Of watches and chronometers...

Snipehunter's picture

Watch movement

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I love me job. I know 'tis somethin' I say a lot which, considerin' that I can't talk a lot about what I do, might seem a little circumspect, but 'tis true -- I really do love me job. By trade, I'm a game designer. Aarrr! I bounty th' systems, mechanics, lore, levels, enemies an' worlds o' th' games I work on. The sharks will eat well tonight, shiver me timbers This time aroun', however (much like me time on Auto Assault) me focus is primarily on content, Avast me hearties! Fetch me spyglass! I'm a lore master, at th' coarsest end o' th' granularity scale, but that's not really what I do...

You see, all o' that lore, all o' those stories, they have t' work fer th' game -- they have t' enable or support th' game play o' th' world I'm a part o' makin'. Even little choices, like what each geographical area o' a world will look like, is a game play choice -- th' concerns o' game play supersede any aesthetic concern one might have. In other words, I am not a writer or an artist. Nor am I just a "quest designer" or some sort o' glorified implementer. Nay, th' truth is, I'm actually more like a watch maker.

My tools range from th' course -- th' broad strokes o' th' words I use t' weave a history t' brin' a world t' th' fictional point where our game play fits th' context -- t' th' fine: To th' tiny gears, sprin's an' levers that make th' smallest critter behave believable or th' townsfolk o' a world comment on their day as they go through it.

This all sounds like an ego trip, I'm sure, an' I suppose in a way it is, but I'm mentionin' all o' this fer a reason, I'll warrant ye. Give me a chance t' explain, an' then ye can tell me I'm vain. Smiling

I mention that me tools run from th' course t' th' fine because, lately, I've noticed an alarmin' trend in th' game designers I've discussed th' trade with. We seem t' be losin' our desire t' work on fine detail. This likely sounds terribly strange considerin' how detailed games have become, but take a moment t' consider th' details ye see now a days: Most o' it is startlingly non-interactive. Incredible detail in our characters -- in th' way they look aroun' a room or move their lips when they speak -- were bein' a hallmark o' th' new generation o' consoles, right, avast? That's an incredibly cool effect, but what does it really gain us? Are we any more connected t' that space marine, really? Fetch me spyglass! Can we make that scurvey dog do anythin' beyond move, shoot an' click a wall switch?

At th' end o' th' day, th' answer is no... Ahoy! And lately, I'm beginnin' t' think th' reason is us: The designers o' th' world who have come t' believe that our job is more directorial than creative.

CliffyB is not some game equivalent t' a film director an' neither am I. Earlier I called meself a watchmaker, an' that's an important appellation. You see, a watch maker is an artist, perhaps even an artist o' th' highest order, but more importantly -- a watch maker is an artist-engineer, someone not only capable o' implementin' his vision, but driven t' do it. Every watch -- every chronometer -- is not just a work o' art, but a complex contraption. It's a system; a collection o' mechanics intricately woven together t' achieve an effect, th' trackin' o' time. You likely see where I'm takin' this metaphor at this point: Games be like watches, too.

So, what happens when yer watchmakers dern't want t' work with tiny gears anymore? You get simpler watches, right? Or ye get large, sweepin', epic watches that be too unwieldy an' large t' be truly useful. You know what, screw th' metaphor: What happens when yer designers dern't want t' implement th' details, anymore?

What happens is Space Marines with immaculate glowy armor with dangly bits an' shiny bobs... Aarrr! who can still only run, jump, shoot an' flip switches despite all th' glori'us detail ye think ye see. We need more watchmakers in our industry an' fewer directors. Don't get me wrong, we need our directors t' be strong - t' have a clear vision that they shepherd an' tend without corruptin' or sacrificin' t' th' altar o' convenience - but what we need most is watchmakers. Aarrr! We need those designers who be willin' t' make th' worlds more interactive, th' designers who be willin' t' look at th' tiny gears an' sprin's o' their watches an' work right thar at that layer. Nay matter yer directorial an' authorial modes, ye can't achieve yer goals without th' watchmakers.

Every year, I see fewer an' fewer watchmakers an' more an' more would-be directors, and a bottle of rum! Correlation an' causation is not th' same thin', but I can't help but notice that our games be gettin' simpler an' simpler at th' same time. I wonder, in th' way that someone who suspects he knows th' answer already will, if that isn't th' reason more an' more games seem t' "suck" every year, feed the fishes

Let me see if I can put it another way: Everyone were bein' so pumped fer Spore, right? Why were bein' that, Ya horn swogglin' scurvy cur! It were bein' th' promise o' elegant complexity, weren't it? Fire the cannons! It were bein' th' promise o' a game that started small an' simple, an' then grew in complexity as we players began t' master th' simple game that were bein' presented. What did we get instead, Dance the Hempen Jig 5 very simplified versions o' pre-existin' games loosely strin' together. Spore were bein' still fun, but did it live up t' th' promise it made with us when Will Wright an' others lauded its features an' abilities? Reluctantly, I say no an' I think th' way that game turned out is a perfect example o' what I'm talkin' about:

Too course a granularity in yer bounty thinkin' means yer game will be too simple.

I have no notion what-so-e'er how spore were bein' made or who worked on it, so dern't think I'm bein' critical o' them, but if me experience in th' industry is any indication, I bet they had no notion they were doin' what they did. Directors talk about th' potential or th' vision -- th' promise o' their vision (think Molyneaux) -- but watchmakers talk about precision an' th' motion o' their mechanics -- th' realization o' th' promise. There be likely thousands o' me so-called watchmakers out thar in our industry, but how many o' them be actually free t' make watches? How many o' them be told that watches be too complex; that scallywags won't understan' th' motion or all those tiny gears, me Jolly Roger

There's a caveat t' me previ'us statement about needin' strong directors: Those directors have t' trust th' watchmakers t' do their work. They need t' remember that th' motion an' all those little gears be transparent t' th' end user: All she sees is th' elegant motion o' two arms as they sweep across th' clock face.

So, today I wonder about how t' fix it. How we do simultaneously encourage our industry's designers t' be more like watchmakers, less like directors, an' convince our directors t' be strong while givin' us a free han' t' make th' clockworks?

How do ye convince scallywags that doin' th' harder thin' is not only th' right thin', but th' better course fer th' entire industry?

How do ye convince a culture convinced th' words simple an' elegant be synonyms that they're wrong? How do ye remind them that th' motion o' th' watch is necessary t' make th' arms work? How do ye remind them that without th' lubber behind th' curtain, thar can be no wizard?

For that matter, how can ye convince them that, without th' wizard, thar can be no story, at all?

- Snipehunter

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Ombwah's picture

We're teaching it, it's cultural even

When I went t' school fer industrial bounty, I were bein' initially surprised at how technical th' first year classes were in regard t' process an' material properties. I were bein' taken aback by how many disciplines me supposed art studies had suddenly branched across, I'll warrant ye. This were bein' an art school right, Get out of me rum! I weren't signin' up t' be some sort o' construction engineer, were bein' I? Why did I have t' care what th' shear properties o' a given metal be, and dinna spare the whip! Why were bein' it important that I learn what technologies were available fer shapin' plastics or what chemical mechanism concrete used t' achieve great hardness - that were bein' ephemera, tertiary details that were fer th' construction crew t' deal with, right? Ye'll be sleepin' with the fishes! Shouldn't I be more concerned about shape an' feel?

The reason were bein' o' course that th' "How t' do thin's" became very clear once ye knew how this technology or that material worked, on a fundamental sort o' level. This allowed fer an "honest" sort o' conception when ye went t' th' bounty board -- a clear notion o' what ye could do an' how it would play out when ye did. As a game designer this translates fer me into knowin' how t' actually pull off a given experience within a given engine's basic tools, an' into understandin' as clearly as I can how th' game engine ye be workin' in works behind th' front end. The sharks will eat well tonight! Fire the cannons! It were bein' easier t' make cool thin's happen once I knew how th' gears worked. Moreover, it were bein' easier t' conceive o' cool thin's t' do when I could readily see how t' do them.

There is a tendency latent in th' industry t' equate potential fer sloppy script with good reason t' simplify an' restrict designer tools. Tools t' speed up creation be good, but those that limit functionality aren't so cool. Likewise 'tis great practice t' create modular systems so that designers aren't forced t' script th' same behavior o'er an' o'er, but 'tis a net loss t' lock them out from th' ability t' script unique behaviors in th' course o' that endeavor. This brin's t' mind th' popular 'fallacy o' th' hack' where "t' apply basic script elements t' achieve gameplay ends" is described in a derogatory sense that I believe is what causes Snipey t' see fewer "watchmakers" an' more "directors". Why is it a hack t' flip a bit with interpreted language (script) rather than in a code object, All Hands Hoay! The same data is manipulated, in a very similar way, albeit abstracted one layer. Yaaarrrrr! When thar is no clockwork that designers be allowed t' touch, all thar is left fer us t' do is direct.