Prompted by just one of the topics during the Maelstrom #18 roundtable podcast.  All three of you that haven’t listened to it even before I did… good stuff, highly recommended. 

Prelude 

I’m one of those people that, when I take a vacation, I usually don’t like to have a strict schedule.  Enough of my normal life is constrained by schedules… being a little more footloose and free-form is part of the relaxation process for me.  So, in general, if I go anywhere on such a vacation, it’s going to be to get in the car, point it in a direction, and move until I find something interesting.

I have related this (apparently peculiar) perspective to more than one friend and relative, and there is one question that often comes up that somewhat confuses me in return.  At some point, there will be some form of the question, “so, how long do you usually plan for it to take you to get where you’re going?”

If I don’t know where I’m going, how could I possibly have any idea of long it will take to get there?

Game development

After some further reflection on the question raised by Brent during the Maelstrom #18 podcast, I suspect a large part of the problem game developers have with meeting schedules and deadlines also falls under this rather basic premise.  My initial response when he brought this question up at the MMMOGIG this past weekend, to get our takes on it as well, fell into much the same category as during the podcast itself… “probably a deadline-driven mentality; gaming industry is pretty young, lacks experience, etc.”  With further reflection, however, I think we all might have overlooked a rather crucial point.

A game really is not all that similar to a FIFO inventory control module or many other examples of business software.  You are not taking an existing, well understood process, with highly defined inputs and outputs, and simply reconstructing it in code.  With most business software, there’s a good blueprint, a nice map, and most importantly… everyone pretty much knows _exactly_ what you are trying to build.

The end goal of the game development process is to create a “fun game”.  That is a goal, a destination if you will, about as well defined and mapped as such popular vacation spots as Atlantis and El Dorado… not quite as hard to actually get to, tho, apparently.

So again: if the development team doesn’t know precisely where they are going, how are they supposed to accurately tell anyone how long it will take to get there?

Design Documents FTW! (not)

I can hear the clarion call now… what about design documents?  That should define exactly where you are going, be your “map” to the “destination”.  Why can’t they use design documents to map out the project, and use that to set schedules and deadlines?  (Most already do, btw…)

The problem here is that while a design document is great for defining a destination, you still likely have an issue in terms of game development.  Briefly: is that destination, that product, any fun?

Essentially, in game development, a design document is often analogous to throwing a dart at a map and saying, “we are going here”.  Celebration ensues, plans are made, the travel is completed… and you standing looking out over a sewage plant, an actively erupting volcano, or some other spot even less enticing than waiting at the airport for your already twice-delayed flight to finally come in. (Not that _that_ has ever happened to me… much…)

Game development as “art”

This underlying difficulty in precisely defining what exactly will be “fun”, as opposed to say, simulating tooth decay (Archlord, anyone? (sorry)), is where the concept of games as art often flows from, I think.

It is not an easy or straightforward task to look at some nascent concept and not just be able to say “that would be fun!”, but to be able to identify the mix and balance of elements that will actually make it fun.  To then be able to accurately describe those elements to a bunch of others to go out and do all the things necessary to bring it all together…

Returning to my already-beat-to-death travel analogy one last time, this is the trail guide/mountain man approach.  This voice-in-the-wilderness can get you to the “place where fun is”, even lead you there… but there will be ambushes and avalanches to overcome, flooded rivers and parched deserts to cross in the meantime.  He/she can probably get you there, but you will get there when you there… no guarantees you’ll make it before the winter sets in.

Sitting in the back seat asking “are we there yet?” every 5 minutes isn’t going to make that journey any faster, either.

Conclusion

Hopefully this helps illuminate why there seems to be so much interest amongst industry and academia in trying to figure out what “fun” is.  If someone, anyone, can pinpoint a location for “fun”, people can build airports and schedule daily flights, lay tracks and run roads to it, and so on, and then the guy in the toll booth can lean out the window and say “you’re headed for Fun?  Take the second exit, follow the signs.  30 miles, tops.  Have a nice day.”

Until then, I suspect there’s going to be a bunch of Columbus-wannabes setting sail, Lewis and Clark style expeditions rowing up rivers, and a whole lot of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” going on… but not many solidly set schedules and precisely met timelines.

My two cents.

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