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Pitfalls of the Working Game Designer: Believing the Hype

Design has a lot more to do with marketing than many designers would like to admit.  Everyone’s familiar with the complaint that building games for the back-of-the-box bullet points ruins the possibility of real innovation, but that misses an even more fundamental connection.  Before the back of the box is even on the table, design has already started marketing the game.  For a project even to get underway, design has to sell someone on the idea: studio management, a publisher, team leads.  Without a first sell, there wouldn’t be any resources behind the project.  Once that first support is in place, design continues to sell the game internally, to the team and to management.  As the game’s design takes shape, the designer is constantly pitching approaches, features, and content.  Unless you’re working on a project small enough to do the lion’s share of the work yourself, there simply isn’t any way to get people on board other than to sell them on it.

Given that design often involves projecting out what will happen a year or more in the future, the “sell” is more often than not the only thing pushing the project forward.  Do you groan when you read one of those previews that ends up declaring “If this project can live up to its promise, it’s going to be great!”?  Well, it’s no wonder that this has become a cliché, because this is precisely what the design group has been selling to the team all the way along.  That “vision” of what the game is going to be, of what it could be, is in most cases the reason the game is in production at all.  Before any external marketing comes into the picture, the designers have already been marketing the project internally since day one.

There’s nothing wrong with that process; in fact, it can be a necessary element for generating enthusiasm about the project, but there are some very real dangers that come along with it.  First, consider that the designer is pitching a feature that may not be implemented for months; in fact, the designer is pitching features that will take months of programmer, artist, and test time just to see in the game engine.  It may work great in theory, but what happens if you get that far and it doesn’t work in practice?  Now, consider that the design balances literally dozens of game systems—from controls to UI to AI to level layout, etc., etc.—each of which takes multiple man-months to implement, and until you actually get to see it in the game, what you’re living on is the hope that the “vision” is going to become reality.  The more marketing spin has gone into pitching that vision, the bigger the promises, the more stretching has been done to make what’s doable saleable, the harder it’s going to be to hit the target.

Second, as each piece of the design gets implemented, there are likely to be changes made necessary by the practical needs of getting things done.  Levels may need to shrink, features may need trimming, and the performance target may box you in more with each new piece that actually has to be up and working in the game environment.  What sounded like a great approach when you had endless amounts of rendering bandwidth to work with is going to become a brick wall once you realize that all that bandwidth has already been eaten up by other systems.  It’s impossible to go back and undo all the work that has already been done, and now you have no way to get the rest of the design to fit.  Now, if you’ve pitched that approach as the be-all, end-all of gaming, what are you going to do when it’s clear that it’s not possible?

This is why models like the first-playable-publishable and rapid prototyping during pre-production have gained such traction in the industry.  These approaches get you from the theory stage to the evaluation stage with enough space left in the project’s schedule to adapt to what you learn.  Mark Cerny, as an advocate for these types of production modeling, has said that you should be prepared to throw out everything from the pre-production phase.  As a designer, you have to be ready to support this.

In other words, the greatest theory of a game design doesn’t count for squat in the face of the realities of game production.  Either the team can make it work, or they can’t.  If they can’t, it’s a bad design, and it needs to go.  No matter how hard you’ve sold your team, your studio, or your publisher on the approach/feature/system, you’ve got to be prepared to cut it. 

Even more difficult, no matter how hard you’ve sold yourself on the idea, you have to be willing to kill it.  This is the true definition of the danger of marketing.  After spending days, weeks, months, even years pitching the “vision” to your colleagues, your boss, your partners, the fans, and the press, you still have be able to step back from the design and see what’s really there: not the pitch, not the dream, but the reality.  No matter how perfectly everything works out inside your own head, if that can’t be translated into the player’s experience given all the constraints you have to work with, you have to find a different way to get there.  The good news is that no single feature makes a game.  Limits can stop you from going where you want to go, but they can also force you to be creative, to come up with innovative, efficient approaches.

The key is not to believe your own hype.  Sure, you have to sell everyone else on the idea that things need to be done this way and no other, but you need to constantly ask yourself what you would do if you had to work without this element or that one.  A good design doesn’t just map out one route to get where you need to go; you’re never going to be so prescient as to know every twist and turn along the way.  Even if you convince the rest of them that you are that good, you have to be ready for “just in case” because it always comes down that way in the end.


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