Monday, March 30, 2009

I Went to the GDC and I Learned How to Make Broad Cultural Generalizations

Hello and welcome, loyal VCCL readers! I apologize for the unprecedented period of radio silence over here, I spent the last week attending the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. I've got all manner of reportage I'm working on, and I can promise you that this reportage is simmering in an aromatic broth even as we speak. I'm gonna give that GDC coverage a nice braise until the connective tissue loosens and it slides right off the bone. I have copious notes. Stay tuned.

The GDC was my first time encountering game developers in the wild. I've read some fantastic blogs written by developers-- Steve Gaynor's Fullbright and Clint Hocking's Click Nothing-- but otherwise I haven't heard many actual game creators discuss their practice.

My impression was that while game designers are a generally whimsical bunch-- irreverent, enthusiastic, irregularly clad and ill-shaven-- they exhibited a clear-eyed sobriety when it came to the craft of game design. They could describe the process of design in clean, functional terms: in this game we wanted the player to feel this way towards this character; we wanted the player to cooperate with his team members; we wanted the game to have a certain pacing. With these aims in mind it came down to knowhow and trial-and-error: we tried this and it didn't work, we tried this other thing and it worked better. The game makers I heard speak often showed an impressive command of how to manipulate the various elements of the game's design-- lighting, game mechanics, level design, sound, controls, UI-- in order to achieve the desired effect.

Maybe this is a cultural thing, because the talks given by Japanese developers displayed none of this pellucid clarity. Mike Abbot wrote about a panel with marquee Japanese designers Fumito Ueda and Goichi Suda, and his overriding impression was that these men were fundamentally inarticulate about the magic of the creative process: “Watching Ueda today, I saw a designer who struggles to articulate his philosophy of design, as if he were being asked to elaborate on something that requires no elaboration. At various points in the discussion he appeared at a loss for words, often deliberating on a question before finally answering it with a few basic and seemingly obvious observations.” Keita Takahashi, the designer of Katamari Damacy and now Noby Noby Boy, gave a talk that was a celebration of whimsy-- a catalogue of his creative frustrations, unusuable ideas, and miscellaneous opinions. (His description of his recent opus: “Noby Noby Boy' is a ticket to go to a festival to change the solar system.”)

Perhaps this is not a matter of geography so much as sensibility. Suda Ueda and Takahaski were artists-- sculptors, painters, conceptual artists-- before they were game designers. Like Shigeru Miyamoto, who seems incapable of describing his creative process except through an occasional gnomic utterance, they gestured towards the irreducible mystery of inspiration when asked to describe the task of game development. Suda's explanation that "I go the the bathroom to poop, and I get ideas." seemed like a reductio ad absurdum of the mysteries of artistic inspiration. The challenge is about translating this bathroom vision into code rather than engineering a player response.

Their North American counterparts seemed far more practically minded when it comes to heeding the Muses. Perhaps this is because they tend to enter game development through programming or software design; they seemed more inclined to think of a game as a piece of software that will be used by human beings, human beings with certain known propensities, than their Japanese counterparts. They tended to view the game as a functional object-- so much so that Randy Smith drew on Donald Norman's “The Design of Everyday Things,” a book about door fixtures, stovetops, and teapots, to illuminate puzzle design in games. While they were palpably excited about the idea that games can rival other arts when it comes to delivering emotion and narrative and memorable experiences, these same designers were also conscious of the fact that these marvellous experiences hang on the creation of an uncluttered and intuitive user interface. In short, I got the impression that you couldn't be a good artist without also being a good technician-- for any given project there is a right and a wrong way to accomplish your goals and technique is the matter of knowing the difference.

Obviously I'm speaking in generalities here, and I clearly have a limited sample. Maybe the Japanese nuts-and-bolts dudes can't afford the trip. But after spending this weekend fighting Resident Evil 5's grabasstical interface I am somewhat persuaded that there's a real divide when it comes to eastern and western design sensibilities, and this divide has everything to do with the design-centric and productivity-centric tendencies of North American tech culture.

More to come!


Manveer Heir said...

I'm going to have to disagree with part of your statement. You say that we as designers "[exhibit] a clear-eyed sobriety when it [comes] to the craft of game design". I really think nothing could be further from the truth.

We as designers are masters of having no idea what we are creating while we are creating it. Often we try to create one thing, and end up with something completely different. In Hocking's talk on improvisation, he seemed to think that Far Cry 2's use of improvisational gameplay stemmed more from a happy accident of emergent systems rather than designer intent.

Instead, I feel we are better at deconstructing what we made. Once we make something, we are then able to rip it apart and figure out why it was successful or a failure. Coming to conclusions after the fact.

Certainly we have high level goals such as pacing and and emotions we want to evoke, but that's not the same as crafting the game design. Those are often high level player aesthetics that we aim for, and use to judge our creations. What you see, in the end product, is usually the result of so much trial-and-error that your are left with only the mechanics that fit the aesthetic goals or some mess of systems that pervert the original intent of the game.

So, we may be a sober bunch when you see us at GDC, but mid-development it feels more like we are sloppy drunk, just hoping that somehow, if we get lucky, we'll be going home with a lady (or man) later.

Radek said...

Well, there certainly seems to be a much more vast tradition of software design in Western game developers...

L.B. Jeffries said...

Isn't a blog by its nature a kind of broad generalization about an individual person?

Interesting read though.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@manveer: this is a very good point. I'm sure a lot of things look very logical in retrospect, but at the time it's a kind of drunkards walk towards your project goal. Like you say, sometimes developers set out to make out one game and end up making another (the way that Hocking did with FC2). You probably have a better bead on this than I do, right?

At any rate one thing I did see was that Western designers tended to be more methodical than their Japanese counterparts-- they saw trial and error and ceasless iteration as the path towards their design goals.

@L.B. maybe? and thanks.

mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Darga said...

I really don't want to let Manveer's comment stand unchallenged. And since I can't think of a way to disagree respectfully:

Your post makes me want to tear my face off.

I think that is an accurate description of how most game design happens, but only because most game designers are not good at game design, or because good game designers are horrible at collaborating, or lead designers aren't doing their jobs, or because teams are mismanaged.

Our entire job is to foresee the things that you claim to be impossible to foresee.

Every time a designer fails to anticipate the consequences of their decisions, the entire discipline's credibility is lowered by one more notch. This makes it easier and easier over time to ignore good design and just "see how it goes."

This computer painted the Mona Lisa by flailing around randomly and coming to conclusions after the fact. Does it work? Sure, sort of. Is that computer good at painting? Not remotely.

No designer is perfect, and no game makes it to release without some tweaking and iteration. But if we're not getting it 80% of the way to our goals on the first try (or worse, not even attempting to (or even worse, not even knowing what those goals are)), something is terribly wrong.

Manveer Heir said...


No worries, I'm not taking disrespect at your rebuttal

You say
"I think that is an accurate description of how most game design happens, but only because most game designers are not good at game design, or because good game designers are horrible at collaborating, or lead designers aren't doing their jobs, or because teams are mismanaged."

I whole-heartedly agree. Later you say if we're not getting it 80% right, then we're fucking up. But my point is that a) it's hard to get it right 80% of the time no matter what, in a perfect world. b) all the mis-management, poor leads, etc that exist make it even harder
c) even 20% deviation from what was intended can end up with a drastically different game.

It's not that we don't have intent and understand when we start designing. It's that our intent is mutated and bastardized, either by players, or marketing, or a producer, or poor execution. It's that NOTHING, NO-ONE in the history of man-kind can ever create the game we have envisioned in our head. It's that our job is really fucking hard, and few do it well (and I would not lump myself in the category of people who do it well, admittedly... I have a lot to learn).

That was my point. It's ancillary to Iriqois' main point, but I just felt like pointing out that I don't think we fully understand what we do until after the fact. We try to understand it beforehand and during... but frankly, we suck at it.

Mike Darga said...

I agree with all of that. I guess I'm just worried that people are using the fact that we suck as an excuse to not aim any higher than that suck.

The other day I was having a conversation with someone over dinner about how to make game design better. I pointed out several problems that should be guarded against, and they shrugged them off as "impossible to see coming." Obviously I felt otherwise, and that it is my very job to do so.

I realized that this person had seen so much bad design over the course of their career that they had actually come to expect it, and to consider my concept of good design an impossibility. They didn't consider it "very hard to do," or "an interesting challenge," or "requiring of great care," but "impossible."

That was, in part, what planted the seed of all the stuff that I ended up blurting at you.

I'm really worried that we're starting to grade ourselves on a curve, and that everyone else as a result is more likely to disregard good design even when it does present itself.

After reading your subsequent post and some of your blog, I can see that your post was modesty or self-deprecation, and you're clearly not one of the "ah fuck it" crowd. But I think it is important to clarify that the difference between "we suck, but we can change" and "we suck, so why bother?" The people who are perpetuating this problem can't tell the difference between the two, and use them both indiscriminately to reinforce their low standards.

Iroquois: I think I may be illustrating one difference between Eastern and Western game designers, which is that perhaps Eastern designers find fun more naturally because they are less angry. I don't consider game design to be an art, but a discipline or a craft. I don't like to use terms like “talent” or “inspiration,” because I think they remove the emphasis from designers' actual decisions and thought processes, which is where good design lives for me.

Manveer Heir said...


Yeah I totally agree we can be so much better than what we do. We absolutely have to keep pushing. My statement wasn't trying to say let's give up, it's just as of right now we aren't good enough. In twenty years, maybe that'll be different. In the mean time, we have to collectively strive to do better. There is no such thing as "good enough" in my book so we can always improve and I know I personally push myself and those around me to constantly improve.

It is sad that the fire has burnt out in some people in the industry. For those people, my thoughts are this. Get out. Get out now. You're not doing yourself any favors and you aren't doing customers any favors. The second we lose our passion, we lose our edge.