Sunday, December 27, 2009

Nutritionally Dense Entertainment

I find that some entertainment choices are better than others. This may seem self evident, but bear with me here as I explain. Some entertainment seems more satisfying, for example, I could spend an hour playing Planescape: Torment, or I could spend an hour looking at lolcats. After the hour is finished I’m going to feel more satisfied if I spent the time with Planescape. It’s almost like Planescape is more nutritionally dense than the lolcats. Like the lolcats are a Twinkie and Planescape is an apple. The lolcats might be tasty, but too many will just make you sick.

I don’t think that you can say for sure that one form of entertainment is definitely superior to another. I think it’s primarily a matter of figuring out what forms of entertainment are best for you, and then having the restraint to seek those out. For example, I do really enjoy action RPGs, like Diablo, Titan Quest, or Torchlight. They are fun, and they’ll suck up lots of time if I let them. But I find that they aren’t as satisfying to me as other more story driven games. So I have to exercise restraint, and enjoy the action RPGs in small doses, while spending most of my entertainment time on other things. That was especially difficult the day after Christmas when Torchlight was on sale for $5.00. It was really tempting, but I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as some other games, and I’ve already got Titan Quest to give me my action RPG fix.

It’s kind of an interesting journey, figuring out what kind of entertainment really does it for you. Kind of difficult too, but I’ve found it’s helped me to enjoy my free time more. Just thought that was kind of interesting.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Game design lesson: Humility

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned over the last year, especially from working on my current project. When I started work on the game, I really thought I finally had things figured out. I had worked on several game projects prior to this one, and none of them made it very far. Maybe twenty or thirty percent complete, I would learn new things each time about what made a good project.

For example, I really wanted to make a game that played like Elite, or Privateer, except you drove around a car through a post apocalyptic wasteland. I still think that sounds like a fun game both to make and play. But writing my own graphics and physics engine was something I really didn’t want to attempt. Something that would have taken way too long. So I learned to build on someone else’s technology, and otherwise save yourself time.

I also worked for a time on an online graphic adventure type game. I had the engine mostly written in flash, and it was kind of neat. It was going to be an episodic online adventure, with new episodes every couple of weeks or so. The primary problem with that is that I don’t have much artistic ability. Graphic adventures are incredibly demanding graphically, if you can imagine. So it was a bad idea to try creating something where 90% of the content was outside my ability to produce. I learned to focus on my strengths.

I then worked on a hacker type game. I wanted to create a game that made you feel like an elite hacker flying through the networks at incredible speeds. I wanted to focus on speed, and cleverness, and so I started working on a game design document, and trying to write it in Torque. Unfortunately my design strayed from the original idea, and became a bloated mess of contradicting game mechanics. I learned to keep the design tight and simple, to focus on a single gameplay type.

Then, almost exactly a year ago, I started on my current project. I picked a simple game type, that I really enjoyed, and thought I could bring some new ideas to. I really liked the idea of setting up your defenses, and repulsing wave after wave of enemy. It seemed simple enough to create, and I figured I would have it done by last July. I’ve learned more from this project than any other, but I think the primary lesson I’ve learned is humility.

A year ago, as I was working on the prototype for this game, I thought I had it all figured out. I was going to quickly get the game done, release it and move on to the next game in my brilliant career. I wanted to share what I had learned with others, so I volunteered to speak at a gathering of local independent game developers.

I talked like I knew it all. It kind of got away from me a little bit. I did my best to present the lessons I had learned, but what I didn’t realize is just how little I knew. I had learned lots of lessons on taking a game to the thirty or forty percent complete mark, and I thought with this newest game I had figured out how to smoothly take a game clear to completion.

I’ve learned over the past year how difficult it is to make something that works well outside the controlled environment of your development machine. I’ve learned how difficult it is to make a system of interlocking pieces that interact with each other in a way that is interesting. I’ve learned that all I’ve really produced before were prototypes, and that the real thing requires much more polish. I’ve learned that anyone who produces any sort of game, and releases it to the public deserves a lot of respect. I’ve learned that it is very understandable that a game studio could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and years of development, only to push out a product that isn’t any fun. And I’ve learned that I am in no position to tell anyone anything about game development.

I’m going to keep working, learning, and occasionally posting the things I’ve learned from my efforts. I do intend to finish and release this current game, even if it doesn’t end up being any fun.

Primarily I wanted to express how impressed I am with anyone that manages to finish and release a game. I intend to never say anything negative about someone who has worked hard and put their efforts out for the world to see. I might still criticize the work, but the artist deserves accolades for getting it done.

I also wanted to express to anyone who may have been put off by my hubris that I’ve learned quite a bit about how little I know. Hopefully 2010 will bring lots more learning experiences.