Anti-Design Philosophies, Part 1: Quantity Design
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.
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.
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.
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.