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Impossibility and Little Fires

A rule of thumb is a great way to help in the decision making process. Games development is a complex process and some simple phases can help make the process along. In this post, I discuss a pair of my favorites.

Designing a game is an art.  It is not a science.

Despite every business manager and producer searching for the scientific equation of 1a + 2b + 3c = infinite money, such an equation simply does not exist.  There is a fine, almost black art, in knowing players and balancing and crafting an experience composed of basic game play mechanics.

If you’ll recall in my last blog post, I described the rule of thumb that monkeys like shiny things.  This time, I thought I would add a couple more rules of thumb that I’ve picked up over the years and that I feel are equally as useful in the decision making process.  I cannot lay claim to coining the phrases, I merely found them to be applicable to my craft. Consider these to be magic spells within this black art of ours.

The first is “Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week”, which was derived from the U.S. army corps of engineers’ motto.  I prefer this one to the original because it’s more definitive.  It is also very true in the games industry. 

Far too often, I’ve heard that a particular task is “impossible”.  When pressed to define “impossible” in real terms, it turns out that the impossible will take a little while if we want to invest the time (oddly, it’s was often a week).  The reality turned out that the “impossible” task actually took less than a week when all was said and done.

When it comes to the impossible task now rendered possible, further investigation often reveals an even better way of achieving it within a reasonable timeframe and with reasonable effort.  The funny thing about the impossible though, everyone still believes it exists despite proof with their own eyes. 

Today’s games hold a wealth of unbelievable experiences that, I’m sure, someone, somewhere, felt was impossible to some degree.  Make boatloads of money off of a free game?  IMPOSSIBLE!  Play a level that appears to be on the back of a colossus?  IMPOSSIBLE!  Make people prove that a task is truly impossible before giving in on trying to achieve it.

There are those that have acquiesced to the fiction of the impossible.  You will recognize them by this statement: “Ok, nothing is impossible, but that will be very, very, difficult.”  This is a trick.  It is a talisman against your black art! 

When faced with this, have a sit down to determine exactly what is meant by “very difficult.”  Quite often, all it takes to overcome this difficult task is a clever little solution and you’d be surprised what a group discussion can drum up.  Remember, it’s the impossible that takes a week, difficult only takes a day!

This brings me to the second statement.  “Little fires make little heat.” I dug this one up in the book “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill.  Now, this book is filled with great wisdom in helping anyone accomplish any goal. 

However, there was one analogy that stood out to me.  There was a statement about the intensity of desire and how diminished desire produces lacklustre results just as a small amount of fire makes a small amount of heat.”

The point of this rule of thumb is that the intensity of your vision will directly affect the quality of the result regardless of how grand the project or feature may or may not be.  One third of the projects I’ve been involved with have failed to fully materialize. 

On those stillborn projects, there came a point where the interest from the powers that be simply wasn’t there.  That lack of interest from up above would eventually resonate down into the team, and the project would die a slow and completely foreseeable death.

As a project or feature evangelist, it is your job to try and keep that fire burning.  A recent project I was on managed to consistently raise the interest of those around it and it consistently gained upward momentum. 

It was unfortunately a victim of cutbacks, but there is a lot of that going around these days.  It doesn’t mean the principle is unsound.  Who knows?  Maybe if we had created an even larger fire, we could have saved the project!  If over 60 million players can like a game about tending to their farm, there is a lot to be said about building interest in your game.

So let's recap:

Monkeys like shiny things + Difficult takes a day, Impossible takes a week + Little fires make little heat = ...

I may be on to something here! 

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