Evolution Vs Intelligent Design

My what a purposefully controversial post title this is.

I’ve been working in the games industry for nearly ten years now which I think makes me something of an old man in games industry terms at the ripe old age of 28 (seriously if you go to just about any developer you will mostly find an office full of spotty twenty-something graduates). In all my time I’ve been a proponent of Intelligent Design when it comes to making a videogame. By that I mean writing lots of documents, having lots of meetings and cogitating long and hard on every single aspect of the project.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

In ten years of games development I have never worked on a game where the resulting product paid more than a passing resemblance to what was originally designed. Such is the way with an inherently creative process like videogame design. Once you start to implement features and interact with them then juices start flowing and you start to have new ideas or realise that something would work a bit better if you changed it. Part of this is because the only people who read Design Documents are other Designers.

Design documents will get nailed down into what is termed a “Functional Spec” which is often written either by the assigned programmer or a Designer who happens to be a Programmer in disguise (like me). A Functional Spec will take the ideas generated by the Design team and try to boil them down into the rules, systems and variables that are actually needed to implement it. These tend to be the most useful documents and where the majority of documentation time should really be spent. It’s these documents that work out what content is required to make the feature work and how it’s all going to plug together. They are absolutely essential to the first implementation of a feature.

They are then useless after that point.

Once you have the first implementation of a feature in your hands to play with documentation is largely useless and tends to get thrown to the side of the road. Everybody has ideas and tweaks they want to make and often a feature will end up being scrapped completely or turn into some other feature nobody ever thought the game needed but turned out to be essential (Vehicle Melee in Wheelman was such a feature. It was never “Designed” it just kinda happened one day). From this point on Evolution takes over.

What happens next is called “Creativity” and it’s something that likes to run around without any pants on and if you cage it in bureaucracy it will fade and eventually die. Without it though you won’t end up with a fun game. You’ll end up with something that might look like a fun game but here is a tip: If the people you’re paying to make the game don’t enjoy making it then the people who are going to pay you for it probably aren’t going to either.

Alot of Producers hate this bit in games development because it doesn’t fit neatly onto a schedule but it is absolutely necessary and vital to having something worthwhile when you ship. Unfortunately this part of development (usually called “Prototype” in my experience) tends to be the bit of the schedule that gets cut the fastest when it turns out that you have content requirements to meet. You promised the Publisher 150 levels over 10 different environments. What you didn’t promise the Publisher was that the game would be fun. The term “Deliverable” will be thrown around and the time required to actually turn a feature from a Functional Spec into something amazing will shrink to almost nothing.

The reality is that you really can’t design a videogame up front and expect it to be amazing and awesome without first playing it and then making revisions to it. I doubt there are many composers out there who won’t spend ages fiddling around with the music before they consider it ready. The problem the games industry generally has though is that with teams of 300 people and budgets up the wazoo individuals can no longer move fast enough or with enough freedom to be truly Creative bound as they are by Bureaucracy. If you wondered why Indie games tend to be more Creative it’s because they are created in atmospheres that foster Creativity and allow swift revision, iteration and evolution before exposing themselves to the world.

Creativity in the Games Industry struggles purely because of the “Industry” part. The same way it struggles in the Music and Film “Industries”. To me this is the best evidence I’ve seen that games are an artform. They’ve suffered the exact same fate as all the others.

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7 Comments

  1. hua tong
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I am a student right now. But your ideas and experiences really benefit me. You said “the documentations are absolutely essential to the first implementation of a feature”. I cannot agree with you more. When I designed my board game with classmates, we really found the game dialog really helps us to remember everything including what is going to do next, who is going to do what part, which part of game has been improved or modified during a certain meeting. Sometimes, when we doing wrong or don’t know how to do things in next step. The documentations or dialogs really help us find the way out. I agree with you said that “everybody has ideas and tweaks they want to make”. At first, my team has four people and each one has their ideas and plans about designing a board game. Then, after couples of discussion, we polls to decide to use one idea. It does not say other three games are bad and work on these three games cannot be successful. In my case, we do not have financing problem and work with 300 people. It is only an assignment and quite simple and easy comparing to your game. However, your thoughts really inspire me and one day if I have the same career likes you. I hope you could give me more details about this. Thanks a lot.

  2. Raymond Leung
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    Having worked in games development for a few years I cannot agree with what you have said more. From experience whilst intelligent design may be important at the early stages of development to document and brainstorm ideas, these idea remain as thoeries whilst they are still just words on a piece of paper and it is not until creativity and evolution kicks in that a truly enjoyable game can be made, and this is certainly the case at the studio I worked for, a game design document was created at great lenghts to describe all aspect of the game from budgets to schedules, wishlists to controls. However, during producion most of these changed and evolved from what was previously intended whether this is a lack of fore sight or just careless planning, there is however no doubt in my mind that evolution and creativity plays a larger role in the creation of a great game.

    Working in a studio that denied creativity and treated you like a drone was definately an eye opener and the experience has stuck with me. What you have said about “people you’re playing to make the game don’t enjoy making it then the people who are going to pay you for it probably aren’t going to either.” has hit the nail on the head, no one in the studio I was work at enjoyed any part of the gameplay, some of the features were cool but that didn’t make the game any more enjoyable.

  3. Posted May 23, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for an excellent insight into the games industry, I agree that any institution with a need to turn a profit will stifle creativity by its very nature. I think this is probably true of all areas of industry but there is an unfortunate irony when it happens in a creative field. Of course any “starving artist” would jump at the chance to finally make some decent money and produce a AAA release but with that comes the budget, deadlines and other contractual agreements at the expense of creative freedom.

  4. James Mackey
    Posted June 27, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    @Raymond Leung
    The initial document is what your evolutionary and creative forces act on. If the initial design is loose and unanchored by solid decisions it flounders in a quagmire of choice and often gets carried away with whatever the latest wave of popular design features is (ex: Gears of War cover system).

    If your foundations are solid you can use them to branch out into new and interesting (perhaps even unexplored) territory. Most can agree that it’s much easier to improve existing ideas than come up with something completely original that’s great. (If you don’t agree, try it, right now.)

    A somewhat arbitrary metaphor: if your goal is to make some pasta, it is practically impossible if you’re trying to make everything from scratch, growing the wheat, grinding flour, making noodles, growing tomatoes, etc. You need to start somewhere to avoid reinventing the wheel.

    Any claim that evolution or iteration is more important than the initial design (or vice versa) rests precariously on a chicken or egg dilemma and is rendered invalid by that state. It is simply a matter of work style as to how much importance you assign to each.

  5. Pete the crow
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Just looking at your blogs not in the complex gamekingdom. i am an artist and find your blogs interesting and energetic.

  6. Posted March 25, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    What you wrote seems true… There is probably more creativity in Indie Flash Games than in big MMOs (where just everything seem so outdated).

  7. Daniel Karlo Medallo
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    As a gamer, student and a developer, I would agree on what you’ve said. I’ve seen this happening even in a non-games development. This is true especially on a development based on the classic waterfall model. This, however, has gone better when agile model came in. It allows developers and designers deliver features piece by piece and somehow matches the “evolution” and “intelligent design” that was mentioned.
    Am I wrong? Has the game producers (project managers) embraced agile methodologies?

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