The Pyramid of Polish: Recognising Diminishing Returns

A helpful analogy for the diminishing returns of over-polishing a product.

Does the pyramid look pointy when standing at the bottom? This is a question we, as game developers, all need to step back and ask ourselves at some point in a project. Heck, often at several points during a project. So, what do I mean by this? Well it's an analogy I've come up with to represent the diminishing return of polishing a product beyond a certain perceivable threshold to the eyes of the consumer.

Imagine being the person at the top of a pyramid made of smaller and smaller blocks. There comes a point where you are placing tiny cubes the size of dice. To you, this little cube is clearly visible. You can see where it fits and plainly see its effect on the pyramid, but what about your audience? What about the people standing at the base of the pyramid looking up? Can they notice the difference this tiny little cube has made? You have to step back from time to time, look up and ask: "does the top look nice and pointy when I'm standing down here looking at the whole thing?" In other words, will continuing to polish yield results proportional to the work of actually having to climb up the whole pyramid to place that tiny cube?

To the audience, those standing at the base, both these pyramids look the same. Only to the masson, standing at the summit, placing ever smaller bricks, do they look different.

This same principal applies to many creative endeavours, including making games. What I'm referring to here is how, as creators, we have our noses to the grindstone and see all the little nagging flaws we would like to address. It's important to evaluate how the extra work will impact the project as a whole and whether or not it's worth it in the context of the final product.

In order to gain this perspective, it can be useful to put down some tasks at the "good enough" stage, put them into the game and take some time to distance ourselves from the work. Over time, we can get a feel for how the asset or system fits within the game as a whole before asking ourselves whether it should be revisited. Another worthwhile strategy is, of course, to look to outside feedback for a sense of what needs more polish versus what can be stamped as done.

As creative folks, it can be easy for us to get lost in our work and, by extension, assign it value based on the effort we put into it. It's important to remember that our audience only sees the end product, not the process. Spend your time on building a solid, formidable pyramid, not one with perfectly smooth sides and a needle sharp top.

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