Thursday, July 5, 2012

Game Design and the Two Cultures of Art and Engineering

A recent article on the computer game development website Gamasutra -- "Fun Is Boring" by Niels Clark -- takes a verbal bat to the recent uptick in arguments that start off as theory and turn into semantic quibbling over the Real Meaning of words like "game" and "fun."

I didn't disagree. But as I kept reading, this not-unreasonable rant seemed to turn into a jeremiad against theories of game design in general.

As the writer of one piece of theory (which I was brazen enough to call a "Unified Model" of personality-based gameplay styles), that bothered me greatly.

I grew up reading and loving science fiction and fantasy, as well as making music of all kinds, and vividly recall being mocked once for the mistake of saying of a remarkable sunset, "That's beautiful." The artistry of meaning has mattered to me.

I also learned to love science and engineering, and the processes by which real things can be efficiently created to accomplish intended purposes. I took to computer programming like a mammal to oxygen, and get paid to manage software development projects. So I also know something about the practicality of production.

And that's why articles that appear to denigrate either art or engineering -- in general, and in computer game design particularly -- seem self-evidently counter-productive to me.

Consider the design of computer games (which is what this blog is about, mostly). Is "fun" an ineffable, Platonic quality that strikes randomly like lightning? Or is it a specifically definable Thing that, with the right planning and execution, can be produced reliably and whose fitness can be measured?

Why are some designers unwilling to accept that making a broadly enjoyable game depends on both artistry and engineering?

A professional computer game development website like Gamasutra is full of how-to articles -- but why have those if making "fun" is random? Why tell aspiring developers to study how games get made? Why bother trying to have or use a vocabulary for expressing the nature of fun at any level if successfully applying that vocabulary is a complete crapshoot? Even if it's not perfect, having some shared language of design increases the likelihood that a particular gameplay mechanic will suit its intended design purpose.

At the same time, it's obvious that engineering isn't enough, either. There are plenty of games that follow sound software development methodologies for both schedule and cost that somehow miss capturing the spark of enjoyability. There is no perfect recipe for fun; if there were, everyone could and would be doing it. (That cake really is a lie.)

Articles and blog comments pushing (or putting down) either the Artist or the Engineer -- as though they're mutually exclusive -- always feel like yet another rehash of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" observation. Even game design veteran Raph Koster commented on July 6 (on his blog and reposted to Gamasutra) on the "two cultures" divide in game design.

I'm never going to quite understand the need some people seem to have to dismiss or disparage any style of understanding the world that isn't theirs. All I can see are the anti-examples where both art and engineering are respected as equally necessary to bring into existence a complex new thing that engenders joy.

A Pixar movie, to take one good example, is both a real thing and a joyful thing. It's a product that got made according to a schedule with budgets, and that resolved a massive number of functional/technical considerations. It's also a glorious exploration of human feeling that's fun for many people. Something like that doesn't happen despite engineering or artistry. It happens because both creative modes are applied. Both are necessary, but neither is sufficient.

So why is there so much resistance to believing the same is true for computer games? Why can't we talk about the theory of making games as well as the practice, while at the same time acknowledging that a truly enjoyable gameplay concept whose creators care about its expression is required for all the process and theory to mean anything?

Artistry is expressed in conceiving ideas for experiences that different kinds of people can find satisfying. Engineering is about turning ideas into reality efficiently enough to make such creative projects achievable.

Why does anyone think that favoring one over the other is necessary?