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volume 1, issue 30

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Behind the Curtain:
Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

 

 

 

 

 

By Matt "Thraka" Gilbert

irst things first: mea culpa. Last time, I used a quote from a Rush song, and in a fit of stupidity, I attributed the quote as having come from ĎLimelightí. No, no, no. Itís from "Spirit of Radio", as was pointed out to me by several observant souls.

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

When I first walked into Illusions, back in the very green days of my youth, I noticed a sign on the wall. It was a first person view of Dirty Harry, pointing a Big Fucking Gun (a .44 mag S&W model 686, I think, for those of us who shoot) at you. Beside it is the caption: "Go ahead! Make one more change!" That was my introduction to the concept of design fluidity. It seems fitting, somehow, to begin with that.

Now, I should like to make it clear from the outset that I have never actually shot anyone for making changes to my projects. A couple of times, I did jump up on my desk and wave my .45 around menacingly, and they backed down, so it was unnecessary to actually fireÖ.

Changes. Man, of all the things that make you wish you were a simple ditch digger, these are the top dogs. Itís like this: you and the publisher put together a Game Design Document. Then you build the game. As this is happening, the publisher changes his mind and you throw away some work, and then redo it. Sometimes he changes his mind only a few times. Usually, he changes it more than you would like. And sometimes, he changes his mind back and forth once a week, hence the need for anger management therapy among some developers. This last case is termed a Nightmare Project, a Project From Hell, or simply a long string of curses strung together in no particular order.

Ah, what the hell, toss in the sink, too.

Naturally, rational people are asking themselves "How can this happen? Why doesnít the publisher stick to one plan?" And of course, we old hands are thinking, "Because it is the nature of publishers to meddle." The short answer is "Because publishers are annoying." But the long answer is probably more accurate.

The biggest reason for changes is because Product X, developed and published by Someone Else, included Feature A. Marketing tells your producer that we simply must have Feature A, or our product will fail. So, said producer comes to you and says, "Do feature A." Well, okay, letís be realistic. What he really does is come to you a month before alpha, and say, "Do feature A through Triple Z." In other words, he asks for the impossible, and on a tight deadline. Thatís what producers do, after all.

Now, these are not all that bad, assuming that theyíre legit changes. Itís always a Good Thing when youíre making your product better. However, sometimes, in the course of development, things get out of hand, and the changes are severe enough to cause serious time problems.

Hereís a hypothetical example: note, this never actually happened to anyone real, no sir, uh uh, couldnít in a million years. (Stop that snickering out there, old timers.) Once upon a time, there was a project that began with a poor design. Said project staggered along without a Game Design Document for any number of months. In fact, by the time the Game Design Document was done, the game engine was complete. Can you see whatís coming?

You got it. The design called for things that the engine was never intended to handle. This was no minor problem. It came up again and again. We lost months of work because of this foolishness.

Lesson number one of game development: make a plan, and stick with it. And if you canít make a plan, youíre not capable of doing the job, so get the fuck out of the way and let someone else do it. In the above case, the fault lay strictly with a wish washy publisher and licensor. Between the two of them, nothing could ever be settled on.

For the licensor, the issues were primarily those of fidelity to their concepts. They were doing a cartoon about the same characters, so there was this big deal about model sheets, and how things had to look just certain ways. They waste our time mercilessly bitching about minor aspects, and in the end, they go and do the cartoon with completely different artwork, leaving us to hang in the breeze.

Weíre Too Sexy For Our Shirts

Okay, somebody Ďsplain dis to me, huh? Howcum we gotta have ten people from da publisher who ainít doiní no art or programminí or nothin sitting in on da design meetings?

Hey, warning sign: when there are more do nothings than doís in on the design, you have a situation known as, "too many cooks." It is also known, in various vernaculars, as "worthless pack of hyenas justifying their paycheck by making you work harder for yours."

That is to say, the publisherís people had issues, man! Specifically, they were a bunch of wannabes who imagined they had a handle on what it took to make things cool. I swear some of them smoked clove cigarettes. They were the kind of people who have no talent but want to pretend they do, so of course they called themselves game designers. And no, thatís not a slag on game designers, just a note that itís easier to pose as one than it is to pose as a programmer or an artist. Hey, if you canít do decent art, itís obvious, and the same goes for programming. But you can bullshit your way through game design for any number of months before getting busted. The sad thing is, you can bullshit yourself just as easy as those around you. Itís easy to think of yourself as some great designer, when in fact you suck.

Anyway, back to our personal demons. Man, they were so hip, they shot down every decent concept our team came up with for the simple reason that they werenít the ones to think it up. Now thatís cool, man! After a month or so with no progress, they figured someone has to be blamed, so they fired the writer and found a new one. Well, to be fair, they fired the producer on their end, too. Then they fired the next writer. Six months into the project, we finally get a permanent writer. The guy was good, way better than his predecessors, but thatís not the point. It should have been done before the project went into production.

A year into this thing, and during a crunch to make Alpha, the publisher decided to move alpha forward three months to add additional features, so we have three whole extra months to work on this. Of course, they want six months worth of features, which means 3 more months of unbroken crunch time. This is the point where even the best team can start to crack up under the pressure. Itís no longer a reasonable situation, itís a death march, and one that could have been avoided.

In the past couple of years, this has, it seems, gotten a bit better industry wide. People began to wonder why they were taking so long to finish things, and why it was so difficult. Well, duh. Itís because of design as you go strategies.

Hereís hoping your next project doesnít make this mistake. If you see it coming ahead of time, I have one piece of advice for you: walk. Find a real company with a clue. But you have to see this early, while you can still get out without screwing your team: once youíre in, youíre in. If you bail mid-project, your name is shit in this industry.

So keep your eyes open.

Next week: I dunno what it will be. So I guess that means it will be a surprise!

 

- Matt 'Thraka' Gilbert is a console programmer, currently working at StormFront Studios. These are his own ravings, and have nothing whatsoever to do with his employer.

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Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Behind the Curatain is © 1999 Matt Gilbert. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. And ignore the man behind the curtain. He's just got a shotgun aimed at your head...nothing to get alarmed about.