Luke McMillan has a nice article on Gamasutra entitled “An Intro to RLD,” which is about using math to assess the difficulty of jumping puzzles (and by extension, other parts of the content ramp in your game design).
I’m not here to talk about the article. It’s a nice article. I’m here to talk about one of the reactions to it.
The article is a nice, straightforward illustration of how quantitative methods can bring greater clarity to something that designers do every day, usually by “feel.” And of course, the challenge with “feel” is that it only arises from experience. As I have termed it before, the “apprenticeship model” of learning game design: you do it until you develop the feel, and have internalized heuristics of your own for things like difficulty ramps. Then you struggle to communicate those heuristics to others, and they learn it the hard way themselves.
Michael Joseph, in the comments, states the following:
- that the article shows “a desire to depersonalize game design”
- that no one has “proved that ‘zen’ style of game design is a significant problem”
- that these methods are “design encroachment tool by the business side so that any hairless monkey can churn out a game”
- and that the method “reminds me of the Auto-Tune used by some singers with questionable talent.”
McMillan responded very politely to this comment. I on the other hand… this stuff makes me mad enough to be sarcastic and blunt. I apologize in advance to Joseph, since I know his track record in the industry, and it doesn’t seem reflective of the comments he’s making.
I can only presume that he thinks that measuring when cutting wood for a table is depersonalizing carpentry. Forgive me if I prefer not to live in a house he builds. I have not noticed any lack of creativity among architects simply because they measure stuff a lot.
The “Zen style” isn’t a problem, unless you are trying to, say, work with another designer and want to communicate with them. Or want to tweak your game balance. Or want to train a new designer. The reason it is a problem is simple: the lack of a common language. That would be why designers have been building a common language for decades now. There isn’t any need to “prove” this; a given designer either runs into these issues or they don’t. If they do, would you deny them the opportunity to try to fix it? If you don’t run into these issues, please share how you avoid them; I would be stunned if it didn’t turn out to be “depersonalized” craft language.
The elitism inherent in “with this tool, gosh, any hairless monkey can make a game” is shocking. At a time when the industry is in a ferment over increasing the democratization of game development, increasing access for the disadvantaged, increasing diversity and new voices, the idea that a tool is bad because it increases access is frankly appalling. I don’t think this how this comment was meant, which means it simply wasn’t thought about very hard.
Instead, I suspect (especially given the Auto-Tune comment) that it was meant as a cry on behalf of artistry instead of “soulless business,” similar to the piece by Liz Ryerson that I wrote about the other day. In which case, it misses its target. Plenty of deeply artistic, personally expressive designers use mathematical tools to balance their games, sort of how plenty of musicians use the math inherent in leading tones and chord progressions without having to resort to Auto-Tune.
We disdain Auto-Tune because it does something for you that you cannot do yourself, and thereby also removes all the personal expression from the process. But we don’t disdain singing on pitch, or tuning your guitar, in the name of “personal expression.” This tool doesn’t even come close to being Auto-Tune. It’s not “auto-balance my game.” In fact, I hate saying it’s “a tool.” It’s more like a set of practices.
There really isn’t a reason to fear the tool. There may be a reason for a designer to fear a businessperson coming in and using the tool as a bludgeon. That’s certainly the undercurrent in the air these days: that artistry is compromised by having to think about money, audience, etc. But let’s be honest, businesspeople will happily bludgeon with whatever is handy. Remove all design tools, and they’ll bludgeon you with the budget instead. In the case of a self-funding indie, they’ll bludgeon themselves, as they wrestle with the question of artistic integrity versus putting food on the table.
Let me turn away from Joseph’s comments for a moment, since what follows really doesn’t apply to him. This all reminds me of something I have heard many times from artists in different fields:
“I have my own style, and I’m afraid that if I take classes, that I would learn to do art like them, and not like me.”
I usually associate this with youth and inexperience. Think about what it implies:
- Fear: that your style will not survive contact with other influences. Which also implies
- Deep insecurity about your skills, coupled with
- Arrogance, to believe that your “style” is somehow unique in the artistic history of the world, and
- Disdain or lack of understanding of the hard work it takes to master new skills, and
- A lack of discipline, in that the person believes that the learning you could get wouldn’t improve your own work.
Look, being serious about your art and your craft means a lot of woodshedding. It means a lot of practice. And doing that means being a vacuum sucking up every little bit of knowledge, every rule of thumb, every example, everything you can learn from. You don’t have to believe it all. I don’t know anyone who does. But you can’t even disbelieve it if you don’t understand it.
If you’re scared that learning how to run a spreadsheet of your difficulty curve is going to make your work soulless, maybe it didn’t have a very strong soul to begin with. Learn how to do it, and then feel free to ignore what it says, as a conscious artistic choice. Accept the possibility that just maybe, the tools might actually propel you to greater artistic heights. After all, Picasso was able to leverage careful study of visual arts into flights of fancy that helped redefine visual representation. He did it by woodshedding a lot.