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Hitting You When You’re Not Down: Making Bad Games

August 22, 2008

If you make games professionally and continue to do so, there will come a point in your career when you will release something that’s less than you wished it were. You will fail publicly, and it will follow you around like a smelly dog. It’ll start when it shows up online, and then the rest of the world can see what most on your team have long known. Then, it will pop up every few years when someone wants to take an anonymous shot at you for reasons that are usually known only to them.

They hit you when you’re not down.

Every designer has had these games. It goes with the territory. Every designer, even the ones you cherish.

  • Will Wright – Sims Online
  • Sid Meier – CivNet
  • John Romero – Daikatana

The list could go on and on. And though you may invent genres and be considered a “game god” by many, it will happen to you. Eventually. Count on it.

It happens because you will take a chance on something that you don’t know as well as you know whatever you’ve been working on. You’ll step out of your comfort zone. You’ll stretch yourself and do great (Braid), okay, or you might just crash and burn. But you tried, and that public failure is the price of learning and also the price of sometimes great innovation.

For me, I stepped out of my element when I worked on Playboy: The Mansion. Ironically, it followed closely on the heels of the most critically successful game I worked on, Wizardry 8. The latter won multiple RPG of the year awards and consistently achieved high ratings (Gamespot gave it Editor’s Choice and a 9.1). It was what many on the team referred to as a labor of love.

Playboy: The Mansion was something new to me in many ways. It was in production when I got there, had a running prototype, and design docs (though they were not at all complete). Previously, I’d always worked from the ground up. It was a game that hooked into a life experience that I didn’t get (though I bet my current Playboy collection is bigger than yours). It was a “social sim” and potentially sandbox game. No one swung a sword for damage, gained levels or needed to rescue an NPC.

And so Playboy: The Mansion had a number of issues. Some of them you know if you’ve played the game. Others, you would only know if you were behind the closed doors of that development office. But really, none of these matter in the broader scope of things. I could list some of the weirder points that caused some of the game’s weirder points, but ultimately, as the lead designer, I own it. We – me and this game and you and your game-to-be – are forever hooked in a way that programmers, artists, producers and even junior designers on the same project never are. As a lead designer, when the fingers point, they point at you (and we always point them at the producer as a matter of course, but no one ever looks that way, damn it).

That ownership, that failure, comes with great benefits.

If you talk to enough game designers, you’ll discover that each of them learned so very much from their “failures.” You’ll also learn why they did it in the first place – because in the past, the same type of calculated risk taking had also brought them success. Trying to make a go of it as a professional game designer was still the single riskiest move I ever made in my life. I made the decision in Atlanta in 1989 while interviewing with IBM. I traded a life of seemingly steady, respectable work for something that sounded absurd just because (and this was the only reason) I loved making games.

And so, you take your risks, and you take your failures. They don’t feel good, but hold them close. The sum total of those failures is so much more than the single rating score or the game design that didn’t work like you hoped that it would.

And when the insults come as they inevitably will, remember what you have learned along the way, and remember that you are also in fine, fine company.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 23, 2008 5:36 pm

    In terms of bad games, the quicker you can make the public can forget them, the better. Mistakes happen, and those mistakes can have repercussions (tainted public image, publisher’s less keen on giving you money), but I don’t feel slipping away afterward is the right thing to do. There’s a few routes to take, as I see it:

    Postal Route: Everyone hates your game, so give ’em more!

    The Wright Way: Everyone hates your game, so give ’em Spore!

    And the one I can’t come up with any puns for is to just throw in the towel. I know, I’m very disappointed in myself for not thinking up a snazzy title and rhyme.

  2. August 23, 2008 7:37 pm

    @Dan – Absolutely. You learn from each of experience, and taking what’s learned will makes us better (or let’s hope, anyway).

  3. August 24, 2008 12:14 am

    I actually wrote a review of Playboy: the Mansion for a friend of mine who runs a game reivew site:

    I kind of liked the game, even though the sex was (understandably) uninteresting and the gameplay was repetitive. The one bit I really didn’t like was that you could spend yourself into a hole you couldn’t dig yourself out of easily.

    MMO developers usually work on a lot less games, and our fans tend to be insanely passionate/critical about our games. So our greatest successes and worst failures may be from the very same game. For example, in my 10 year career, I’ve worked on one major game (Meridian 59) and a few aborted projects. I’m mostly known for my work on M59, obviously. However, some M59 fans hate my very existence because they love the game so passionately that they hate any flaws and blame me for not wanting to dedicate my existence to working on the game. This seems to be a common pattern with every MMO developer that has dealt with the public in a professional capacity.

  4. August 24, 2008 8:04 am

    @Brian – That never even occurred to me. It’s ironic since I know that MMO developers have very dedicated fans whose feedback can have clear and measurable impact in the space of days. For we PC and console developers, if you get incredibly upset at a design decision… hang on. We’ll correct it in a couple years.

  5. August 25, 2008 1:39 pm

    The interesting part about failures, to me, is that the coverage seems to be more thorough. So you can get many viewpoints on a particular problem, with details.

    Also, another way to possibly deal with the failures is to publicly acknowledge them and show how you, as a group or individual, learned from the failure, and plan to make better games.

  6. November 26, 2009 5:34 am

    Any publicity is good publicity, if games get a bad review, its still a review. Is there no ‘default’ way of unassociating with a game. If it is a massive failure then cant you give a developer/designer name instead of real names?
    E.G. in films, when a director makes a naff film that will taint their rep, they credit the directorship to a false person.

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