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Opinion: The Value Of Failure

In a fascinating opinion piece, pseudonymous game designer 'Spitfire' references comments by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling to discuss why game creators should aim to "Fail faster... fail sooner" to more quickly reach their ultimate goal.

June 25, 2008

5 Min Read

Author: by Spitfire

[In a vibrant opinion piece, pseudonymous game designer 'Spitfire' references comments by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling to discuss why game creators should aim to "Fail faster... fail sooner" to more quickly reach their ultimate goal.] I read a fascinating speech by J.K. Rowling (yes, that J.K. Rowling) that she gave for Harvard’s commencement ceremony this past week and couldn’t help but smile and nod my head while reading about her life lesson she relates to the graduates. The speech is about failure and imagination, two things which, coincidentally, game design is all about. Granted, the imagination part is fairly self-explanatory, so I’m not going to delve into it much (especially since her noble idea of imagination is more John Lennon than it is Jim Henson). Rather, I was especially interested that she learned from her failure: "I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless." How does this relate to game design? I can see how many would think I’m stretching things a bit. Obviously, we risk the same situation if we fail as an entire team or company, but what I really want to get at is how failure is valuable on an individual task-by-task basis. Failure in design is more often more valuable than success, because if we’re willing to listen to it, and analyze it, we can determine exactly where we went wrong, and find success faster than if we just stabbed at it randomly: "So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged." "I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life." I first learned about the value of failure at the Game Design Workshop during GDC last year, and I feel like a broken record repeating the refrain of the lesson: Fail Faster. Many people don’t understand the concept. In fact, if I didn’t actually experience the phenomenon first hand, I’d chalk it up to cheap business success book lingo like “synergy” or “paradigm.” We even discussed the phenomenon of fearing failure, and how those who fear failure fail last, which is actually the biggest insult and humiliation in game design, because the teams who failed early almost always had a better concept than the teams who debated too long and waited to test their game ideas - and therefore failed last. So I smiled when I read J.K. Rowling’s take on “failing last” (the all too common phenomenon of fearing failure so much you take the least amount of risks possible and wait to fail) which she terms “failing by default”: "You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default." Who knows if the Harvard grads will be able to learn from this? Failure is a sticky wicket. It’s one of those things you have to experience first hand. Sure, some lessons are self explanatory and don’t require witnessing failure for you to “get” the lesson and learn from it, but that’s where the GDC class really excelled. They forced us to fail, and presented us with what were almost Kobayashi Maru scenarios, ones where I was almost certain we would not be able to pull a game out of. But the value of failure had already been extolled upon us, and we knew how to learn from it. As funny as it sounds, we could be heard to say, “We’re not failing fast enough.” I’m shocked that we were able to make games out of the rules we were given in that class. Seriously, a card game based off of one of the seven deadly sins? Making games out of random objects and a Tupperware container? Impossible? Only if you don’t try. So, if any of you folks reading this are designers, try failing. Fail faster. Fail sooner. Don’t sit there in design meetings arguing all day about where your controller buttons should be laid out. Just map them as fast as you can and try it. It’s going to suck at first, but accept your failure. Hell, welcome it, and iterate on it as fast as you can. You’ll find the winning solution faster than if you attempted to write it out in a game design doc and debate the virtue of your layout without ever playing it. [Spitfire is a game designer at a self-publishing development company. Before starting his site game-ism.com, he was a published gaming journalist, and during his career has also worked in television, commercials, and film.]

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