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.”
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.