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volume 1, issue 12

Today in loonygames:

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When it's Done!






By Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford


hen it's done! You really do have to admire that phrase; it's neat, tidy, answers the question and yet, at the same time, says nothing at all.

If not originally coined by, then at least popularized id Software, when talking of their long awaited Quake back in the post-Doom 2 days, "when it's done" has since changed the way the gaming industry works, with many developers now happy to quote the cliche rather than lock into a solid finishing date until the product is actually finished.

One of the things in life that interests me is the battle between "change" verses "status quo". Change is an essential, and inevitable, part of life, and yet, as a community (be it a country, a town, a social group, or even something like the gaming community), we tend to do our best to petition against change as much as possible. This fear of change often leads to it's influence in our ways of life being completely overlooked when something happens which we don't like. We tend to puzzle over the effect, when the cause is right there in front of us.

The gaming scene has gone through a lot of changes, some for the better, some for the worse, but mostly just changes. "Nothing lasts forever" is truly an insightful observation, and something, I believe, that should be taught in schools. If people were aware of it's implication in the same way they understand, for example, "what goes up, must come down", there would probably be far fewer annoyed people in the world.

"When it's done" really does annoy people. It appears to be a joke, or a cop out. Perhaps the developers are just toying with the gamers, gamers who absolutely must know when the game is going to be released so they can plan their lives out around the event, and lets face it, once we've got an interest in a game, the anticipation of it's release can often be unhealthy.

On examination of the major changes the game industry has witnessed since the early 1980's, this apparent lack of ability to predict production time is explainable, and even perhaps expected (Hari Seldon would be proud!).

Games were once the province of someone sitting in their bedroom late at night, typing away for a few months, with the results slapped into a cassette case and placed onto a shelf. These days, games are the result of large teams of people, each specializing in a particular area of game creation, with months/years of planning going into advertising, packaging, shop placement etc. Likewise, playtesting has become a real job rather than something the coder once did between compiles.

In other words, complexity in the game production process had increased well beyond the days of Pac-Man. Complexity is a word that had far more interesting connotations than a casual game player may realize. In fact, complexity is something that scientists are only just beginning to really gain an understanding of. For the sake of this article, we can consider a system that reaches a critical level of complexity as having two possible end results; it can achieve higher order, or it can result in chaos.

Human bodies are an example of complexity resulting in higher order (or anti-entropy if you like). Atoms and their particles we can understand fairly well, and even molecules are well understood, but there's a point above this comprehendible level where an increase in complexity doesn't just give a linear complexity increase, it actually takes a huge step and produces life! In other words, the combination of enough atoms/molecules, none of which have any intrinsic intelligence, combined together in just the right way can lead to life, and even further on, sentience.

On the other hand, adding further complexity to what is a well balanced system can actually tip it over the edge and lead to "chaos", or in other words, a system that is completely random. Of course, "completely random" is really just a phrase we give to things which we haven't yet found a pattern for - you can never prove something truly is completely random - yet it's now widely accepted that chaos is a very real phenomenon in the universe.

A neat little example of chaos appearing from a previously ordered system is where you take a piece of string with a weight tied to the end. By moving your arm back and forth, the weight will swing in a nice, orderly and predictable movement. If you then slowly increase the speed of your arm movement, the swinging motion will change, but it will still remain orderly. Then, at some critical speed, the swing motion ceases it's natural movement and begins swaying back and forward in a random fashion (ref; 'More Big Questions' by Paul Davies).

Back to the gaming industry, it really does appear that things have just "tipped over the edge", or at the very least, are balancing precariously. Game creation has reached that point where the combined complexity of large teams of specialized individuals, huge gaming environments and features, combined with the needs of the corporate environment and the constant exchange of employees, has made development time an impossible thing to predict. And that's without even considering the expectations of gamers.

With this difficulty in predicting development time, developers are taking one of three approaches. They may choose to go with the "when it's done" approach. To create games with a 'when it's done' approach requires good relations with the people financing the project - often the publisher - and it would certainly require a lot of leverage (i.e. past success for the developers) and smooth talking to convince a publisher to allow the creation of a game with a "when it's done" approach, but from the producers perspective, this is the ultimate way to make a game (less pressure and the option to make radical changes over the length of the project are big pluses).

(continued on next page)


Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. When It's Done is © 1998 Rowan Crawford. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, dangit.