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Game Design, Steinbeck and the Pleasure of Pacing

July 19, 2009

When game development starts, it does so with a bang. There is the concept, the crystallization of the idea, the prototype, the schedule, the forming of the tasks and to do lists and dependencies and deliverables. From the moment the game gets off the ground and the possibility of its realization crystallizes, there is a sense of urgency and a need to be with it, to move it forward, all the time. We must get to what could be.

It is like a small boat on a river racing headlong toward its destination. The beauty of the shore and the passengers and things in the boat and the possibilities for the journey and even other destinations are there before it. The boat anchors or it waits because it has to or wants to, and in that time, there is little to do but explore the things in the boat or on the shore. They are there waiting, perhaps, these amazing possibilities. The boat fails to race. It slows. It stops. The reason is immaterial.

In development, however, we rush. We rush headlong. I understand why. Unlike the boat, we are a commercial industry. We have deadlines and things to sell. But, we also have a choice over our pacing and when we race and when we go slow and when we go at an average speed. We seldom take these roads, though, or even consider that we have a say over our pace, though we do. We can arrive at the same finish line but go different speeds.

So, in thinking over this journey, I believe we might have something to learn from John Steinbeck, a master in another medium. He kept journals while he wrote, and in the journal he wrote for his masterwork East of Eden, he wrote these words:

Books establish their own pace.

In saying this, Steinbeck was referring specifically to the story, and to the world and its people. But Steinbeck was interested in another pace, too, the pacing of his writing. In East of Eden, he adds what we might consider the writing equivalent of mini-games, whole separate micro-stories seemingly unrelated to the whole but found within the larger text. These stories affect not only his pace, but the pace of the reader as well. His editor, Pascal Covici, was not as pleased to find this as I was:

Editor: The book is out of balance. The reader expects one thing and you give him something else. You have written two books and stuck them together. The reader will not understand.

Steinbeck: No, sir. It goes together. I have written about one family and used stories about another family as well as counterpoint, as rest, as contrast in pace and color.

Editor: The reader won’t understand. What you call counterpoint only slows the book.

Steinbeck: It has to be slowed – else how would you know when it goes fast?

Steinbeck believed in the power of the reader, the player, to integrate these seemingly dis-separate things. He also believed in the pacing of his story, his world, so that the player was not merely on all the time. Steinbeck gave his player time for contemplation of the stories that he told and the information that he relayed. How will our player reflect on the moments we’ve crafted for them if all they do is race headlong through our game from level to level?

In design, in real life, how will we?

Steinbeck’s editor complained the book was too long and the chronology full of holes. He suspected the reader wouldn’t follow or comprehend fully the ending. This was Steinbeck’s reply:

The Reader

He is so stupid you can’t trust him with an idea.
He is so clever he will catch you in the least error.
He will not buy short books.
He will not buy long books.
He is part moron, part genius and part ogre.
There is some doubt as to whether he can read.

Well, by God, Pat, he’s just like me, no stranger at all. He’ll take from my book what he can bring to it. The dull witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn’t know were there.

And just as he is like me, I hope my book is enough like him that he may find in it interest and recognition and some beauty as one finds in a friend.

Would that all our players find the same.

But there is more to this pacing thing as I noted earlier, our own pacing as designers. Steinbeck intentionally slowed his pace with these micro-stories, even though his exposition sometimes drove his critics mad. In his journal on East of Eden, he talks of going fast or slow, or even resisting a rushed pace.

Wednesday, May 9

… Sometimes the old franticness comes back, and it has to be resisted. There is no hurry. All the time and all the story in the world. I’ve never been happier, so why should I ever finish this book. It can go on and on, maybe never be done.

In my work on Train, I never rushed the decisions. I didn’t need to. The game had no publisher, no deadlines, no deliverables by design. I would finish it when it was finished. The wonder of this is that I needed that pacing, because sometimes, the decisions weren’t there to be made yet.

I wonder how many times we make a choice to go one way, but make that choice before the better option shows up.

In the case of Train, I did what the design wanted me to do, made the decisions and put in the required research, emotion and effort. I gave myself time to reflect on the decisions that had passed. The game was able to fully dictate the pace, and as a result, the pace was sometimes frantic and other times, it stopped except for the thought, the hallmark of all game design.

And sometimes, frankly, I believe we do not even know what we have. The answer or things we’re looking for might be right in front of us, known for years, but waiting for the right connection, the right focus to come properly into view. We may live as merely an acquaintance with an idea, a concept or a person only to realize that there is so much more than we’d ever considered possible if only we had given it time, a proper look, an investigation, a chance. If only we had nothing to do but think and explore what we have at present rather than racing, racing toward what will eventually be. Even a certain end state doesn’t preclude the wonder of exploring the full state you happen to presently be in. Many new things become possible because of the gift of pacing and the deliberate (or not) decision to slow down and contemplate the space.

Like the player, the designer needs it, too.

And so, I think, it is relevant to ask ourselves as designers, “What is your hurry?” And even if the answer is deadlines and milestones and deliverables, it is good that we take some time to make space in there. That we rush some and slow some so that something unexpected, something perhaps system altering, something beautiful will rise.  What connections might be made if we considered something new?

If I were not so nearly finished with this volume, I would not permit myself the indiscipline of overwork. This is the falsest of economies. But since [the] end is in view I am permitting myself the indulgence. It is two o’clock in the morning and I can’t stay away from the book. Since I can’t sleep anyway, I might just as well be putting words down instead of only thinking them.

You will know with certainty when you have found the thing you are looking for in your design, even if you didn’t know you were originally looking for it.

And then it will be done.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2009 12:49 am

    Brenda, you are an established game designer, something that I am not, so I will have to give you the benefit of the doubt when you say:

    “We have deadlines and things to sell. But, we also have a choice over our pacing and when we race and when we go slow and when we go at an average speed. We seldom take these roads, though, or even consider that we have a say over our pace, though we do. We can arrive at the same finish line but go different speeds.”

    Sage advice when it comes to the act of creation, no doubt. What troubles me in making the comparison to Steinbeck, however, is that Steinbeck was already a major literary figure by the time he wrote East of Eden. Deadlines be damned, if he wanted to sit and let his work be until it emerged, he could afford to do that. And he was given the chance to push boundaries regardless of what his editor said because he was John Steinbeck. I wonder if he was afforded the same leisure when he wrote Tortilla Flat almost two decades before. Given that he was already used to writing one book almost every two years (along with several short stories) at that point, I’m not sure.

    Still, you say that deadlines are besides the point, and being a designer of two and some decades, you should know best. You provide the example of Train, but likewise note that the game is an exceptional case in most regards.

    I wonder if you mean, then, that East of Eden was likely the culmination of the kind of artistic rumination that Steinbeck had to make more *economic* in his earlier works, when deadlines likely played a tremendous impeding factor, and that a game designer should learn from this: to at least *reflect* about pacing and the toll it takes on the product, even when the schedule does not allow for a slowed production? If that is the case, I could not agree more. That is the problem with any results-based industry, particularly one as obsessed with release dates and exhibitions as the game industry, I’d imagine.

  2. July 20, 2009 1:06 am

    Loved this! Particularly liked ‘The Reader’which inspired this:

    The Gamer
    He is so stupid you can’t trust him with a new IP.
    He is so console clever he will want exclusive [360|PS3]* (delete as appropriate)
    He will not buy Casual games to play with glee.
    He will not buy long 100 hour plus JRPGs.
    He is part moron, part genius, part twitch and part Hoard
    There is doubt he knows chess pieces come with boards.

  3. July 20, 2009 10:56 am


    Steinbeck actually had pretty tight schedules, even at this point. He delivered a manuscript weekly, and had a set end date.

    What I mean to say, and perhaps should clarify in the piece, is that we never schedule in time for reflection of what we have made, or time for exploration of the possible. We have buffer days, but they are often consumed by rush or poor planning. Perhaps Agile comes closest at permitting the dynamic, but even then, it rushes.

  4. July 20, 2009 12:34 pm

    Ah, I didn’t know that re: Steinbeck’s late-career schedule. Excellent point regarding planning for reflection, or the unplanned, as it were. Is this then the responsibility of the project manager to every so often decenter the concentration of team members, get their heads out of the task, take a step back…?

  5. June 19, 2010 2:36 am

    I’m glad you wrote about this, because it’s something that I’ve been nibbling around the edge of lately, and one of the reasons I’m starting to think that perhaps I may take a stab at the wild and wooly life of an indie designer once I’m done with the MFA.

    I’ve developed two habits lately, that have been generally improving both my work and my well-being. the first, is scheduling myself semi-rigid downtime into my projects. This has only worked out because I *have* been scheduling my projects. But I’ve found if I structure myself a 3 hours on/1 hour off cycle, I end up at my most productive. 3 hours of work, one to kick back and work on my game pile or whatever. It’s been letting me just let the work mill around my brain a little, and doing other things, playing other people’s games, whatever, has a chance of introducing new ideas into the process that wouldn’t otherwise get there, or I have some time to sort of regroup and mull over my next problem-chunk so i have a plan in place for when I’m back to work.

    The other habit is doing a couple of projects in parallel. Frequently when I’m back and forth between a couple of different projects, they start cross-pollinating and solving each other’s problems, or producing strange but compelling syntheses that are ultimately better than either were on their own, or any number of other useful things.

    I don’t know that these work for other designers, but the industry at large doesn’t seem to really allow for this sort of thing easily, either. Yet, at least in my case, they’ve been wholly useful exercises to improve my work in the long run. Not to mention I burn out less and sleep better since I started doing it.

    I dunno; this is what the post made me think about in my own life. I couldn’t say if it’s useful to the discussion at hand.


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