The Complexity Wall

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There is a complexity wall you hit during development. Even if you are on a small team, there is a point early in development where the complexity of the game makes it too cumbersome to add new systems. Either there are too many systems already there, or too much content built on those systems. What this means is that the initial period of development is a golden time. It’s the one time during the making of a game when it’s easy to change something.

It’s hard to understate how important this idea is toward making good games. Game design is more about process than theory, much like John Carmack would say it’s more about execution than the initial idea, and much like how Steve Jobs said product design was more about process than the initial idea.

Getting the right pieces in place before you pass beyond the complexity wall is what makes the difference between a good game and a bad one.

You have a choice on what to spend that early time on. You can spend it on making a new graphics engine. You can spend it on prototyping a fresh and exciting new core loop. Or, you can spend it on animation systems and cameras for narrative storytelling. Fairly quickly, you will pass the complexity wall and that thing you chose to work on at the beginning will be the de facto defining element of your game.

The foundation of the Cerny method was that, for action adventure games, you should spend that golden development time  on the 3 C’s (camera, control, character). Mark formalized preproduction as a way for teams to stay outside the complexity wall until they had a good foundation based on those three elements. If you didn’t have a great “First Playable,” or “Vertical Slice,” you did not get greenlit and move on to production. Staying out of production meant staying on the cheap and flexible side of the complexity wall.

There are many studios who are repeatedly successful because they are good at focusing down on one thing early in development, one thing that is good to work on outside the complexity wall for their kind of game, like Bungie with its sandbox. I like to belive Bethesda Game Studios has this quality.

If you choose to focus poorly, you can end up stuck with a bad foundation, and then there’s no amount of time, money, or talent that can turn that project around incrementally. The inertial resistance to change beyond the complexity wall is too great. At the beginning of development your game is a small, nimble go-kart. Beyond the complexity wall, it’s a thousand ton train and you ain’t turning that thing around, even if you know it’s headed to shitville.

I’ve been on a few trains to shitville (not where I currently work), and it’s a terrifying, helpless situation.

If you scale up a team too soon, as is fairly common for teams up against a looming release date, you’ve taken a voluntary pass on the golden period outside the complexity wall.

Now, there is one way to tear down the complexity wall, and it’s relatively common thing to hear about from the best games ever made. Throw out the bathwater and start over. 

Yep, just toss it out. Reboot. Halo started out as a Mac RTS and ended up as a console FPS. Large portions of the original game were thrown out and started from scratch. Half Life was famously thrown out and started over, as was Half Life 2.

The sunk costs fallacy (and budget politics in big companies) might lead you to believe that throwing out the current version of the game is an expensive idea. It is surely daunting, but it’s the only way to regain that ability to change your game significantly. If the current game sucks, it’s often cheaper to throw it out and start over with a smaller team with a smaller burn rate.

Luckily, throwing out the whole game and starting over is not necessary if you choose the right things to focus on early in development. Most great games don’t need to get made twice before they are released once. Usually, there’s a proven previous game that gets sequeled or made greater (Mario 64, Battlefield 1942, Uncharted 2). Or, there’s a great initial prototype or mod to build on (most indie games, most Valve games).

The complexity wall is important to recognize because it’s the most common downfall of producer-driven development. The fallacy of the producer-as-creative-director is the idea that he can steer the big ship, make directorial decisions mid-development that direct the team back on course towards success. Producer-driven development is the hallmark of big publisher owned teams, and it’s why you don’t often see innovation there.

People think creativity is inherently lacking at the big companies. That’s not the case. Creative risks get taken all the time on big teams. The problem is when the creative idea gets adopted on a big team, it needs to be shepherded by a producer. Guess where that producer lives? Behind the complexity wall. No matter the level of selflessness or skill that producer has, she will have a epic challenge opening a hole in that complex game to fit in the creative idea.

The complexity wall is why we can’t have teams assemble on the fly like hollywood movies. It’s why a stable tech foundation works to a team’s advantage. It’s why you have to have your core loop understood before anything else, and it’s why you need to understand the tone of your game before you grow your team.

The complexity wall is why game design is more process than theory.

AAA Games versus Smart TV

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DISCLAIMER: This is a speculative opinion piece based on public information. These opinions are my own and do not represent my employer.

The game industry is about to get flipped. The console in the living room has long been the king platform for games, but these days the living room is different. Only blockbusters like Call of Duty or breakout indies profit in the arms race of the AAA. The traditional games business as a whole is shrinking.

The old console cycle of simply iterating on graphics hardware is dead, and it’s never coming back. Nobody is sure what the next game box will look like. What’s more, Apple TV and GoogleTV are trying to bring some of the magic of Android, iOS, and the Web into the living room and are threatening to upend the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the process.

Game consoles are primed to be disrupted, and the next generation of Smart TV might just be the new champion.

Where We Stand

There is massive growth happening in the games industry on smartphones, Facebook, the Web, and Steam. That style of game product – digitally distributed, service oriented, focused on ongoing revenue – is bound for the living room.

Enter Google and Apple

When they get there, an app store will meet the realities of couches and big screen TVs and a very peculiar new box will be born. This new box will have a fancy controller, sort of like a game controller, and it will happen to play games, but it won’t be an Xbox or a Playstation.

It’s not just games that are in for a shakeup, there is a full on war brewing in the living room around access to video content. There are Smart TVs like those from Samsung, there’s Roku and Boxee, and the old giants like Comcast and Verizon are getting smarter about the services they offer. The Web and services like Hulu and Netflix are changing TV behavior forever.

Google and Apple that are the most interesting contenders because they are big and don’t keep content out like the game console manufacturers. In this respect they are open. What also makes them interesting is that games will be important part of their arsenal in this battle and that will pit them against Microsoft and Sony’s AAA firepower.

It certainly doesn’t look good for games in the short term – the traditional business is in decline. But, once the dust settles and the new living room app store reigns supreme, this new box could be incredible for the game industry. Read on for the full analysis:

Designing The Warhammer Online UI

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After spending two years as the Lead Concept Artist on Warhammer Online, I was asked to take over the UI design. It was about 6 months before we planned to release the game, we had completed the bulk of the concept art for the game, and Michael Phillippi was ready to step up as the new Lead Concept Artist.

We needed to do a ground up redesign of the UI in 6 months (it turned out to be more than 8). The UI for an MMO like WAR is a huge piece of the game, almost like an OS for the game. Beyond the HUD (which is very complex in itself) it has maps, chat, mail, a social network, maybe 50 windows total. . . basically everything you would find on Xbox Live and more.

The reason I enjoyed this gig was because I had the opportunity to come up with original features. One that made it into the game was the Open Party system. Players in WAR can see a list of groups sorted by distance, and just join up with them in one click. This makes playing WAR’s open RvR gameplay much simpler because you can find people nearby who are playing the way you want to play, be it fighting other players or fighting monsters.

I think there is a lot more we could have done with this system, and there are arguments to be made that it actually reduces community stickyness in the long term, but I think it’s a huge improvement over the old LFG standard, and a step in the right direction. This kind of functionality is a big interest of mine going forward – how do we take players playing cooperatively and help them form longer-term connections? Are open guilds the next logical step?

Game Design Nuggets

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I posted these on a forum recently. I can’t claim them as original thought, but I have found them to be my most useful heuristics in filtering game design ideas:

Everything Rests on the Core Loop

Sometimes called the “game mechanic” or the “30 seconds of fun,” the core loop is the series of actions the player will perform over and over again in the heart of gameplay. The core loop of Gears of War might be: 1) Encounter bad guys and take cover 2) Move to a good attack position 3) Kill the bad guys using a selection of your weapons 4) Re-arm and move on.

The smeXbox

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I found this sketch on my hard drive. It’s about a year old, but I still believe we will see a lot of the ideas come to fruition in the *next* generation of game consoles.

The basic idea is that the momentum from successes like the Wii and the social games market will focus the device down to a casual, cheap box. It will be like a Wii that runs Xbox Live and has all the great content available on the web (like what XBL has done with netflix). Then, the hardcore crowd can go and buy a plug-in bit that will kick it up a notch and let it run Gears of War 5 in 1080p. The hardcore market has proven in this generation that they don’t mind a fragmented, multiple SKU console with the 360 and PS3.

Pressure from quasi-open devices like the iPhone, open platforms like Facebook, and digital distribution of games in places like Steam will push things in this direction. Somebody is going to realize that if they open up their console and go against the traditional Nintendo model (tight grip on the content, complex certification), they can win. The manufacturer of this box should profit from hardware sales, but also from owning the marketplace. They can take it away from Wal Mart and Gamestop, and I believe they will try.