Saturday, October 21, 2006

Game Development is not Software Development

Many developers believe that games do not need a central creator figure and that customer focus and willingness to adapt are what matters. I basically disagree with this idea on the basis that games are not software applications which can be definitively made better according to an objective standard. They are entertainment, which relies largely on subjective perspectives of what works, regardless of whether they are so-called interactive or passive entertainment.

Quite a few of the myths of game development derive from ignorance. Game development is a very narrow, insular field in many ways, and is not a culture remarkable for its ability to embrace and learn from outside itself. As a result, many of its myths are legacy ideas that have developed happenstance over a number of years and clogged up its arteries with all sorts of guff. The software-analogy is perhaps the largest of them all.

What this myth concerns is the idea that the techniques of software development can translate over into game development. At the level of the lone gunman, like my friend Cliff Harris, a developer can work in whatever way he or she chooses. When working on a larger scale, such as on 'The Movies', however, things become very different.

Most games are primarily made of content, not software. In any given game
development team there are far more man hours devoted to what goes into the game and how it works as a piece of entertainment rather than the engineering of it. As a result, iteration-led development always has to keep an eye on the fact that while changes in a regular software development environment usually don't cause too much trouble if managed correctly, significant changes in a game development environment can (and do) throw an awful lot of content work away.

A simple example is a change made by code in the middle of a project which streamlines the way that a scripting system works. In software development this may have some knock-on effects in terms of user interface and documentation, but that's not too heavy as the content to code ratio of software is low. In a game development environment, such a change can throw out months of work.

Content-code issues aside, the more significant difference between the two, philosophically, is that most software development is focused on making an objectively better product through better features, better implementation of features, or both. Game development is focused on making better gameplay, which usually results from less features, a deliberate impediment to those features, or both. Software applications are built to drive productivity. Games are built to challenge and surprise.

Software applications become objectively better.
Games become subjectively better.

As a result, adopting the mindset of software development into game development is pretty much the same as adopting the techniques of telecommunications engineering as a means to becoming a better sculptor. Software and games make look similar when you're staring at the code, but they are actually worlds apart. To make a better application you need an engineer's mindset driving the process. To make a better game, you need the mind of an artist.

Creation vs Innovation

What's at the root of the software analogy myth is an inherent distrust of the creative. This largely reactionary viewpoint stems from a rejection of outsiders coming into game development. The culture has a long history of its own, and many developers instinctively feel that those people who foisted FMV and long boring talks about interactive storytelling and whatever else just don't get it. Writers, painters, musicians, what the hell do they know about games, right?

Maybe not much. But what they do know a lot about is creativity, and creativity is something that isn't just on a low par in games, it's downright absent. Instead, we plumb for talking about "innovation".

Innovation is a funny concept to apply to entertainment. Innovation is the stuff of building better products, better software, that which is more efficient and effective. You innovate features for an MP3 player, a way of building a house or kind of cola. But do we innovate in entertainment?

Well entertainment certainly goes through stages. Camera techniques in television shows, for example, change all the time. They are often highly fashion-led, however. This week's shaky cam is last week's news. Techniques are always on the move, but they are only the side show of the implementation. What matters in television shows is whether the content is surprising or not. The innovative takes a back seat to the creative.

The same is usually true of games. Most games, even many of the most successful games, are not innovative. Starcraft is the same game as Warcraft 2. GTA3 is a straight-up-and-down drive and shoot game. Bioware's rpgs have been doing the same thing since, like, forever. Max Payne does not do anything not done before. While it is true that some games have exploded onto the scene in a hail of innovation, the reality is that most of them have not, and most of the most fondly remembered games are so remembered for their creative elements. The stuff that made us laugh, swear, jump out of our seats in fright and so on is the creative parts in games.

As we go forward, the innovation angle is becoming less and less relevant because innovation is limited. Yes, the Wii is going to shake up how things are controlled for a little while, but you and I both know that in 18 months from its release the platform will play host to a variety of "look what I can do with a wavey controller" cloneware, but the really interesting games will be the creative ones.

Innovation is a way to solve a problem or explore a feature, and developers love that. Creation, however, is what makes games memorable and gives them depth. That's what them writers and artists and all the rest of them can bring to the table. We've seen it before in roleplaying games and the old graphical adventures, and we can see it again. But only if we can learn to change and accept the creative.

Otherwise it's orcs and elves, this time with 3D positional controllers, until we all get utterly bored to death.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.