Thursday, January 15, 2009

Game design is hard.

Meanwhile, back in my own life...

I continue to get an ongoing education on just how hard (but fun) it is on this side of the fence. Yes, it is as I hoped and expected: a creative and stimulating challenge. But boy are some parts of it *really* challenging.

One thing I've come to realize is that, at least in my limited, newbie design experience, there is a real Catch 22 involved in game design: You think of things in your head that you'd like to see in the game. You ask the engineers and artists to make it. But they don't want to make it unless it's really going to be in the game, otherwise it's a waste. But you don't know if you want it in the game until they build it. Now, we have been doing fairly extensive prototyping, so, yeah some of the game's core systems are of course being tested in advance to see if they're actually cool or not. But we don't have the luxury of time/money to do that for *every* feature in the game. So the bottom line is you *really* have to know exactly what it is you want. Or at least pretend like you do.

What I like best, in fact, is the total collaborative nature of the process. There isn't one part of the operation that isn't completely interdependent with every other one: artists, engineers, producers, designers, development directors--all are intertwined in even the tiniest pieces of the game development. And the suggestions that stick often come from unlikely places: an engineer focusing on routing may, in fact, have the funniest idea for what, say, a hippo should do in the game.

But the schedule and budget looms large over us. Even now, when we're not even in production yet, we can feel the pressure to keep our arses firmly in gear, lest we suddenly find ourselves in panic mode (which, I'm sure, is going to happen eventually anyway.)

I love having the opportunity to try my hand at this. But I admit: It's intimidating and stressful. There really isn't any time or leeway here for failure---especially in this economy. I *need* to prove I have some clue what I'm doing, even as I'm learning it on the job. And the big lesson I've learned in the last week is that even if I think of something that might be cool in the game, that thing is going to beg about 50 great questions from all the people who are going to have to do the work I'm suggesting. So I better have some answers.

It is for all these reasons above that I have decided to start doing cocaine. Just kidding! But I have upped my daily coffee and chocolate intake. I'm determined to make a great game, even if I have to get completely wired and fat to do it!

79 comments:

MrCHUPON said...

Do (or should) development houses set aside an "R&D" budget for those situations you just mentioned ("hey this would be cool." "don't waste my time, is it going in the game")? Like contingency time allotted for what-if scenarios? Or is it literally just fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants?

Ian said...

can I offer a suggestion?

I'd really like to be able to manually take control of, say, a hippo and live a highly realistic rpgish first person game, I've searched long for this type of game and here's my chance to display it just a suggestion though, I really rreally REALLY hope you take it and use it you don't even have to cite me though i'd like to you

Jeff Green said...

You want a first-person RPG in which you play...a hippo?

You're gonna spend a lot of game time sittin' in the mud, dude!

:)

James said...

Just make sure to exercise and keep eating healthy Jeff!

Gentry said...

Being wired is good for productivity. Fat not so good. You can always start running... oh shit never mind.

philyT said...

That hippo better do something amazing now that you've hyped it up!

Chris said...

Any budget set aside for R&D would be dried up in fifteen minutes. Everyone has ideas, ideas are cheap.

aluman said...

First and foremost I have to apologize for my English as I'm from Luxembourg and I don't get to use that language in my daily life.

It's really interesting to me how a former game critic is explaining the process of developing an idea for a game and the hardships that come with it.

I'm sure that you'll do just fine though. :)

Macroe said...

You might want to start wearing those purple sweatpants to the office soon.

Brian said...

What you're talking about must be a good reason why games with firm direction come off as much more coherent than games where it seems like concepts that should have been prototyped more ended up being forced into the final game.

Looking at games like BioShock under Ken Levine's vision and Metal Gear under Kojima's (and Shinkawa's) vision, everything feels very meaningful and purposeful, like there weren't a whole lot of board meetings where artists were deliberating on their concerns, but rather they received their orders and went with them.

Then compare that to games like Assassin's Creed, where it feels like not enough prototyping was done, particularly around the "crowd pushing" physics, and they ended up having to design and populate the world to accommodate for this feature and it ends up making movement feel unnatural.

Stephen said...

Really?

Game design is hard???

Maybe it's time you catch the Great Time Machine shuttle and re-rate all your past game reviews to give that extra point or two for 'effort'.

Dang right game design is hard. A good one is even harder! ;)

Glinkman said...

Sounds like my college days.

Alex said...

I'd play a hippo RPG, if only for the chance to level up my ability to do this.

Game design has never seemed easy; I can only imagine what it must be like during the "crunch weeks" that often turn into months.

I know it seems cheesy, but in this economy it's important to take time and try to appreciate even the most frustrating aspects of your work; it might get worse before it gets better.

Jeremy Steven said...

Okay, Jeff. This is Steve down in graphic design. The idea of having the hippo have a gun, was unique. But we're going to change it up a bit: the hippo has twin Barretas and holds them sideways gangsta style. Cuz no one has done that before!

Peter Fall said...

is it going to be funny? or is it just a baby game... either way, try to give it some of that Jeff Green humor, aye?! I don't know if you've ever played the Pajama Sam series. they're a kids game, but they're actually genuinely funny at times. and (i think) because of this they've sold pretty well, (my little brother got them for his birthday and even though he's young he can tell when something's genuinely funny!).

I've heard people say that making games funny is difficult, but i think that might be because they're approaching it from the view of the wrong medium; games don't need one-liners and puns to be funny. instead, games have the ability to make opportunities for hilarious situations ( example: sticky grenades aren't funny in their own right, but with the ability to stick someone in the crotch, you've just created a whole mess of potentially hilarious situations!)

anyways, i'm beginning to blather on. good luck with the hippos! (:

Nick.Allain said...

Hey Jeff!

When I first started reading this post, the first thing I thought was "Jeez Jeff, just make it *sound* like you know what you want" but it seems you've figured that one out.

I'm finishing up my degree in game development right now but my experience as a movie producer has taught me that trust is the most basic part of making something awesome. If you trust your crew creatively and listen carefully to suggestions then (assuming they're good a crew) they'll treat your guidance with the same respect.

I'm sure you're doing a fantastic job. As for hippos, I'm sure Nintendo could make something like that for Wii. Of course, by the time it was done it would be a Hippo that's shaped like a person who seems to be on an endless fetch quest to save his kingdom.

- Nick Allain
www.nicholasallain.com

Chris A said...

That's funny that you mention the coffee and chocolate thing. Since moving from community to design, I've noticed an increase in caffeine dependency as well, and I'm one of those guys that can get pretty tweaked out by a couple cups of coffee. It's like I'm in Gattaca, doing whatever I can to keep up with the Valids. :]

Anonymous said...

What is Green working on - Sim Animals?

What's all that about then?

The Goose.

Ken said...

As one of those engineers, let me offer you this advice:

Nothing sucks more than spending a whole bunch of time and effort to implement some crazy designer's idea, only to see it dropped because it was a lame idea in the first place. The number of times an individual designer does this will be inversely proportional to the amount of enthusiasm that engineers will put into his next "great" idea.

It's ok to think outside the box. Just make sure you really think it through before you send it to engineering. ;)

Billium said...

Look forward to seeing what noggin has in store for us eager gamers. Good luck, and don't drop dead of a massive heart attack.

Nathanael said...

And now we want to know what that hippo idea was...

Amatersu said...

I think you should do the cocaine. First off, it fulfills the needs you're using chocolate and caffeine for. Secondly, it may give you some cool ideas.

All drug use aside, how does this industry insight affect your opinion of crappy games?

Level Up said...

Wow, those are some tough decisions to make. I'd hate to be the guy that wanted an RPGish hippo game then regret it ^.^ Hang in there Jeff, and keep us updated as much as you can on game design. I start school in Feb and I'm looking foward to my game design classes.

Jailem said...

Okay, okay, we're cutting hippos from the game completely. It was all getting too complicated, and hippos don't really do much anyway. All the work from the hippo section is now being transfered to the rhino section where we believe we can do something truly unique, and add some real punch to the game.

gunsakimbo said...

Please don't get fat. I won't have sex with you anymore (in my mind).

David said...

Did you just say "arses"? You call yourself an American?

Bobby K said...

I'm really enjoying your blog Jeff. It's great having a peek behind the curtain at Game Dev. I always read your blog on 1UP and enjoyed that also.

I'm only on the outside looking in, but to me for all the different depts to work together constructively and for a game to come together and work both creatively and functionally that there has to be a strong organization and bullshit filter in place. Sounds like the SIMS team has that. Which is good. If you have to backup your idea to engineering or any other dept then that makes for stronger and better ideas. Makes everyone believe in each other more and work together better. This doesn't just applies to a creative endeavour like game design but can apply anywhere. Even what I'm doing.

Programming is something I've always been interested in and have dabbled in. At 40 I'm not sure if I want to dive into now and make that change. Although it's not such a big leap. Right now I'm doing software testing. Not quite as big of a leap as what you made from journalist to designer.

But I'm very happy for you that you are enjoying it and find it fulfilling. Nothing sucks more than being around our age and making a career change that turns out to suck. Plus I'm happy for you that you got to leave 1UP on your terms and were able to choose you next job without having to go thru that blood bath... not to say you would have gotten laid off but who knows, right!

Thanks again for the regular blogging and your insights on the job with EA.

On a side note, just out of curiousity, do you know what programming language is primarily used by your software engineers. I assume it C++.

Jordan said...

Go easy on the substance abuse! coffee and chocolate are the gateway drugs Coke and Diet Coke. Soon you'll be pounding jelly donuts and then theres no turning back!

Slapshot said...

"Meanwhile, back in my own life..."

Geez Jeff, you expect to talk about YOURSELF on your own blog?

How self-centered!

;)

Jexter said...

All of the things you mentioned go for ALL software development. I don't write games for a living but I write software and we struggle with the same things. I'm one of the people asking the "is this going in?" questions.

Your right, you never have the luxury of prototyping everything designers come up with, especially if it is outside the bounds of the currently designed framework/engine. The truth is once you start a project, your deadlines are pretty set and that's usually based on a good high level idea of what you are going to do/implement/build. Not a ton of wiggle room to branch out after that in tons of new ways. You may have 50 new ideas and pry get to pick a very small number of those to prototype and feel out.

For the people saying other games should have done more prototyping and what not, trust me, everything that is in a piece of software, game or otherwise, went through tons of review. Some times people just make bad choices, regardless of how many times you go over it :)

Zed Word said...

Good luck Jeff. May you make the best game you can.

Joril said...

I'm also good friends with Budget. It was rough going at first, but then we talked it out and it was alright in the end - and still is.
I do kinda feel bad when my creative efforts go over budget. Even more so because that's money spent and it's potentially money that my coworkers won't be getting. The fact that I'm way up front in the production process as an interactive designer means I can delay an entire project!

How do you feel about that Jeff? Any guilt when spending to much time on one assignment? Or does the fact that EA is such a big firm give you some leeway?

Danny said...

I hear ya...

I myself am a ideas person, not a doer. Which, in most cases, sucks. I just wish there were some way to project my ideas into the minds of the "doers". I know that at least some of my ideas are pretty good and that quite a few people probably would agree. It's just that when the ideas try to leave my head by ways of speach, it all goes poo-shaped...

But it'd seem that the people who get things done most often are willing to cut down on quality, something that is very hard for me to do. The most impressive stuff is made by people who master both sides.

Anonymous said...

cocaine is a hell of drug jeff

Anonymous said...

Dude, I thought it was mushrooms but if it's the white stuff just tell us where we can send it.

Seriously, loving the insight your blog provides on the development side.

Anonymous said...

hey Jeff...

Yep. Couldn't have said it better myself!

Like you, I recently entered game development at a very well known studio in a producer capacity. In fact, I was welcomed into this role with no prior experience in game development (I came from the far-removed world of the Health Care industry!). So, when you speak of stress, I feel your pain. We are currently in pre-production on a Triple-A title, and are feeling the pressure... BIG TIME!

To any of you out there who dream of a job in game development, let Jeff's words speak as a warning to just exactly how much work really is involved - it is stupefying! Not that I don't truly love it, but easily ranks as THE most challenging job i've ever had.

Tydigame said...

I've been trying to get some collaborative projects going with other people for a long time, but never really been able to get one past the initial, "Okay, we like each other, let's work together!" phase. Part of this is doubtlessly due to me being the only one actually interested in the project, and not having one person charged with carrying the project through to its completion. Or even a consequence for that completion (i.e. financial disaster). But I look forward to the day when I could work with a group of people and produce something interesting that I can be proud of.

Luke WInkie said...

Hey Jeff, I was just wondering how you were finding Animal Collective, I really like that band.

Jeff Green said...

I love Animal Collective. Right up my alley, really: great blend of pop sensibility with psychedelic/trance/weird overtones.

Like Pet Sounds meets The Residents. Cool beans!

Signal to Noise said...

'There are no bad games. Just bad designers/programmers.'

I firmly believe in that statement. Definitey game design is hard.

Larry said...

And when Jeff goes to Boston to visit Shawn Elliott, and starts jumping on the couch screaming, "FUCK YOUR COUCH SHAWN ELLIOTT!" we'll know why

Nights said...

Good luck Jeff. Just make sure they put your voice into the beginning saying "Hello and welcome to Sim Animals" so the Brodeo crowd will buy the game.
Also, strangely my verification word was feunpa. Hmmm...feunpa...feupa...fuupa

sean molloy said...

Attention please! Ryan Scott's new podcast now live! Geekbox Radio! He did not pay me to say this! Well, he didn't pay me very much.

Peter said...

Welcome to the lovely world of game development. I work as an artist and like you say, sometimes that awesome idea isn't so awesome. And the pressure is something you have to live with. If it's not deadlines, it's a feature that *has* to be in there thanks to a publisher wish or an upper managment "person" who thinks he's a designer or something else that has to happen yesterday. All good fun!

RJC said...

Don't forget after all that creativity finally pans out, the work continues...Testers (may they be in-house or outsourcing) may discover stuff that will make you rethink the design.

You never know. I feel for ya.

Anonymous said...

I´ll miss laughing at shane and the gang goofing around in Second Life putting genitals on every character and generally disturbing the game itself, and of course ill miss the 1UP Podcast, nonthing to entertain me on the bus rides now, well nonthing lasts forever i guess.

Rory Taylor said...

Reading your blog post, its a wonder any game gets made that actually does new and interesting things when it takes so many people to realize one person's vision. Or perhaps more to the point, why a lot of games play it safe by not straying too far from what has worked in the past.

Conor said...

Working in product design is pretty similar. You want to prototype everything but you just can't so you have to guess and sell your best guess with conviction. Anyway, my reason for posting is to say that I recently cut back on coffee and I feel much better & creative at work. I advise not upping your intake too much. :D

Alec said...

Getting two experiences two sides of the gaming industry must be incredible. I bet your experience on the critic sight gives you lots of insight on how to make them.

TheMeanBoss said...

"Disturbance in the workforce: Rumor: Announced EA Layoffs Coming to Blackbox" Source: http://kotaku.com/5135238/rumor-announced-ea-layoffs-coming-to-blackbox?skyline=true&s=i

"...Today we hear word that more of the 1,000 cuts announced back in December at Electronic Arts are about to hit..."

Grab ankles. Brace for impact. But in all seriousness, I do believe as an experienced published writer, you have a much deeper background in gaming as well as the thought and vocabulary which would accompany your vocation which superbly lends itself to the overall communication of design. Management will always make selfless, unbiased, profitable decisions, and would have wisdom and foresight to...wait a minute on that last one. nm, you can touch your toes right? :) GL man. Hang in there. I swear once this political stuff is over, it'll get better. i hope

John Lynch said...

You're the model from which all other enlightened gamers take their cues from, Jeff; bring our message of "less crap, more innovation" to EA, and bring it hard.

Y'know, like Mickey Rourke. Ram Jam that shiz.

geo said...

neat post, Jeff.

I'm studying level design at the moment and would love to hear more about the ins and outs of working with your team as the game reaches its gold candidate.

Best to you and yours, G

BuckyBit said...

If you still read the comments: I always wondered about the clash of cultures inside companies between the 'artsy' designers and the programmers, who are rather on the other side of the spectrum. I know, you probably cannot talk about it, but is it really a big gap between the two folks? I know some stories...

(possible double posting due to mac-safari browser, sorry)

Anonymous said...

Hmm... Gamespot describes this game as being 'fun for the entire family'.

Do they mean like in GTA 4?

(Jeff is posting a lot less frequently - has anybody else noticed that? I'll bet that his writing skills dry up on him.)

Petey said...

No old guy ramblings about the new president!?

Jeff Green said...

I'll be back soon, kids. :)
Intense deadlines...

Anonymous said...

Oh, he's working - how dare he think that taking care of his family takes precedence over entertaining us!

I want to hear more about the gaming business though. That last blog was really good. I'll bet Green is wishing he could've had a spell in the gaming business while he was still working on CGW.

Also, kids?

Are the rest of you guys kids? Is there an age restriction here? I didn't know that Jeff's target demographic for this blog was kids?

The Goose.

Anonymous said...

We believe in you, Jeff Green.

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