The Game Design Kiss of Death (or, I hurt you because I love you)

Making games used to be EASY back when they were small and there was nothing at stake, but now that I am making my first real live full game, it’s suddenly more difficult and taking longer than I expected. The difference is I care more and I actually think it has potential to be an extraordinary game. This “love” and extra effort, it turns out, is toxic.

Here’s the problem: I’ve noticed it’s really hard to create a subjectively judged project like a game or music or whatever of high quality if I actually care about it. If I don’t care at all, it’s really easy. What a cruel joke. The inverse relationship looks about like this scientific chart.

graph_howmuchicarevsawesomeness_320.gif

And it’s not just me. I think, in general, this phenomenon can be described by the following Kyle’s Theorem of Destruction #2a: As love and effort increase, the probability of self destruction approaches 1. Why does this happen? It’s not the lovin that causes suckage. Not directly anyway. The suckage, I think, comes from slipping into a subjective relationship with the project where it can be completely ripe with suck but it’s impossible to notice because hours and months of work and extraneous double checking and focus group testing have brought the project to a certain point where you really hope it’s what you wanted back with the original vision, but you aren’t really sure and can’t even tell the difference because you have stared at it for so long you don’t even know what the hell it looks like anymore.

We want to avoid this.

Ok but this is nothing new. We always hear about those art guys – when they “can’t see their painting anymore”, they look at it in a mirror to see it again with a fresh perspective. Or whatever. When I write music and I get so sucked into it I “can’t hear it anymore”, I transpose the entire composition up or down by a half step or so to hear it again with a fresh perspective. So that’s nice, but WHAT CAN WE DO FOR GAMES AND GAMEPLAY? What small easy thing can I change to totally change but not change the game so I can play it again for the first time with a fresh perspective? I think I might know of one solution, and it’s the only one I’ve found so I sure hope it works: DISTRACTION.

Oh, Hillary Clinton’s announcement video has been slammed for being calculated (not that that’s new) and over-focus-grouped in a campaign effort to present a “more likable” image .. which basically turned what was once strong and polarizing into something watery and insincere. I think I remember something similar happening sometimes to some of the projects at one of the large game companies where I possibly worked for a while.

Anyway, DISTRACTION:

When working on something, I really value a strong objective viewpoint so I can be extremely self critical and know precisely what works and what doesn’t without any stupid love blindness getting in the way. So I’m hoping that if I completely distract myself from the main project (whatever it happens to be), and move into more of just a fuck buddy relationship with it, and meanwhile get obsessed with a different project periodically for a week or even just a weekend fling, that I will avoid falling into the subjective love rut and continue to see the main project “for the first time” .. or at least as objectively as possible anyway to maximize freshness.

I’ll probably post a few of the little distraction projects, prototypes, toys, and whatever on here. We’ll see how that works.

Anyone else deal with this kinda stuff or am I a crazy little bunny? Thanks for reading, I love you.

15 Responses to “The Game Design Kiss of Death (or, I hurt you because I love you)”

  1. Daniel Says:

    hi 2dboy :)

    my name is daniel (nick: sirleto), i’m a 26 year old game developer from germany. working in the industry for aprox. 6 years as assistant producer (etc.) and technical artist … and studying bachelor of computer science since in the 3rd year now.

    i know precisely what you tried to describe with this love-to-the-game-blindness. i have seen this with 10+ people on a larger project and also with only me on my own little adventure (working on it for aprox. 2 years freetime).

    my best tip for this (if you are alone or a small company), is to simulate a big company. what happens there, is that everyone has his wishes and looking at the product, only 50% of the people can be satisfied, some will never be. so when you put them together and let them talk, the satisfied won’t let the unsatisfied keep their “unrealistis dreams” and slow them down to what is possible. and the unsatisfied won’t let the satisfied stick to their love and tell them what truly sucks and could be changed. so this two groups will level themselves to a usefull ground where everybody sees whats good and what not about the product.

    and in a small team, where hopefully everybody loves the game, you don’t have such a choice. so you need to change your point of view by trying to stick more and more to the game (typically you dream about that anyway). and now allow yourself to do that (on paper) and look where you would come. and when you start to realize that this is not possible (but you’d love to have it) you will feel less satisfied with the current state of your game.

    and voila: this is the point where you typically are able to tell what truly is good about your (tiny) game and what isn’t.

    cheers,
    daniel / sirleto

    ps:

    what i did in the past:
    http://www.gameprogramming.de/renkel

    what we (me and buddys) do together:
    http://www.ceeu.de

    game reviews from a gamedesign perspective:
    http://gamedesignreviews.blogspot.com/

  2. Kyle Gabler Says:

    hey daniel / sirleto – I’ve definitely noticed what you describe, with the “satisfied” peepz (usually the practical characters like producers) in a large team keeping the “unsatisfied” guys (ie. the designers) more down to earth and in line with the original design. I would be concerned, though, that this would kill off any potential moments of total genius that probably happen naturally and unexpectedly as a part of the dev process.

    Hmm.. so I guess a better way of “keeping to the original design” would be to stick to the original SPIRIT of the design – not the explicit word doc or whatever – problem is it’s hard to keep a record of that original spirit since it’s more of a feeling than an easily recordable pile of text. I think in the extra commentary on the Zoolander DVD one of the guys said something about the initial gas station scene – where the male models will squirting gasoline all over each other in slow mo or something – and how THAT scene served as a model of the emotional spirit that the rest of the movie should aim to be like. Emotional prototyping!

    Anyway, thanks, Daniel/sirleto, for connecting “kyle” to “gay” in Human Brain Cloud. That was real nice.

  3. David Burchanowski Says:

    Hi 2dboy.

    I stumbled across this site via indygamer (http://indygamer.blogspot.com) and started reading, and I like what I see here as regards “keeping it real”. I’ve been making games on and off as a hobby since I was 14 or so (which comes to a total of 10 years, yeah, I’m young ^^), and this is definitely a problem I’ve run into before. Like you, I find that distractions such as toys and such on my desk help immensely, as do a few other things such as random doodles when I’m not sure how to proceed with something.

    There is one other thing that I’ve found that helps, provided you’re working on your own project, and that is to take a break completely for a few days. Don’t even look at it, and play a game, read a book, do something else entirely. And when you come back, sit back and just play with it for a few minutes. Try to play it, and see what feels off. This part can be tricky for me, because sometimes my early attempts at defining a way of going about getting the “feeling” of the project down turn out to be completely wrong for the task at hand, and I hate scrapping work. But it’s a lot easier to do when I’ve been about and looking at what other people have done for a while, and I have something else to gauge myself by than just my project I’ve been staring at forever.

    So anyway, I hope this blog serves it’s purpose for you, and good luck with keeping the distractions up and the productivity on-track!

  4. Kloonigames » Blog Archive » Kyle’s New 2D Boy Blog Says:

    […] a really fresh blog, there’s already a bunch of interesting posts. I recommend you read his game design rant about the difficulties of trying to stay objective when creating something you love (a game or any […]

  5. Aubrey Says:

    Hey Kyle and Ron,

    I know exactly how you feel. I’m working on a similarly named, non competing game to yours. The fun part of development is always coming up with the cool ideas and solutions, but for the past few months, it’s been more about doing the work implementing them, and then listening to crushing criticism* on something that isn’t even finished. That can be rewarding, but when you smash your head against annoying problems, it takes the joy out of it.

    And then when opportunities to be creative turn up again, you’re sort of exhausted from working so hard on the game, and not completely sure how to marry new ideas with your existing stuff. I can totally relate. I concluded that all I can really do is hunker down and keep at it. If I need to, I take a break for a few days, indulging guilty pleasures (Battlefield 2, in my case) to recharge my desire. Running on empty where passion is concerned is not worth the blood sweat and tears.

    For what it’s worth, I thought your experiment for Tower of Goo was fantastic, and I’m definately looking forward to seeing how you develop it. Stick with it guys!

    *Actually, feedback has not been bad, but I’m a depressive, and want to believe that everyone hates me :

  6. DoomRater Says:

    I’m into weapons modding in the ZDoom community, and while the code I use to make weapons (called DECORATE) isn’t technically a programming language I get the exact same problems with my projects. What’s worse though is that I must have like three or four different projects (not to mention single weapon ideas) floating around with nothing complete yet!

    I think my biggest hurdle is at least getting it to be playable first, and then after that it’s just a matter of tinkering with it every now and then to keep it fresh. Since a lot of what I release ends up being for the community anyway, a few tweaks and code enhancements tend to add up for me later on.

  7. Dylan Says:

    That sure hits home. I wonder if I’m ever going to feel that my game is DONE. It was so much easier (and consistently fun) when my projects were limited to 7 days.

  8. Tim Alford Says:

    I know the feeling. It’s happening to me right now. I take breaks for a few days then get right back to it but sometimes… I have no idea what I’m looking at.

  9. Steve Says:

    Yep, I’ve had that a few times. Had it recently, being asked to rework and rework a minigame, changing this gameplay mechanic and that scoring system, realising that doing so meant I had to rewrite the enemy AI to make it fit, endlessly going round in circles. When I got to the point where I (and, I think, the people I was working with) could genuinely not answer the question of whether or not we even thought the game was any good, we quietly canned it and moved onto other things. There was probably a fun game in there somewhere, but I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and it ceased to become worth pursuing.

    It’s not always that bad, though. Distraction is good. I’m in a period of voluntary distraction from another project right now. I know I’ll go back to it, probably soon, because I’m starting to miss it, but we needed some time apart. What is also really, really good is borrowing a fresh pair of eyes from someone. Find somebody you can trust who has never seen the game before (or who hasn’t seen it for a while), let them play it, and ask them to give you their honest opinion on it. It’s a marginally different process to focus testing, because focus testers tend to be people from your target audience who you might not know that well. Having someone you know, maybe even from outside the target audience, maybe not even a gamer, tell you what they think can work wonders for your perspective.

  10. kingofthespill Says:

    If the game is remotely like the promotional video you probably don’t need to worry about it =).

    I have seen and experienced a similar perspective loss when working on creative projects. It is a serious problem, though much more problematic for me in music composition versus software development ( i.e. contract projects).

    Finding willing “cold” beta-testers, ones that have no idea about the original Tower of Goo, might be a good time investment on your part. Random people might be able to give you some feedback that you are not expecting, and help you find out if you are hyper-focused on something they could care less about. For instance, there are some folks who are offended that the original has samples of someone saying H*LY SH*T, especially as this is available to kids. For them that overshadows the fun of it. Anyway, having other people tell you straight if anything really sucks can alleviate you needing to wear that hat.

  11. Kyle Gabler Says:

    It’s good to hear I’m not the only one. :) Putting together the trailer actually helped a LOT as well btw. It was a valuable exercise, even if I had never released it – having a quick 53-second reference to refer to if I ever lose “the vision” is crazy valuable.

    kingofthespill – Ha! Don’t forget H*LY F*CK and I think E*T ME B*TCH! :) But point taken. There is “no profanity” in World of Goo, however we will be releasing an add-on Profanity Pack ™ for the more … adventurous… players. I know what you mean with music too, such a subjective form of self expression. You have music online? Always fun meeting other music peepz.

  12. kingofthespill Says:

    – however we will be releasing an add-on Profanity Pack ™ for the more … adventurous… players. —

    lol… any plans for GTA-esque “Streets of Goo” graphics pack?

    No music online sorry to say – it has been years since I recorded anything.

  13. DamionKutaeff Says:

    Hello everybody, my name is Damion, and I’m glad to join your conmunity,
    and wish to assit as far as possible.

  14. daniel 'sirleto' renkel Says:

    Kyle Gabler wrote on July 3rd, 2007
    …though, that this would kill off any potential moments of total genius …

    you’re absolutely right. and this is a very sad thing, as the “professional” part of the industry often does not understand how this kind of balance between design (a iterative process) and good-mood for genius-moments is very hard to control from a time-management point-of-view.

    Kyle Gabler wrote on July 3rd, 2007
    … so I guess a better way of “keeping to the original design” would be to stick to the original SPIRIT of the design …

    yes, absolutely! this is exactly what i tried over the years with my personal projects. i’m always trying hard to balance my personal artist-like creativity and especial huge-amounts of freedom with/against my strugle to build up a “bürgerliche existenz” (bourgeoise existence = the live normal people live, the money/security/family basis of live support). in other words: the balance between art/freedom/risk and work/security/money. in this balancing struggle i’m working on a few projects that aren’t finished yet, due to the fact that my changing life let me leave the project ideads. nearly all projects, and especially the biggest one that shall be finished in 2009 are based on EMOTIONS (i call them emotions, but your word of “spirit” fints fine, too). those emotions i try to stick to, even if i have a game un-developed for more than one year, i can still pickup to work on it. of course code needs to be well documented, workflows needed to be clear, artstyle needed to be flexible, etc. in order for a game to last more than a few work-months.

    but the basic problem remains, that more than a year ago the designer (me) had something in his mind (emotions) that he wanted to fullfill with his game. a year later, the code, the gameplay, the game-mechanics, nearly everything that matters in terms of “survive time” can’t tell the emotions. only media (audio, video) can keep the emotion. but especially visual looks age very quick, thus i always keep up my research materials that inspire me to “feel” the original emotions and – and this is my “super” trick: i try to search/create/buy the music for the game first. this way i always have the desired emotions given by music in my head, and can a) stick to the emotions when developing the game in stressful times (parttime, after work, etc.) and also can b) stick to the emotions when continueing the game after a lot of time passed by (weeks, months, even years).

    Kyle Gabler wrote on July 3rd, 2007
    … anyway, thanks, Daniel/sirleto, for connecting “kyle” to “gay” in Human Brain Cloud. That was real nice…

    more than one year after your post, i must confess that i don’t understand a word what you’re talking about. what have i done? was that good or bad? was it intentionally? or was it a crazy (funny) side-effect?

    best regards from germany,
    daniel

  15. lafe Says:

    yep, this is just how i feel with my currrent project. sept i suffer from a far worse mutation, i get sucked into my side projects & lose my origional intention, just too do it again with that side project. it sucks.
    *stuped ideas!*