Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame devel­op­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

James Leach on the co­nun­drum of de­cid­ing when a game is done

Re­mem­ber the days when as a de­vel­oper, we would ac­tu­ally fin­ish mak­ing the game? I’m talk­ing about the (usu­ally dread­ful) good old days, when we could lit­er­ally do no more. Some­thing vi­tal in­side had reached the num­ber 255 and noth­ing else was pos­si­ble. Off to the du­pli­ca­tors it went.

Of course, things are hugely bet­ter now, but we are faced with the co­nun­drum of de­cid­ing when we’re done. It’s why we have mile­stones, dead­lines, al­phas and golds and all that. We now stop de­vel­op­ing when we have run out of time, or, if we’re lucky, when we have ticked every item on the list in the de­sign doc­u­ment. Or if we’re un­lucky, when the money starts to run out. But what­ever the rea­son, call­ing a halt to the cre­ative process is not unique to the world of games, and it doesn’t have to feel un­sat­is­fy­ing, al­though some­times that’s unavoid­able.

Never fear, how­ever. We live in an age of patches if things are truly screwed, and down­load­able con­tent if we just want to keep go­ing. DLC is the curse and the bless­ing of our age. If you have a game en­gine ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with more and more mis­sions, lev­els or sce­nar­ios, you’ve done the hard part and whether you charge for the ex­tras or not, you’re keep­ing your game grow­ing, and prob­a­bly still sell­ing well with­out any­thing like the ef­fort it took to make in the first place.

All this just re­in­forces the cur­rent sta­tus of games as amor­phous fran­chises. They’re ex­pand­able ex­er­cises in se­quel-spawn­ing brand­ing and mer­chan­dise and it’s what the pub­lic want. It’s cer­tainly what we’re giv­ing them, so they must. I nearly typed LOL at the end of that last sen­tence, but pulled my­self up as this is a mag­a­zine. How­ever, isn’t it true that the best pieces of cre­ative en­deav­our are those that ac­tu­ally get de­clared fin­ished? If you could down­load ex­tra tracks to add to your favourite al­bum, would you want to? Even if they were by ex­actly the same lineup who made that al­bum in the first place? If the Mona Lisa could be 20 per cent larger, or The Big Le­bowski half an hour longer, and all you had to do was click to add the ex­tra con­tent, would it im­prove them?

I might have once worked for a de­vel­oper who, in a rush to get a rel­a­tively bug-free prod­uct out be­fore the end of whichever quar­ter is the im­por­tant one, ended up culling a host of fea­tures from the game. There was un­der­stand­able dis­may from those who’d spent time work­ing on the lost con­tent. The so­lu­tion was as cyn­i­cal as it was in­ge­nious; the game came out with, in­evitably, bugs and glitches. A patch was promised that fixed these. But this patch was de­layed so some of the dropped fea­tures could be pol­ished and in­cluded in it. ‘This is good,’ you’re think­ing, ‘they’ve mended the game and added some more stuff to it. I like these peo­ple and wish them well.’ But when you con­sider the re­al­ity of the mat­ter, what had hap­pened was the com­pany had failed to make the game they wanted, with all the fea­tures they were go­ing to in­clude. They then re­leased it in a flawed state. And then tried to look gen­er­ous and benev­o­lent by fix­ing the bugs and prob­lems they shouldn’t have had in the first place, and be­stow­ing to their ador­ing masses ex­tra con­tent, which should have been there in the first place too. There is, it turns out, a dif­fer­ence be­tween al­ways leav­ing them want­ing more and not giv­ing them what they want in the first place.

There do have to be dead­lines, of course. And they don’t have to be to the detri­ment of the thing be­ing rushed to com­ple­tion. A de­gree of ur­gency is highly de­sir­able within the cre­ative process, and some of the great­est ac­com­plish­ments ever have been bashed out while im­pa­tient feet are tap­ping some­where. And Parkin­son’s Law, telling us work ex­pands to fill the time al­lot­ted to it, holds water most of the time. If there’s ever been a videogame signed off sig­nif­i­cantly be­fore its due date, I’d like to play it. And if there has and I did, on prin­ci­ple I’d com­plain about some­thing in it, be­cause if they fin­ished early, they should’ve pol­ished it more and fin­ished on time.

So, what’s the up­shot here? Firstly, as we’re all ul­ti­mately go­ing to cark it, we have to ac­cept that ev­ery­thing we do is to a time con­straint. And also that some games should just get fin­ished and played for a bit and ev­ery­one just walks away. No DLC, no se­quels, no ex­pan­sion packs. The peo­ple who make these can just go and do some­thing new. And fi­nally, here’s a first; you’ve just read some­thing that has dis­cussed dead­lines and hasn’t once used that quote on the sub­ject by Dou­glas Adams.

If the Mona Lisa could be 20 per cent larger, or The Big Le­bowski half an hour longer, would it im­prove them?

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