A Crime of Passion – when do you kill your babies?

Apologies for not updating recently – I was laid off and have been looking for work.

My good friend Jamie Fristrom just did a session at the IGDA Leadership forum in San Francisco on the subject of pre-pro prototyping – a subject on which Jamie and I have many of the same thoughts and beliefs – which he talks about in his latest blog post Here – IGDA Leadership Forum In The Box and which is covered twitter style by Ben Hoyt here.

One of the interesting things about prototyping and the iteration-is-cheap stage is that in this one area having Passion and Being Engaged in what you are doing can actually work against you.

“How is that?” You say?
Well, I think that generally we all agree that having passion, caring about what you are doing, actively being involved in it and being willing to go that extra mile because you believe something can be cool is what we all want in game developers right? I know I do.

But in the iteration stage, where you are developing something new and iterating on it to get it ‘right’, where it’s fun, instinctive but works, there does come a time when you may need to kill it. Part of the point of the pre-pro stage is to have a time where you can iterate fast and actually afford to fail. Jamie Fristrom points out that most prototypes will actually fail and, as he charmingly puts it, “You need to shoot your babies in the crib” (What an image!). And he’s right. Part of the point of pre-pro is so that you can fail on developing new idea’s without putting an entire team on hold while you scrabble around to replace it.

The problem comes in knowing when to fold on a new idea. When do you stop iterating? When do you throw in the towel? I don’t honestly believe there is a hard and fast rule on this – if the feature you are iterating on is critical and root to the game you are making then realistically you can’t, or you need to cancel what you are doing entirely and redesign from the ground up to make something else or simpler (and that *is* something that must happen on occasion, hard as it is to do).

For other stuff the rule on When To Stop Iterating and Admit Defeat becomes more blurry, and this is where my initial proposition that passion can get in the way comes in.

The more engaged and passionate you are about what you are doing, the less objective you are about it and the less you want to take the shotgun to it and move on.

As game developers I think we have all seen situations where a feature is being implemented that just isn’t working right, but the people implementing it just won’t let it go, either through force of personality or because the game requires it, flawed as it is.

Unfortunately passion is the enemy of objectivity, which is really what is required at the Pre-Pro stage. Pre-pro and prototyping time and money is limited, particularly if you are forcing this in to a publisher who really doesn’t understand the ratio of quality to sales. So iterating repeatedly on something that really doesn’t work is just time and money wasted.

At this point it probably becomes clear that someone other than the person developing / iterating needs to have final say on “This is done” – trouble is, who is that person?

That is something that really only each dev house can decide. But I would suggest it’s some one with a really good “shit filter” (as the guys at 3DR call it- whom I believe have some of the best shit filters in the business). Basically someone who can not only see what is there, but can imagine what will be there later (pretty graphics and so on), as well has how all the bits will fit together as a cohesive whole.

I’d love to be in a pre-pro situation again and actually record iterations on a given system to see what the optimal number of do-overs are, and what the starting parameters are for these optimal numbers (e.g. “This something totally new, never seen before” or “We are adding an extra feature to an existing mechanic” or “we are modifying an existing mechanic” or “We are trying an existing mechanic that we as a team have no experience with”.) – I’m sure there’s some holistic that will give you approximate numbers, although it might be that this might be better judged as time rather than iteration attempts? Bearing in mind time is money it’s likely stuff like this will be seen that way anyway.

What do you think?

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