Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sometimes, The Spy Games are Too Much

Previously, I wrote about why clandestine conduct regarding upcoming projects can be a good thing (or at least a necessity). But excessive secrecy can also be harmful. Especially so in two ways, one impeding developers, the other inhibiting the audience.

Simply, the culture of secrecy that pervades most game development prevents developers from collaborating with each to advance their craft as a whole. Especially in terms of design, what I consider the most nascent aspect of game development, a lack conversation makes systematic progress in this area difficult.

Part of this stems from the understandable, but often unchecked, corporate desire to control a game's message. Saying in an interview that an in-production game is suffering from some
serious challenges is probably not conducive to generating excitement about your game. But even after a game ships, there often doesn't seem to be enough deep conversation about what the objectives of a game were, what worked and what didn't in meeting those objectives and what could be done to solve such problems in the future. The postmortems Think Services put together are good, but they're only 4-6 pages.

Some local events facilitate these conversations wells (e.g. Boston Postmortem), but obviously offer little to those not local. And if your city doesn't have a development community strong in this regard, it's a pretty difficult thing to change (believe me, I'm trying). Part of the reason why GDC is such an important event is that those spatial constraints are temporarily removed. But it's also once a year, and perhaps because of such, it's a pretty ... chaotic event.

As a pseudo-aside, one fantastic trend (as usual, set by Valve) is adding developer commentary to games. While some of the comments are known best practices to experienced developers, others are surprisingly technical. And it's useful to hear things you may "know" but haven't been at the front of your mind for a while. This is a trend I'd really, really like to see more studios adopt.

It's unfortunate but true that one of the best ways to spread development knowledge around is to close a successful studio. While the closure of Looking Glass still saddens, its extremely talented ex-pats ended up at Irrational/2K Boston, Harmonix, Bethesda and others. This spread of talent produced some of the best games of the last decade.

So, that's the cost of excess secrecy to developers. But the audience suffers here as well. The need for secrecy and to control the message shapes the conversation the audience has about upcoming games, and it's not for the better.

Prior to a game's release, statements about it from the publisher/developer are almost universally ebullient and vague. Descriptions of features are almost always glowing. I'm often struck by how often a pre-release interview just sounds like flipping through a thesaurus for "intense," "visceral," "over-the-top" and "compelling." Only rarely is the essential why discussed.

Unfortunately, this drives conversation about a game toward its "objective" quality at the expense of basically everything else (the absurd fixation on percent scoring isn't helping this either). Rather than ask, "Is it interesting?" the conversation is primed for "Is it good?", where good is how closely a game lives up to its pre-release promises.

Now I understand the need to sell a product (all too well; this exclusively keeps me housed and fed); this isn't a call for elimination, just moderation. Reaching a little further, and honestly, expecting more from ourselves and our audience, would serve both well. Secrecy in the games industry isn't going away, nor should it, but we should really be asking if we're being secret for the right reasons. Letting it all hang out from time to time would probably do us all some good.



Blogger Unknown said...

I agree this is a problem, and I think it's actually even worse: most companies don't even admit to themselves how well things are going.

I've seen a lot of internal postmortems that are as watered down as the ones you see in Game Developer.

The general lack of accountability in the industry is something I think we need to overcome at the same time as the secrecy.

December 9, 2009 at 10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops. That was me =)

December 9, 2009 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

It isn't limited to design issues either. It would probably be a big boon to the industry as a whole if game programmers could use each other as resources. Maybe we could stop solving the same little problems over and over and get on to making Cool Things. Coming from a FOSS background, it was a bit of a shock to see how isolated each studio is from everyone else.

December 9, 2009 at 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, I'd love to offer some postmortem thoughts on the project I'm neck deep in at the moment, but bluntly, I fear reprisal and loss of my job. There are some very real problems with the production process that have hamstrung us, but pointing these things out as a "production art worker bee" is just a ticket to being labeled a complainer. It's bad office politics to question the superiors.

You don't get honest feedback if fear is involved.

Of course, that's speaking internally... but it might explain why postmortems aren't as useful as they might be. They literally *can't* be in most offices, since managers will eviscerate the team for it.

(And as you might expect, I look to Ed Catmull for an example of how to do it right...)

December 9, 2009 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Mike Absolutely true. While I understand some motives behind sugar-coating a postmortem (not wanting to attack people), it's really easy for that to turn into just burying heads in the sand.

We've experimented with using anonymous postmortem feedback after every milestone. Haven't been doing it long, but it might provide the ability for people to speak their mind without feeling singled out. Granted, without having to own one's comments, it could be easy to vent and be excessively negative. We'll see how it goes, but I'm glad it's something we're trying to do right, at least.

@Coderanger I had the same reaction coming from graduate school, where it's all about sharing best practices, to seeing how often the wheel is reinvented ("Let's try a rhombus this time, or maybe a trapezoid?").

@tishtoshtesh Politics like that are bullshit, but good or ill, they're bullshit everywhere. There are ways to help provide a safe environment for feedback, but changing things around when they aren't that way is *hard.* Hopefully not insurmountably so, for your sake, eh?

December 10, 2009 at 8:31 AM  

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