Mildly surprising fact: I’m quite content with the low frequency of posts on this blog, and I realized the explanation was non-obvious. I’ve actually had this post in the works for months now, but as usual something random comes along that brings things into sharp focus. A theme is brewing, dear readers.
Fellow 2K Marin designer Steve Gaynor wrote recently about getting his work out into the world, and how it seems like an endpoint of sorts for all the things he’s written on his blog. A quick aside: the Minerva’s Den DLC for Bioshock 2 was led by Steve, and features many excellent contributions from my wife. Everyone involved with that project has a lot to be proud of. I wasn’t directly involved, so it’s the first piece of Bioshock I’ve ever been able to play unspoiled.
I find it interesting where the ideas in Minerva’s Den overlap (or don’t) with Steve’s writing. I’ve worked with him for a few years now, but when I played the DLC and especially the level he was the primary implementor on, I felt like I finally understood deeply what makes him tick as a designer.
Thus, my main point: I grow increasingly convinced that game designers who blog have an obligation to validate their theory with practice.
An ounce of playable game is worth a pound of even passionate, lyrical, incisive critical/analytical writing. Jon Blow gave several talks about the state of game design in the years before he released Braid, and at the time some people questioned his credibility. Ultimately it was the finished work that made it clear he practices what he preaches. This is the standard I strive for.
Tiny games from prolific indies such as Stephen Lavelle have said more to me in the past year than reams of brilliant writing. Some of my favorite pieces of academic writing and journalism come from folks like Ian Bogost and Kieron Gillen, who have waded into the painful mess of actual game development to further understand the medium.
In a field like game design, the process of making a thing helps us crystallize our thoughts on the ideas surrounding that thing, while the inverse is not always true. Purity taught me so much that I have not yet had the time to write about. After de-making Arcadia, I found it very easy to finally distill the insights I’d long understood about Doom’s design. Even though it’s not a game, the process of creating the Ultima IV map viewer helped immerse me in the fidelity constraints of ancient games that first inspired me to think about imaginative play.
For several months now, I’ve had a post about non-combat game mechanics in the works, and I realized that my call for deeper exploration of this subject by the industry at large was almost worthless without examples, without some small act of leadership – given their relative scarcity, I owe it to my subject to provide a credible thrust in the intended direction. So I’ve been working on a series of prototypes for Popular, a high school social simulation. I know that once I have it in a playable state, the post will likely come easily and be much richer for it.
This is a practice I would strongly encourage of other designers. The process of getting a game made is full of messy, illusion-shattering realities – things you would never guess existed if you sit and write, as I did for many years, content to hone your theory under the mistaken assumption that when you have found the perfect theory you can make the perfect game. No game is perfect – any viable design approach works backwards from that inevitability.
So for the future: fewer posts, more things to play. I’m still not a very good programmer – my goal in doing it has always been to ensure that the things within my reach as a designer are within my grasp as a creator. That’s really what all this is about. Best of luck to others on this road with me.