be.

In a similar way, I have heard it phrased that you never really 'finish' a game, you only decide when and how to stop working on it. The same truth exists in the authorship of a lot of other creative media, but the infinities of game development are bigger than those of things like music or novels, if there can be such a thing.

Trent Dillon
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I agree wholeheartedly that the world does not need any more poorly constructed games. As an avid gamer, I struggle to find good games now. Most of them I'll play for less than an hour and realize I've wasted my time and money.

Lots of folks in the industry say that the low barrier to entry in tools and distribution is a great things for gaming. But I'm starting to disagree. I'm sure there are fantastic new games out there *right now* that would be "perfect" for me. I would love to find them! But I can't. I probably never will, because there is way too much junk in the way.

As a consumer, I've become distrustful of the "indie game" designation.

Brandon Shelton
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I completely agree with this blog post wholeheartedly. I don't want to complain too much about my situation, but this is exactly the philosophy that guided us when we were making our RPG. The problem was that by the time we got it into a showable state on Greenlight, that environment was flooded with shallow and samey-looking RPGs. Greenlight users didn't know that we spent like 2 years ironing out the design elements and developing this game (which a lot of the fault was on us for not getting our presence out sooner). The challenge with this philosophy is actually convincing people to play your game when you KNOW it's a good game with depth and worth, especially when you're like us with no pedigree. It's not like there's a shortage of games claiming theirs has "deep strategic gameplay" and such, so there isn't a whole lot you can do to demonstrate that no, see, OUR game actually is that stuff.

Christian Nutt
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Can you provide a link to your game? Because you've made me curious, at least, and because "Wolf Ray Studios" is more or less impossible to Google -- or at least I'm not getting anything useful from the first page of results.

Brandon Shelton
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http://wolfraystudios.wordpress.com/blessed-ones/

Now I'm worried I built it up too much :O I can at least say that every one of our personal friends that are into RPGs liked it a lot, and both of us like playing it too. Also thanks for letting me know about the Google thing. I could've sworn our wordpress site used to show up when you searched it, but we've been extremely lax about updating it. Also the game isn't finished yet.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Loved the polemic tone of your blog.

There is this weird conception that because "making" games is becoming a lot easier (on the technical side), that everyone can and should be a gamedesigner, a notchlike entity that should program, design write a story, think up interesting characters etc. and then should put up his/her creation on itunes/googleplay/playbox 1-4 for everyone to enjoy them, despite it being garbage.

Its not a problem that is limited to gamedevelopment, its all around us: thousands of youtubers that believe in being the next Beaver, despite not able to hit one right tone, thouseands of wannabe-comedians that are simply not funny. "Quantity Design" is a direct result of the (imo) inflated Ego we are trained to become in the western civilization, the illousion "everything is possible to achieve" if you only try hard enough.

Its the mislead belief that only because we love doing things we would automically be entitled to become "good" at them. Guess what: if you are born "deaf" you can sing all day, you won`t become Maria Callas.

If you love to play games, it doesn`t mean that you automatically will be a good gamedesigner, even if you pump out 10 games a month from hackathon to hackathon.


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