Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
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?