It’s not like cooking. At all.

No, no, it ain’t like that. You’d think that it’s just a matter of putting the ingredients together, mixing it up, heating a little and bada-bing, there you go – you have your seven-layer cake of MMO cream.

But you have no idea how difficult it can be until you sit down and start going through it, step by step. My personal respect for game designers has always been high, but yeah… a couple of months and 150+ pages later, it’s through the roof. It’s reached the stratosphere and checking for ozone concentration right about now. At this rate it’ll overtake Voyager by mid-January.

But back to cooking, and why it has nothing to do with it…

See, when you think it over at a glance it’s easy. It goes something like this: “Well, I suppose you need to start with a nice world concept. Something attractive, hopefully quite original too if you can manage it. Then you build from there. Yeah, you need to have your zones, and your areas, and quests, and things to do. You know people are gonna want PvE and PvP, so you gotta put something of that in it too. I guess some reputation tracks, if they’re not too grindy, you know? People are also gonna be expecting a nice variety of classes, and skills and all that, but hey you know what? It’d be great if you could let people build their own. Oh, and player-created content too, that seems to be the buzz lately. Put some of that in it too.”

Peachy.

Sounds like cooking too, huh? Get ingredients. Mix. Prepare. Set to bake, let the heat work its dark, unholy magic. Then ding, there’s your cake. It’s made of money. But it’s not like that. Magic does not just happen. It’s not that you put some sand in your mouth, move it around a little and then you spit out a glass bottle. Only Gandalf could do something like that. Maybe.

Imagine if you were to do this like cooking. For example, you have a cake mold (which is really what most people start with, and little else). And you know you have your ingredients; eggs, flour, sugar, lemon or coconut pieces, maybe some chocolate and strawberries. Yum. Then you start mixing, and you go in with the best intentions.

Problem is, you quickly realize that the eggs you have, for some damn reason, are not mixing with the flour you have. It doesn’t matter if you put it in slowly, or all at once; the thing just doesn’t mix. The eggs drop to the bottom, and the flour floats on top. So you either have to change your eggs, change your flour, or both, and go at it again until it starts taking. A few minutes of mixing and you have your base.

Yay! It’s sugar time! But, lo and behold, you put the sugar in and what do you know? It behaves like sodium pellets in water. Boom. There goes your egg and flour mix, and your cake mold since we’re at it, and you spend an hour deep-cleaning the whole kitchen of cake mix and glass shards. Back to square one. Was it the eggs? The flour? The sugar? All? You determine it was the sugar, so you go out and come back with more. This time the non-exploding kind. You mix everything again. Then – carefully – put in the sugar. Wonderful. It didn’t blow up this time. So you keep going. Mix, mix, stir stir, taking care of watching that the whole thing doesn’t start reacting and overflowing the edge of the (new) cake mold.

Fruity time. This is what’s gonna drive people crazy about your cake. Awesome. Only that… it doesn’t work. A quick taste test reveals the lemons are just too acid, the coconut is just too dry, the chocolate is just too bitter and the strawberries… well, you just saw your neighbor using much, much bigger strawberries than the ones you have, so your cake will end up looking bad. A puny cake. Not a warrior’s cake, by any standards. Back to the store. Checklist: Sweeter lemons, spongier coconut, lighter chocolate and the biggest frickin’ strawberries you can find, because you’ll be damned if you’re gonna put out a cake with inferior strawberries.

So, everything is ready. The mix is waiting. Oven is preheated. Critical time. You put the fruities in and…. well. The lemon reacts with the eggs and makes the eggs separate and drop to the bottom of the mold. The coconut shaves react with the flour (which has now risen again to the top) and disintegrate on contact in a blaze of coconut and anti-coconut particles, emitting a neutron. The chocolate sinks as planned in the whole mix, but surfaces after a few moments in the shape of a creature beyond reason and imagination. An unspeakable brown (but not very bitter) envoy of Cthulhu, speaking in the tongue of the Old Ones as its aberrant tentacles begin to take hold of the cake mold edges in an attempt to break free from his prison of carbohydrates.

The strawberries do alright, though. At least initially. The very palpable aura of horror and decay from the choccy, depraved emissary of madness quickly makes them decompose and rot. Oh, and the neutron emissions from the coconut disintegration process has now made your cake mold brittle.

Back to square one. At this point you decide to go out to Wendy’s, which yeah, truth be told is not as awesome as your cake might have been, but at least they have the process down.

Magic does not just happen, and to say that design and development are iterative processes is one of the biggest understatements since humans began to record history in written form. A game (any game) is way, way more than the sum of its separate parts. Those parts must be designed, created and shaped right, in a way that complement, and not detract, from each other. The connective tissue that holds all elements together, to different degrees of harmony, does not generate itself spontaneously; if you don’t put care into it, it will never hold all your parts together, and they will fail. At different speeds, just to make it trickier for you to try and catch them.

This is the scientific creation of imperfect art. And, as such, a splittin’ headache. But hey, that’s what we do and what we like, huh? Every now and then you get a good reward out of it that almost, almost, makes the all the pain worthwhile. But this doesn’t mean the process can’t be fun, strenuous as it might be. Who doesn’t like to accidentally summon indescribable, irrational creatures from beyond the dimension of despair into the world? Come on now, be honest. There’s no adrenaline rush like the ‘run for your life’ kind of rush. No siree.

13 thoughts on “It’s not like cooking. At all.”

  1. Excellent analogy, Julian.
    I just fail to see how it increases your respect for game designers. To my mind, this is the reason I lack respect for 90% of them – because the end result is nearly always a massive, extraordinary, luxurious caffeinated-mashed-potato-and-waffle-raspberry-truffle-curry concoction.

  2. There are two types of MMO designers, those willing to search for the right ingredients or grow their own, and those who think they know what the right ingredients are, buy them from their local supermarket and get upset when they don’t mix right.

    You can look at any MMO and pretty easily sort out which ones worked at it and which ones just kinda gave up and bought the pre-made cookie cutter recipies.

    I have respect for those who grow their own, as I believe he was referencing.

  3. Julian wrote: “My personal respect for game designers has always been high, but yeah… a couple of months and 150+ pages later, it’s through the roof.”

    150+ pages of what?

  4. Well, there are two types of /Aretha R-E-S-P-E-C-T at work here: At a common level, I do respect any designer just out of base decency; men and women that are willing to put in the hours/days/months into making all the parts work. At this point I’m not concerned with the final quality of the product, because it’s not there yet.

    So it’s just appreciation and an honest nod for doing the dirty work (not saying it’s the dirtiest work there is, though).

    The other level, quite higher, as the cyber kitty pointed out is for those who set out to break new ground with their culinary concoctions. Call it creating their own ingredients from scratch, or selecting only the finest, and making it work… yeah, that’s another level of respect. More related to respecting the talent and the vision (regardless of artistic agreement with the final product; there are many, many games which I consider to be wonderfully made, with a lot of talent that went into it, but I would never play myself). It’s perfectly possible to be allergic to chocolate and still appreciate wonderfully-made chocolate cakes. Taste is just one of the elements in the whole appreciation process, I think.

    So, keep on cookin’ I guess. That’s the message.

    Tuebit: 150+ pages of design, appendixes and addendums. But it’s a relatively large font size, and there are a lot of charts and tables in it, so it’s not that big of a deal.

  5. I once went out for the UK version of Wendy’s, and did that ever give me gut bomb. I had the UK version of Froster all over the living room, fries and burger in my hair ( which then started to turn grey ), and some of the by-products in there gave me ulcers.

    This is fun, talking about MMO Turnkey’s in veiled metaphors of fast food and cooking…

  6. You forgot to create the blueprints and designs for all of the tools you need to use before you start cooking. You never designed your oven, your sink, your bowls, your spatula, and you forgot to invent new ingredients.

    And, you forgot to make your cake and eat it too. After you make it, you have to eat it, then make a new one, and eat it again, and make another, then eat that, then let others try it, then remake it, then others still, and remake it.

    It is difficult to really communicate all a designer has to do–it’s not just coming up with nifty ideas and watching someone else implement them.

    And, honestly, I still have respect for designers who make that cookie-cutter stuff because that’s not generally what they WANT to make, it’s more often what they HAVE to make. When you realize that the conceptualization, implementation, and refining process for one large quest can take a solid two weeks, you begin to realize why things end up being distilled down so much.

    That said, as both a player and designer, I’d rather see a few really high quality parts than just a bunch of okay parts. That whole quality over quantity thing that is overused and underdone. The real question is, do players actually want it (I think so, but there’d be just as many, if not more, complaints about “not enough to do” as there are about “this stuff isn’t compelling” now)?

  7. And a quick follow-up to my last point there: If you set two groups of strawberries in front of an American, one with huge red ones, and another group of smaller less shapely and colorful ones, which would they eat?

    In almost all cases, they eat the big red chemically perfected one, despite the little misshapen strawberries tasting significantly better.

    The big red ones are quantity, the little delicious ones are quality. So which do you make and sell?

    I got that from Paul Barnett, and he’s right (in part because that was an actual observation, but a great parallel to just about anything in our culture, including video games).

  8. Not to derail this but Ryan mentioned Paul… designers from the only two games in development that I am eagerly awaiting… It’s the Twilight Zone!

  9. “and disintegrate on contact in a blaze of coconut and anti-coconut particles, emitting a neutron.”

    No mate, coconut and anti-coconut particles emit a photon when they come in contact. A neutron is what you get from coconut undergoing alpha-decay… ;)

    But seriously, nice article. Any engineer will tell you that any non-trivial system is (1) made up of many parts (2) behaves in un-expected ways due to interaction of said parts. It takes ingenuity, massive resources and even a little luck to get such a complex system working correctly. Well those and a realy good QA department.

    But I have a feeling you’re talking less about bugs and more about the game being enjoyable/fun/polished/whatever over-all. The problem is, no one knows what makes a *good* (well integrated, fun) game, or at least no one is admitting to knowing, including Blizzard ;)

    I don’t think WoW is the be-all-end-all of games, even if they did get many of the components right. And I’m saying that as someone who has been playing it for the last 2.5 years. I’m not a developer, but as an educated player, here are my top “good game” components:
    1. KISS
    If you don’t keep-it-simple, your players will give up (or not even begin), especially those new to games. Simple intro, simple controls, simple progression (quests that guide you, etc.).
    2. Low system requirements
    So many games require a top-of-the-line system to play them. Guess how many people are *not* willing to spend huge amounts of money on their computer (or don’t have said money).
    3. Interface mods
    The ability to change the game interface to look and behave the way *you* want? Awesome! I would have given up on WoW loooong before had I been stuck with using Blizzard’s idea of a good interface. I don’t remember any other game before WoW that let me do that, at least not as easily and not so drastically.
    4. Content+Graphics
    Duh :)

    That’s pretty much it. Keep It Simple. Let Them Play It. Let Them Change It. Give Em Content and Make It Look Pretty.
    Everything else is just details and QA.
    Especially QA.

    I just wish Blizzard has chosen Perl or Tcl as the embedded scripting language instead of Lua. Hint, hint… :D

  10. That was a pretty amazingly strained analogy! However it does succinctly sum up the challenge faced by game developers, especially when they’re working with $60 million in development money and their Cthulu-spawning cake represents the destruction of all their hopes and dreams.

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