Cooking by the Book

Because it was superfun last time, let us once again look at game development through the prism of song. This week, our song is Cooking by the Book from LazyTown. (They also have a song that Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates! fans might like.)

In case it is not immediately clear, we are using baking a cake as a metaphor for making a game. Can you beta test cake?

The puppets are developers. You can debate whether the puppet masters are publishers or lead developers, or perhaps the dev team is a bunch of evil puppets that dance on their own. A great many players love individual developers but believe some overlord is manipulating the destruction of all fun in the world. Examples from our comments include Winter’s constant hate for Statesman (but everyone loves _Castle_) or the view that publishers will only support Yet Another Fantasy MMORPG.

We can argue about the truth of that another time. At the moment, I am distracted by flashbacks from the Smile Time episode of Angel. Ah, Avenue Q meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Okay, on with the song!

I pile on the candy
It’s such a pretty sight
It makes the food taste dandy
But my tummy hurts all night

Hmm, is this feature creep or the obsession with eye candy? Let’s do both.

Enthusiastic producers might need to restrain themselves on interviews before they promise the farm. How many games have promised to be all things to all people by the time they launched, all the way down to Dawn’s fetus-apult? It takes a few seconds to say, “Sure, our game is going to have that and that and that, and we are going to have the best, most innovative versions of each in the industry! *Howard Dean scream*”

Two months out from beta, everything is going to be there. We are going to do a full graphics revamp to be compliant with next generation cards while working perfectly with every brand of card out there (but please buy the brand that pays us for space on the splash screen). We are going to have a fully interactive crafting system with over six thousand recipes, all of which will be balanced to be useful at some point in a character’s life, without over-shadowing monster drops. Each of fourteen combat classes will have at least six unique features, all of them will be solo-friendly and have a role in a group, and you will be able to form a useful team with any combination of any number of them. Our advanced quest system will allow you to go from log-in to the level cap without ever running out of quests or repeating them. Contribute your favorite beta promises in the comments!

Hey, that sounds great! Can you actually make that game? Well, someone on this dev team is going to die trying, darn it!

Hey, that sounds great! Is there going to be a game under all that? Even people who hate City of Heroes must admit that only Second Life can compete with its costume generator. I thought that Shadowbane had a wonderful economic model. Once you are past that beautiful system, however, is there a game worth playing underneath? If you spend all your time on the candy, the substance can be lacking. (Not a shot at either game; no one has said that Shadowbane’s problems were caused by too much attention to economics.)

So what about that eye candy? I suppose it speaks for itself. There are a great many things that look pretty but are lacking. I am sure that having elegant screenshots helps to garner some sales. If devoting attention to art involves gutting the game, that is a problem. If the graphics make even high-end systems choke and chug, that is a problem. If I need to turn off half the decorative touches to play effectively, that is a waste, and if I need that but cannot turn them off, that is a deal-breaker.

Having a decent-looking game is necessary, but having a great-looking game is far from sufficient.

I’ll put in some ingredients
But keep the rest for me
I’m not just disobedient
I’m careful, can’t you see?

What the right hand gives, the left hand takes away. After someone goes and promises the farm, someone has to follow that a few months later by explaining what will not make it in by release. (Worse: get all the way to launch promising that it will be in, or somehow insisting that “an early form” of the system is there after launch.) Some of the ingredients are there, and others are held back so that we can meet the advertised launch date.

Want to see players get upset about those kept ingredients? Push them off a year or two and put them in an expansion pack. Yes, if you want everything that was on the original box, you need to buy another box.

Of course, delays happen even when no one has promised the farm. When you lose an entire man-month tracking down a pesky memory leak, something must give. Not everything was announced as “in at launch,” no matter what some people convinced themselves.

You do need to be careful about how you take things away. Breaking a promise is worse than not having made one, but maybe you are slick enough to keep the goodwill even while pushing the system back a couple of months. We are not going back on what we said before, just updating the plan! Again, you have your favorite examples, some of which worked as PR moves.

We note, however, that these are the cake ingredients being taken away, not the candy. If something is a featured toy, its inclusion is not optional. That floozle system has been mentioned in every interview and it is on the box; it is going in. Maybe we can push back that code optimization, or the improved patcher, or that other pesky memory leak. Maybe we can just do that last round of skill re-balancing a month in, after we see how it is working in practice. Everyone expects that anyway…

It’s a piece of cake to bake a pretty cake
If the way is hazy
You gotta do the cooking by the book
You know you can’t be lazy
Never use a messy recipe
The cake will end up crazy
If you do the cooking by the book
Then you’ll have a cake

Stephanie represents the players. While I see the irony in having a female fill that role, especially one who advocates getting off the computer to go outside and play, a hyper fourteen-year-old seems about right.

Also, she pretty much has just the one thing to say. How often can a message board’s most visible and voluble poster’s 5000 posts be summarized in less than a paragraph?

So what do the players say? This game development stuff is easy! It must be, since there are thousands of players lining up to tell developers how to do it. Just follow these three easy steps (or else I’ll quit and take my whole guild with me).

Players often give useful comments like:

  • Hire more programmers (time and resources required for training someone new during beta: 0)
  • You need to talk to us more (is there ever more communication than during beta?)
  • You need to use my ideas (because you are not listening if you do not agree with each of five factions arguing for mutually exclusive solutions to something that might not be a problem)
  • Fix the bugs (why didn’t I think of that?!)
  • This game should be more like WoW
  • This game should be less like WoW
  • If there is a monthly fee, I won’t play

Thanks guys! Yup, the developers are just a bunch of lazy corporate shills who laugh as you suffer while they wear money hats. They are in this for the money, and boy is there a lot of money to be made in the lower echelons of the gaming industry. Just kidding: some of the devs are also there to favor one side in PvP!

On the other hand, the players frequently have perfectly reasonable expectations. Can we follow that plan you promised? There is something sad about clinging to outdated design documents after a conscious decision has been made to move the game in a different direction, but it is fair to ask that recent promises be fulfilled.

If the design document still says that something is supposed to be in the game, and someone on the development team promised it in an interview published last week (even though it was actually conducted two months ago), that sounds like a reasonable expectation to me. If something is on the box, have it in the game. If you are advertising a feature, have it in the game.

Have servers that work on day one. Make sure the billing system works. The chat system must work. Major bugs should be fixed. This seems pretty non-controversial: the game should be playable when you spend money on it, not a month later. If the game is not on track for that, no cake or pie.

We can go two ways on “messy recipe,” so why not do both again? We will go easy on the players this time, since we just got done kicking them around.

Players should be aware of the difference between a bad plan and a plan that they do not like. Not every game is for every person. It looks like a messy recipe, but that is because you wanted carrot cake. This is not carrot cake. It will not help if we put cream cheese frosting on the cake. No, please stop shouting at the baker. Explaining the merits of carrot cake will not help here either, nor saying that your entire guild will go eat carrot cake elsewhere if this company does not make carrot cake.

There are, however, messy plans out there. Some things are designed badly. If you did not think enough in advance, you will have problems when implementation time comes. Did you start coding essential systems before the design was set? Did you include sufficient time for bugs in the schedule? Are you assuming that everyone will work 60-hour weeks? There are a variety of columns and blog entries on this theme, so I will move on and probably run with this one another day.

Ultimately, if your plan is “cut twice, then measure, then throw away the saw and blame the lumberjack,” there will be too much sawdust in the cake. Wait a minute, that metaphor got away from me.

We gotta have it made
You know that I love cake
Finally it’s time to make a cake

Note that enthusiasm from Stephanie, that sense of investment. She cares because she loves that cake. This is a “we” thing, not just something you are making over there. We must have it, and it feels like we have been waiting so long.

The players seem to be waiting for that next great game like a starving man watching for food. Would a better analogy be an addict waiting for his fix? They start early and stay enthusiastic for a frighteningly long time.

How do people maintain that anticipation and enthusiasm? There are fan sites for games that do not have internal alphas yet. If the developers can run things for a few minutes at a time to test systems, there are already message boards discussing how balance problems are going to work out. We don’t know what half the classes are yet, but we need to discuss how rogues are going to be implemented, NOW!

People who will not start their term papers a month in advance are planning to get back together with friends from EQ in a game that will release in 2008. They have nothing but promises and carefully crafted screenshots, but they already have a strong sense of commitment and involvement.

I recall when Firefly (great show) was in production, my wife talked about the fan sites that existed before the show had ever aired. This baffled me, even having the gaming background. I can understand looking forward to something, like the next book from your favorite author or a film from a good director or actor; I have trouble understanding making a fan site for it sight unseen.

Because really, it is all about execution. Before it came out, Congo must have seemed like a really great idea. When something like that happens, what do the fan site people do? Engage cognitive dissonance and declare it the best movie ever? Quietly slink away? Rail endlessly against those who betrayed them or otherwise failed to cook by the book?

I think they just love cake. The idea of cake is what drives them forward, the dream of better cake. This time we will have cake for real, so long as the developers are cooking by the book. We need this, and finally we can have it made.

Making food is just like science
With tools that blend and baste
And every fun appliance
Gives the food a different taste

Ah, wonderful, our technocratic developer. At some point, someone needs to bring reality to the table. This is the voice of reason. If we cannot get feature x in before Christmas, we must push back the feature, the release date, or both. Artists do not write code, so players should stop complaining that new models are coming out while bugs are slow to be fixed.

Fundamental design decisions are made at some point, and you stick with them. Yes, we could do that with the game, but we are not making that game. We could make that much more accessible, but we have chosen not to. We are not putting carrots in the cake. We are not putting the cakes on the grill. Yes, that might taste lovely, but once you have beaten the eggs, you cannot cook them sunny-side-up; once they are in the batter, you cannot strain them out.

Players will not always agree with decisions, but we are fond of getting explanations. “We considered x, y, and z. These are the costs and benefits. We went with z. We think this will work out best in the long run. We are/are not open to revising this decision in the near future.”

It would be nice if development really were a science. We have some indications of how people will react to different systems and incentives, but emergent gameplay can be perverse. We can predict certain effects, most of which follow the basic economic principle that incentives matter. It is kind of quaint when someone posts, “Wow, we never thought players would exploit that!” The only real question is whether anyone know how to exploit it.

We also appreciate the honesty of “these are our tools, these are our resources, we cannot do everything.” That does not get you very far, but if we sincerely believe that you are doing your best, these is not much more to ask for. Contrarily, no one is happy if it looks like the company is skimping on the number of developers or the amount of hardware so as to increase profits slightly. It is hard to argue good faith when half the team has already been shifted to the next project.

Funny thing: the suit who promised the farm is the one who under-staffed the project. Yeah, he also approved the advertising buy that has us locked into that shipping date. What is really funny is that, if the game tanks, they fire coders while his stock options vest. Yeah, a lot of people were laughing in Austin that day, I’m sure. (Which day? Take your pick…)

Remind me to spend time in the future discussing the different tastes of games. For now, I am running way too long, so we conclude by singing the refrain a few times. The players’ line is usually pretty straightforward in that respect: give us what you promised, do it right.

Now if only people demanded that those two conditions be met before buying the game. I mean, that cake looks kind of lopsided.

: Zubon

8 thoughts on “Cooking by the Book”

  1. Very thoughtful post. As a developer, it’s definitely a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Giving out information means that you will eventually give out incorrect information: every team has ideas for a ton of things that will never see the light of day (or be delayed to a comic extent, UO Necromancy, anyone?). Eventually one of those ideas that seemed great on paper but unimplementable in reality will be talked about and people will be disappointed.

    Alternative, not giving out much information frustrates people because they’re used to developers giving out tons of information. We’ve been very careful about what we talk about for Meridian 59 because we don’t want to give out false information. Part of the gameplay is also figuring out the game systems, so spilling out details would hinder part of the game. But, this doesn’t stop people from crying for our blood because we won’t commit to a patch schedule. (Ignoring the fact we only have 2 part-time coders on the project these days.)

    In the end, I agree with one of the main themes: not everyone will be a customer in all games. Every businessperson likes to pretend that they will be able to attract every breathing person with spare cash in the world, the reality is that you will get a subsection of that “market”. I think games really need to embrace the niche and give people what they really want, but we have to realize that this means that the game won’t appeal to everyone. Carebears won’t like a PvP game, Star Trek nerds may not like a Babylon 5 space RPG, etc. That’s fine, as long as you can make enough money to keep the game going.

    My thoughts,

  2. “cut twice, then measure, then throw away the saw and blame the lumberjack”

    is now printed really big and hanging up in my work cube. It is so close to our normal model of work here…

    Great post Z. You’ve got a winning way of framing your thoughts!

  3. Arr Yarr Ahoy and Avast
    Dig a deep trench, and dig it deep fast
    Hang the black flag at the end of the mast
    You are a pirate!
    I freely admit I watch this show with my kids on occasion.

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