This post is partly a (two month late) response to Chris Hecker’s GDC 2010 rant entitled Please Finish Your Game. It also condenses some rough thoughts I’ve long held about motivation and game making. It took some effort to edit it into a coherent form, so I apologize in advance if it’s a tad rambling.
In his rant, Chris expresses concern about the fixation on short development time. He worries that rapid-fire game releases (exemplified by Jonatan “Cactusquid” Söderström) have become a “badge of honour” in the indie game community. This attitude is mirrored in the industry, where ship dates often trump quality. Chris asserts that, in terms of contribution to games as an art form, Braid is worth more than 100 game jam games because it explored its mechanics to the depth that they deserved. “We need more depth and understanding”, he says. “We don’t need more wacky ideas or shallow games.”
I have great respect for Chris (I loved his talk at MIGS 2009) and thus am cautious about disagreeing with him. However, I believe his argument overlooks the real value of rapid development and its place in the creative ecosystem1. I think that it’s misleading to compare a masterpiece like Braid with the multitudes of forgettable unpolished jam games. The final product isn’t the point; the value of a game jam lies in the process of creation. Specifically, game jams provide tools that enable amateur game designers to experiment, learn and grow.
Anecdotal evidence suggest that there are a great many people who are interested in making games, but have never done so. I suspect this is largely due to the fact that to start making games, you have to make your first game. There’s tremendous symbolic and psychological value to doing something for the first time, especially if it’s something you’re passionate about. As Havi Brooks explains, doing what you love can be terrifying:
You’re avoiding the thing that’s holding all your dreams? Good grief! Of course you are! That symbolic weight? It’s that much potential for hurt and disappointment. [...] It’s not this: “Even though I thought this meant everything to me, I’m still avoiding it so clearly I don’t really care about it.” It’s this: “Wow, this means everything to me… so of course I’m avoiding it.”
Game jams provide tools to help overcome this pressure. For instance, they establish a well-defined start and end date for the project. They provide a theme to riff off. Fellow jammers can provide assistance and feedback. Finally, knowing that you’ll release a game concurrently with dozens of others reduces its symbolic value. Simply put, game jams provide a friendly supportive atmosphere for newcomers.
Those who do take the leap and make their first game quickly run into another problem: they don’t like what they’re making. After all, if you care about games enough to try your hand at making one, then your taste in games is likely quite advanced. You’re perceptive enough to know that what you’re making isn’t very good. Ira Glass explains why this is problematic: “Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. [...] A lot of people never get past that phase.”
Fortunately, he also presents a method of getting past this roadblock: “The most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one [game].” In other words, do exactly what people like Cactusquid and the Experimental Gameplay Project are already doing! Experiment with weird genres, unusual aesthetics and unfamiliar technologies. Create exactly the kind of unfinished shallow games that Chris Hecker is warning us against. Why? Because nobody can create a masterpiece without first making a hundred crude sketches.
In a general sense, I worry that the burden of having to develop mechanics deeply will dissuade people from making games. If it is “our duty as developers to follow a mechanic to its logical and aesthetic extent”, then the inverse is also true; we should not make a game if we cannot give its mechanics their due diligence. This encourages designers to hold onto their ideas, waiting until they have the time to execute them with the appropriate fidelity. To quote Ze Frank: “If you don’t want to run out of ideas, the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do them right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack.” This attitude is anathema to amateur game development. It’s better to get those ideas out there, even if they’re flawed and incomplete!
If we embrace this sort of flawed rapid development, do we then disregard the notion of exploring mechanics to the depth that they deserve? I don’t believe we have to. As Cactus observed in an e-mail discussion with Chris, “it’s hard to decide if the game you’re working on really deserves that much hard work or not.” Creating these crude unfinished games is a form of prototyping; ideas that seem promising can be developed further2. Chris himself did this with Spy Party:
SpyParty was actually an idea from Indie Game Jam 4 that I didn’t quite get working at the jam, but that I felt was strong enough to spend (a lot) more time on.
In conclusion, while I appreciate that “the good-enough is the enemy of the excellent”, I think the onus of developing mechanics fully is detrimental to amateur game development. Creating wacky, shallow games plays a valuable part in building up new developers. Attracting fresh voices and perspectives is the surest route to expanding games as an art form and creating more masterpieces like Braid. Don’t worry too much about greatness, just get excited and make things!
1 I feel a bit sheepish saying this to one of the founders of the Indie Game Jam.
2 This may have been Chris’ point all along: too few developers are following through in this manner.