Making good games

Posted on August 23, 2014

A few years back I wrote a small essay on the subject of programming in general. One of the issues I discussed there have stuck with me ever since, constantly provoking a question I haven’t yet fully come to grips with. This is the actual occupational field of computer programming. Paul Graham [1] argues that programmers (or hackers, as he likes to call them) are not to be considered engineers or working within a science field, but rather should be treated as artists. One of the reasons for this is how much hackers and painters have in common. As an educated IT engineer myself, I find his essay very spot-on. While programming (or hacking), I often find myself doing stuff that is very much unrelated with the engineering skills I learned as a part of my education. For instance, I learned to use a lot of different tools and methodologies for managing IT related projects and was also trained on how to take advantage of all the resources within a team that is working on these project (would that be setting up a company network or developing software or anything elselike). Now, seldom did this mean doing any actual programming. At most, I got to say how something was supposed to be implemented, but never really got write much code myself (as always, there were exceptions to this as well). I remember how I and a classmate had a discussion on what we had learned so far and came to the conclusion that none of us really had improved much in doing what we’d thought we’d learn about, programming. “At least I can write technical reports!” he ironically concluded our discussion.

So what does this have to do with making good games. Quite frankly, not much. Mostly I wanted to reference Graham’s great essay, since it contains a lot of interesting thoughts on programming in general and how it really should be done. But also I wanted to raise the question of game developers’ profession. If determining the correct field for programming is hard, then what about game development? To be honest, I really┬ádon’t know. Since game development consists of so many different tasks it’s probably not a very bright idea to try to categorize game development, whether it is an art form or an engineering discipline or a craft or anything else. To me, this job combines experts from a wide range of professions that all share the same enthusiasm for the interactive entertainment we know as video games, where the real challenge lies in getting all this talent to perfectly synchronize in order to form a good game. It’s like filming a movie, recording an album, writing a novel and painting a portrait, all at the same time and for the same purpose. I’m not sure that is definable as a distinct occupational field.

While on the subject, do you know the most important factor in what makes a game really good? I’ll give you three guesses. No, no and no. It’s time.

You don’t believe me? Paul Graham thinks differently. While he is not talking about game projects in his essay, I do claim his arguments could be used to support my theory. “Over time, beautiful things tend to thrive, and ugly things tend to get discarded.” and “There is always a big time lag in prestige. It’s like light from a distant star. Painting has prestige now because of great work people did five hundred years ago.” are examples of Graham’s arguing that time will make your work seem more valuable than it might be at the time of actually doing it.

There is another side of this as well. The amount of time spent on one game project will often be reflected in how much gamers will like that game. There are a number of games that are highly regarded as masterpieces (in one way or another, but almost always because they are, simply, good games) that all share the same characteristic. They all took a long time to develop. Just take this list as an example:

  • GTA V – 5 years in development
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 5-6 years in development
  • Fez – 5 years in development
  • Half-Life 2 – 5 years in development
  • The Sims – 5 years in development
  • Command & Conquer – 2,5 years in development
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – 3 years in development
  • Super Mario Bros. 3 – 2 years in development
  • Super Castlevania IV – 2 years in development

I have listed quite big titles above and for a reason. Even though there is always going to be good games that somehow manage to get developed in very short timespan (Batman: The Video Game, some early EA Sport games) and bad ones that have a very long development times (Duke Nukem Forever), the best game almost always spend a long time in development. While this might seem like a dumb strategy from a sales perspective (and maybe it is), it certainly is not dumb for all of us who love these really, really good games.

So, in conclusion, time appears to affect a game to the better in two ways. First, there’s the legacy factor. The older the game, the greater the chance it’s going to be considered a classic. Second, there’s the development factor. More time for development almost certainly means a better outcome for the finished game. And I don’t see any reason why it would be different. After all, isn’t the joy of playing a really good game worth the time waiting for it?




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