When we think about the learning process behind video game development, we think about learning algorithms, animation, 3D environment design, and maybe a dash of storytelling. While that’s all extremely important stuff (no math and no art means no game), devs must also gradually learn the toughest lesson that every creative person is forced to study at some point in their lives: knowing when to let go of an idea.
Rod Humble, a former Sims developer and the CEO of Linden Labs (the company behind the massively popular virtual world Second Life) recently talked to Gamasutra about the game creation process. He admitted to Gamasutra that it takes “a lot of discipline to be able to recognize that a wacky blue ocean idea isn’t working out and that it needs to be killed, [b]ut that’s the nature of R&D.” It’s true.
On paper, giving up on an idea sounds easy enough. Pencils have erasers, and keyboards have delete keys, right? It’s not that simple. Human beings are prideful animals, and when an idea that you toiled on gets burnt to the ground by your peers, that rejection stings like a bullet.
When many of us wrote our earliest stories as children, we tended to kill a tale’s climax with the words, “It was all a dream. The End.” To a youngster penning his or her first story, this is a brilliant plot twist. To a teacher, a professional who has seen the same stunt pulled over and over and calls it out for what it is (a cheap cop out), it’s not the least bit impressive. The criticism hurts, and the young writer either takes it and grows–or pulls back into him or herself and insists that the teacher is wrong. The latter course of action can begin a trend that stays with the child through adulthood, and into his or her professional career.
But the discipline that Humble speaks of doesn’t apply solely to bad ideas. In fact, hardcore discipline applies to killing good ideas as well as bad. Every one of us has looked back at design notes for classic games and said things like, “Aw, Nintendo was going to give Mario two heads. That would have been great! Why did they pull that idea?”
There’s always a reason. Graphical and processing limitations, software space (less an issue with modern console game development, but a big barrier for cartridge-based game development in the ’80s and ’90s), or simply a lack of time to properly implement the idea. There are also heartbreaking moments when a neat idea cripples a game with a glitch or bug that can’t be repaired.
A project manager needs to push his or her team, but forcing an idea that simply doesn’t work from any angle is a quick and sure way to breed resentment and discontent. Harmony should come before ego, as the latter can jeopardize a whole project. Better to lose an idea versus an entire team.