Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Maker's Lens


This post is a little more personal and less pointed than many previous. But it's an observation that's been vaguely bouncing around my head for a while and my wife (and talented editor!) helped crystallize it last night, so I figure now is as good a time as any.

It feels like my perspective on games changed after I started making them professionally. It's not for the better or for the worse, merely different. I've seen how the sausage is made. The process is a little unnerving, but damn, it's still delicious.

What I gained was an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. Even the simplest of games has a tremendous amount of interlocking pieces, nearly all of them inter-dependent. At times I'm amazed games get made at all.

I am able to better recognize the components now. I see how the components can be built into systems that challenge, engage and emote ... or at least attempt to. It's a little disheartening at times, like touring the set of a favourite movie or TV show and seeing there is no ceiling and only two walls. The vast, vibrant world you imagine really looks something like this.

It's not a negative perception though. In some ways, it's even more fascinating, both on the part of the creator and the player. The creators provide just enough substance for the player's imagination to take over. The player doesn't need to try to sneak a peek past that unclimbable wall, because they believe the city continues outward.

I am now more aware of what's beyond the wall though (nothing). It's very similar to when I read The Design of Everyday Things and started noticing how nearly every door in the world is poorly designed. But it also helped me recognize and appreciate instances of really good design. Games are not much different.

I will notice clever tricks with lighting to guide the player's eye. Seeing an NPC behave strangely, I start guessing at the logic bugs in his state management that might have caused this. I'll note the way certain abilities drive particular behaviour. The different ways enemy AI behaves has become especially noticeable.

But when a game is so engrossing that the developer lenses come off for a while, I cannot help but admire it. All the various gears and levers recede and it's just about the experience. Rather than appreciation of various components, it's the whole artifact that's engaging. Weirdly, it makes me take notice because of all the things I'm not noticing. Eventually, I'll probably start trying to peer under the hood again. Although this time, it's likely to try and understand how all the bits fit together so well and how I can replicate the same.

One interesting side effect of this is I feel more empathy for other developers. I have a lot of difficulty completely lambasting a game, because I realize there were dozens of people not too unlike me who worked quite hard to bring this thing into existence. Mistakes are not absolved, but I find myself asking, "How can I avoid doing this?" rather than frothing about the developers' intelligence and parentage, as the howling hordes of the internet so often do.

I've always been pretty dogmatic about finishing the games I start. But now, I finish games because I want people to finish mine. By finishing games, I feel as if I'm fully appreciating the efforts that went into them. I've probably sunk some unnecessary hours into games that peaked early and I understand why others would bail early. If there's just some smaller interesting facet I want to examine, I'll grab a demo. But as soon as I've laid down cash, I feel compelled to finish.

There likely aren't any stunning revelations here. It's just interesting for me to reflect on how the way I see things has changed over the past couple of years. I'm curious to hear if your perspective on playing games has shifted as you started making games, playing different kinds of games or even just playing more/less.

More than anything else, I have found it very valuable to recognize that I don't see all the exact same things others do. This makes their perspective invaluable. Find these people, be they team mates, playtesters or just other games, and let them help you see things with a different set of lenses.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Padraig said...

"But when a game is so engrossing that the developer lenses come off for a while, I cannot help but admire it. All the various gears and levers recede and it's just about the experience."

This is exactly how I feel about movies. If I stop looking at the way the visual effects were put together and just lose myself in the film, I usually find it to be a pretty good movie.

June 30, 2010 at 10:37 AM  
Blogger Hugo said...

"It's not for the better or for the worse, merely different."

I like to compare this paradigm shift with learning magic. Once you know about it, you are rarely fooled by a performance, being able to tell -even roughly- how it's done. But you become able to appreciate the smootheness of an unseen sleight, the subtlety of a misdirection and the cleverness of a presentation.

That's also the way I feel about games since I've started studying game design. I can't yet fully understand the workings of every game I play, but I now wonder more easily about game design choices than about the game itself.

June 30, 2010 at 1:23 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Maybe I just suck as a game designer, but don't notice any great shift in perception since I've started making games. I am a bit more prone to pick them apart now. Just recently I was playing Osmos and thinking about the difficulty ramp in it.

If anything, the effect I notice the most is having less time to play games.

June 30, 2010 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger Runeshai said...

This is kinda surfacing for me when it comes to filmmaking. I've been working through various roles and trying to figure out what might be right for me, and while I still have no idea, I definitely see movies much differently now.

While watching, I'm aware of all the pieces that go into a movie, the segmentation of them, how separate and even unrelated they are to the story or the world they're to become a part of.

I'm undecided still if it's a good or bad thing, to constantly examine the movie as a project, an effort, instead of enjoying the experience. On the other hand, it does make the process of watching more engaging in a way, regardless of the film's quality, because there are other things to think about and appreciate, and the movies that do break me out of that analytical way of thinking become all the more special for doing so.

June 30, 2010 at 9:21 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Padraig, Hugo, Runeshai I imagine folks who have worked with film would have the same experience. Heh, I wasn't expecting magic, but that completely makes sense too.

It's interesting seeing the man behind the curtain. There's a little bit less mystery, but being able feed that back into what you're creating personally is worth the trade off, I think.

@Alex Heh, I might have been overstating the effect as well. Or it's entirely possible you started more perceptive in this regard than I, and now I'm just catching up :)

July 1, 2010 at 1:56 PM  
Blogger Alli893 said...

The first thing I thought of was D&D. Once you take the role of Game Master, you start to look at the game differently. It's sometimes very hard not to meta game by thinking, "If I was the GM, then the story might go like this..."

August 1, 2010 at 8:34 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Heh, absolutely. The first time you're behind the screen and notice the players never do any of the things you expect, you just how different the game can be.

August 2, 2010 at 3:28 PM  

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