Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Capturing data sets you free

Data-oriented design taught me something more than coding better for hardware. It taught me that it doesn't matter what you're doing, as long as you want to do it well, you need to be able to measure how well you're doing. If you aren't measuring your progress, how can you know you've had a success? How can you know you're making a difference?

This is something that a fair few older game designers often ignore, and it's because for a decent amount of the history of game development, design has been an airy fairy, hand waving, throw things around and see what sticks, kind of thing. It works to some extent, because a lot of the games we used to make were small enough that what we were actually designing was game mechanics. But that's not true any more. Now, games have a few mechanics they want to explore, and those mechanics might be refined over the development of the game, but in truth, the throwing stuff around and seeing what sticks stage of development is over pretty darned quick now. Plenty of companies that don't work with data have had a "great idea", implemented it, and then at publishing time, found that the thing on which they worked really hard is not received well because it's not very good. It's not even like the developers are likely to have thought it was really good while it was in development either, but for some reason, there's a blind spot for failure to make an engaging design. It's like they're frightened to measure how well the game is doing, in case they have to change something. It's almost like they're trying to win logical fallacy bingo. A bit of cognitive dissonance here, a bit of sunk-costs there, and a bit of gamblers to top it off.

Some companies make a big deal out of measuring their games, and they usually do pretty well. The spate of freemium games could not have landed such huge amounts of money without the constant attention to performance indicators. Measurements are key to a game that isn't actually designed to be "fun", but instead designed to extract cash from people with their consent. To this end, it appears that maybe the reason some people don't want to check to see if their design is good, might be that they want their game to be good without being polished by maths, or they want it to be a cult classic, warts and all. They don't want it to be as good as possible because they've sold their soul to the same people that make Cash of Beach, or Game of Candy. They want it to be as good as possible because they want to be proud that it's all their idea.

Using metrics saves you time thinking about stuff like "would the player find this too difficult" and allows a designer to concentrate on the actual inventing stuff. Being freed from having to do the laborious play-throughs and focus tests with hand written notes, gives the designers the mental space to come up with truly innovative game elements, and in house testing with feedback allows them to be able to see if they will work, or do work, without having to commit vast sums of money to them. Design, and art, love constraints, but hate the constraint of time. Give your designers and artists strict technical constraints and all the time in the world, and you end up with beautiful things. Stop them from working by not letting them utilise a universe of tools and metrics for seeing if their work is successful, and you end up with a big ball of ideas that only work in the heads of those that invented them. Nothing can be designed in a vacuum.

Graham McAllister on Molyneux's strange decision to ignore data.

"However, Peter is not alone in making such reckless statements. I was recently at a conference where a speaker was saying that all that was needed to make a great game was to hire smart people and have good ideas."

He's a different era of game designer. There's nothing inherently wrong with how he designs game mechanics, but my opinion is that he does need tempering, as without data, it's very hard for him to see what it is he does not know. Peter did found the cannery on the tagline "A great team with a great idea leads to great success".

This thinking is lovely, because it makes me sure that at the heart of it, Peter still believes in making a great game. The idea that numbers and metrics are something you don't bother with at the beginning, reminds me that at that desk, in that office, sits a game designer that really believes in striving to create something great, something unique, and something that will make a difference, all by sheer force of will, dedication, and persistence.

I don't think he can, which is why I don't work there any more, but I want to be proved wrong, because I think we'd be worse off without anyone like him doing it his way.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The great adventure.

I left 22cans because it no longer made sense to be there. I loved the idea, and I signed up to create a slew of creative experimental games or applications that would eventually culminate in a final product that would be great, if not one of the greatest games of all time. I felt like I understood where Peter Molyneux was coming from, what he wanted to do, and why he wanted to do it.

I think I wasn't wrong at the time. I think Peter wanted to make something great, grand, and successful, but his goal evolved over time, and for me, in a different direction than I had hoped for. We shared a need to make something people cared about, and to begin with, we shared a desire to experiment on a large scale. I enjoyed my first two years, working on curiosity and then working on Godus, but as we moved to free to play, I became uneasy. It's not something I signed up for, and though I'm not dead set against games that are free, such as dota and world of tanks, I don't feel right making a game with wait timers or feature pay walls that don't actually make the game experience any better. The longer we spent working on free to play mechanics, the less excited I felt about the company, and the more time I spent becoming enthusiastic about the technology.

I love working with hard technical problems, and there was no end of them with Godus. I worked on rendering landscape stuff, stuff that was dropped, stuff that made it into the game. I worked on networking and multiplayer, which was at times totally impossible (I think even provably so) but we pushed anyway. I worked on save games, and that was made harder by having to make it work with networking code (that wasn't tested, and in the end turned out to be feeding the game duff data). I worked on making things that were broken and impossible to fix, fixed. I enjoyed the successes, got annoyed at how only the failures were recognised, but in general, I think I made the most of working on Godus.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the direction the company took in early December 2014, when I was switched project away from Godus. I didn't like the game design (I won't explain the design as it is still kind of meant to be a secret) and I felt like it was completely misaligned with my values. It made me very sad. I felt depressed over Christmas, and started to look around to find another place to work. I never thought I'd leave 22cans. I didn't just feel sad about feeling like my morals had been ignored, I also felt sad about being disappointed in the company progress in general, and how maybe it could have been better if it hadn't gone the way it did. I felt like I had no power to stop the company from doing things I felt were not helping move it forward. I also felt like my professional experience was being ignored, and generally, the company direction couldn't be affected without being part of some group of people rather than being able to back up your ideas. Maybe realising that also hammered home the feeling that I was along for the ride, and not actually part of the company.

I guess I've always been attracted to the crazy and the risky. I looked around Guildford because I don't want to leave the area. I have too many friends nearby. I wanted Media Molecule, or Hello Games, but ended up with a pretty sweet offer from Epic, who I'd previously thought were too big a company for me. I like their style, they seem like good guys, and they have always made awesome games. I handed in my notice, which didn't surprise my lead. He understood my stance on f2p, and even told me he had expected my resignation earlier. I was then given a 6 week notice period, and was allowed back on Godus. I thought being back in Godus would be cool, but the problem with being on the way out was that my opinions and desires were pretty much ignored. Still much better than Rockstar, who once I said I was leaving, took my entry fob, and told me to not set foot in the building again. But then again, that did mean that I got a month off to do whatever I wanted with.

Just as I was all settled into the idea of working at Epic, an ex canner posted about how cool it was working on VR, at nDreams in Farnborough, a place I hadn't thought to apply because it seemed a bit far. It woke me up, made me double take what I was doing, and I jumped at the opportunity to do something exciting. So in a matter of less than a week, I went from becoming safe secure, working as bug fixing and tech support at Epic, to doing crazy new things at nDreams.

So what really happened? Peter Molyneux was, and still is, a constantly driven man, heading forwards, but strong enough belief in himself to define what forwards means and be able to ignore the detractors. I thought he had the same values as me, maybe we did for a short while, but I haven't the guts to admit that a company can have values a simple as making as much money as possible, and that's probably why I should never be given the chance to run a company. I wanted to, and still want to be challenged, and want to be famous for the right reasons. Right in my opinion anyway. I want to do VR because it's cool, it's on the rise, being here at nDreams at this point is great because it's like buying Google stock in 1990. It's like discovering the last bit coin. It's either great, and going to lead to something amazing, or at the least it's going to be a really interesting ride.

So I guess I left 22cans because I just didn't want to be part of just making money, and not make anything cool. Working on VR at nDreams is almost the opposite of how I felt after Godus. I now feel like I'm doing something that is risky, cool, interesting, ground breaking, and rewarding.

It's an adventure, like everything else in life, and new technology like this is the frontier.

Oh, did I mention we're hiring?