Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dear Producers: You Are Not Designers

Why do game designers allow producers to dictate design choices?

A little background: I'm a systems designer by inclination and a project manager (outside the game development industry) by professional experience. So I appreciate the value of both roles in creating properly functional systems on a budget and a schedule.

But if anything, this is why I'm annoyed every time I discover that some producer -- or worse, an executive -- is dictating design choices for a game. People acting in multiple roles tend to do none of them sufficiently well. And people who aren't designers by choice are probably going to make more incorrect design decisions than those who do choose to be designers.

So why do so many producers seem unable to stop themselves from dabbling in game design? Why is this allowed to happen so frequently in game development?

When a developer blog/chat/interview reveals that it's the producer who is determining core design elements, that suggests two things to me: firstly, that the producer is probably neglecting actual production-related tasks in favor of fiddling with the design. That's a bad sign for delivering a good product on time. Who's monitoring and managing the development process while the Producer is arguing with the Lead Designer over whether the game's hero needs a sidekick character?

And secondly, why the heck did they hire a Lead Designer if they're not going to let that person do their job? The title Lead Designer needs to mean something. That person needs to have the authority to specify the high-level systems of a game, and their creative authority needs to protected from producer encroachment. If the producers or other suits are so concerned about the creative direction of a game that they feel they need to do that person's job for them, then the correct action is to fire that designer and hire a new one because interfering can only reduce the impact of the vision for the game. When the designer does not have the power to enforce a consistent creative vision, when non-designers can impose their preferences solely because the org chart says they have the power to do so, the result will be a game that plays like it was designed by a committee... because it was.

Frankly, I think most producers are not equipped to be designers, and they should not try to fill both roles. A good producer is a valuable person, but that value is diminished when they're not doing their job (producing) because they're trying to do someone else's (designing). If you're a producer, but what you really want is to design, then demonstrate the courage of your convictions: step down as Producer and ask to be hired as the Lead Designer or Creative Director or its equivalent.

Finally, I note that this applies to both internal producers and publisher producers. Personally, I wouldn't want to sign a deal with a publisher that didn't include some text saying that final authority for creative decisions rests with the developer. (Naturally such a contract should also include a provision allowing the publisher to back out of the deal if they feel strongly enough that the creative direction is just too wrong.) I don't see any good in producers dictating design choices, whether those producers are part of the development studio or represent the publisher.

This does not mean that producers (or any other member of the development team) shouldn't be able to offer design ideas. Designers aren't perfect; sometimes it's helpful to hear what others think. What I'm arguing against here is allowing the Lead Producer or Senior Vice President in Charge of Whatever to dictate design choices simply because they sign the team's checks.

Bottom line: Power in a corporate hierarchy does not imply design competence. Let the designers do the designing, and let producers stick to producing.

Of course I recognize that this is wishful thinking on my part, and that producers of whatever ilk will continue to abuse their power by overriding the creative work of the people who supposedly were hired on the strength of their design abilities.

Doesn't mean I can't complain about it as a sub-optimal business process....

Thursday, February 18, 2010

MMORPGs: The Evolutionary Dead End

Brian "Psychochild" Green, in a thoughtful post (MMOs Change Over Time) on his blog, asks the question: Do you enjoy your favorite MMORPG more or less because of the changes that have been applied to it?

Unhappily, my MMORPG experiences since EQ have led me to precisely the opposite conclusion: as a gamer, I’m just not interested in playing any of these games any more because my perception is that they have ceased to change in any meaningful way.

I find it terrifically frustrating to consider the fact that these games, as forms of virtual worlds, could be about anything... and yet the best that their designers today can do is to copy the mechanics that have become conventions of the genre. I recently helped beta test an online game based on a well-known IP, and I was shocked to see that many of the mechanics, far from being designed fresh to fit the IP, were not merely copied from existing MMORPGs -- they were actually called by exactly the same names: root, buff, aggro. But this game’s designers are not alone in seeming to believe that these arbitrary mechanics have become non-negotiable requirements that simply have to be copied wholesale into the core design. So does everyone else.

Even at the next level up, every MMORPG designer seems obsessively fixated on delivering only one kind of entertainment experience: kill mobs and take their stuff. Ask today’s typical MMORPG player to define “MMORPG,” and that’s how they’ll describe the whole genre: combat and loot.

Change? What change?

When I see game after game aping their predecessors (while ads proclaim them to be “revolutionary”), and then think about the possibilities of MMORPG play that are bounded only by human imagination... yes. It’s infuriating.

Why are so many designers willing to put up with such limits to creative expression?

Why are so many gamers willing to tolerate such an unnecessary lack of choice in entertainment experiences?

From my perspective, the problem with MMORPGs is not that there is too much change -- it’s that the genre has already gone into creative rigor mortis long before its time. Whatever changes we perceive are merely various stages of decay and rot.

At this point I’m about ready to declare that monolithic MMORPGs are the shambling dead, and that social games on networks like FaceBook will soon rule the Earth as our new overlords.

Is there any cause to think I’m wrong in that forecast? Is there any hope for the MMORPG?