Friday, February 3, 2006

The Blind Men and the Elephant: Thoughts on an integrative framework for understanding games

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

John Godfrey Saxe,
“The Blind Men and the Elephant”

To understand game design, it is common to look at games from a wide variety of perspectives. Much like the blind men describing the elephant in the old Indian tale, each perspective brings something new to the picture. However, if we restrict ourselves to studying only one perspective, we end up making ludicrous decisions. “What is this thing we call a game?” someone inevitably asks. The peanut gallery cries “It’s a movie! A set of rules! A very small pebble! No, it’s a duck!”

The result? Weak games, disappointed players and poor team dynamics. There is a better way.

Existing perspectives
There are several predominant perspectives out there. A short list might include:
  • Games as entertainment: Games exist as a method of having fun. Is there anything else? (The answer is ‘yes.’ :-)
  • Games as craft: Development sees games as a production puzzle full of risks, costs, resources and schedules. Games are a craft with techniques and skills that property applied result in success.
  • Games as art: Games are a burgeoning new form of creative expression that will change the world by changing how people think about critical human issues.
  • Games as business: Games are a business complete with profit, loss and opportunities for squeezing out more cash with few resources.
  • Games as theory: Games are an activity based on well defined (if not yet completely discovered) theoretical foundations.
We could no doubt add games as a community, games as status symbols, games as instruments of Satan and innumerable other perspectives of varying degrees of importance.

It is likely that when you started looking into game design you fell into one of these major categories. At first, I saw games as simple entertainment. Then for a while, I passionately believed in games as art. I’ve dabbled in the other perspectives and always enjoy asking which bucket folks call their own.

There is one right perspective, right?
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

In general, someone who lives by a dominant worldview either A) rails against those who do not share his opinion or B) ignores them if he holds enough power. This is really quite understandable. Each perspective is attempting to reach a very different goal. Anything that doesn’t help reach the goal is either an obstacle or noise.

For example:
  • From an entertainment perspective, a game is a success if it helps person relax after a hard day.
  • From a craft perspective, a game is a success if it ships on time with a well-executed set of features. More is always more impressive.
  • From a business perspective, a game is a success if it makes money.
  • From an artistic perspective, a game is a success if it evokes emotions and makes the auteur a name. Ideally, it will get young vibrant artists laid. (Let us be honest. :-)
  • From a theorist’s perspective, a game is a success if it introduces or clarifies new theoretical constructs that spur a deeper understand of the medium.
We can all think of examples where these goals conflict. Ask two people about the same game and you will get very different opinion about its inherent value.
  • To a theorist, Fa├žade is a great game. To a pure business man, it is barely worth the bits on the disk.
  • To a business man, Deer Hunter was an amazing success story. To the artist, Deer Hunter evokes all that is wrong with the world.
  • To a craftsman, Doom 4 is the peak of excellence. To the player, it doesn’t quite create the same sense of joy as it once did.
On the surface, we would appear to be stuck in the same eternal battle of opinion illustrated in the blind men and the elephant. For folks striving to reach a differing objectives, even mere discussion of other concerns is a simple waste of time and resources.

There is an elephant!
It is easy to lose track of the fact that we are all feeling up the same beast. We are all talking about games.

What we need is an integrative approach to understanding games. When detailed conflicts seem impossible to resolve, it is often worth while to step back and look at the big picture.

Here are three questions we need to answer in order to make any integrative approach useful to real game developers working on real products. (Unfortunately, theory alone won’t pay the bills.)
  • What is an integrative framework to use as a starting point for the conversation? If we waste our time reinventing the wheel, we just end up with more arguments.
  • What is a common goal that subsumes the existing goals? If people don’t see a reason to work together, they won’t.
  • How do the various perspectives work as part of a coherent ecosystem? If there isn’t an obvious way the different perspectives benefit one another then the whole effort is a non-starter.
New Product Development as an integrative framework
There are many possible ways of describing our gaming big picture. We need to start someplace, so let us look at games as a New Product Development (NPD) exercise. This is a common integrative framework that is used across many industries and is easily applicable to the game industry.

NPD is, not surprisingly, the act of bringing a new product to market. It is a process that includes everything from the fuzzy front end of defining a product all the way up to releasing the product onto the market. Apple, 3M, and IBM treat it as a core strategic competency. For auto manufacturers, it is a religion. Even a few software developers are starting to think about their work as more than just writing code.

One of the key benefits of the NPD framework is its comprehensiveness. It details a variety of stages, each of which has important links into on the commonly held perspectives of the game industry. A traditional NPD process looks a bit like this.
  1. Idea Generation
  2. Idea Screening
  3. Concept Development and Testing
  4. Business Analysis
  5. Beta Testing and Market Analysis
  6. Technical Implementation
  7. Commercialization
A NPD (or the more loosely applied term ‘Product Design’) perspective allows us to look at any person who makes games and say “Yes, I understand your personal goals and this is how you contribute to the big picture.” When you follow an integrative framework, you no longer have to look at the world in terms of us and them.

A common goal
Next, we need to answer the question “Why should we all work together?”

NPD has a simple goal. Everyone involved wants to create and commercialize a product that benefits an underserved customer need. There are lots of ways to reword the goal of product development in a manner that appeals to a wide variety of people. One of my favorites is “Doing good things for other people (and not starving while doing it)”

Many people coming to product development for first time often mistake it as a capitalist or business system. It borrows from these perspectives, but making new products is about something far more fundamental. It is about basic human decency and using our marvelous intellectual and social skills to better the world. You see someone who has a problem and you help them out. If your solution is good enough, they’ll return the favor.

Admittedly, there is one group -- let’s call them the ‘Self Absorbed’ -- that finds the general goals of new product development repugnant. The major sticking point is the horrendous thought of spending their precious time helping others. Some are young men who just need to grow up and live life. Some have bought into ill-formed notions of how art or innovation actually occurs. I happen to believe that once you cut out the world’s sociopaths, the group that does not willingly contribute to the welfare of others is thankfully quite small.

Working towards a greater good is one of the most energizing and unifying activities that we can do as human beings. It is built in to our wetware. Teams that recognize this fact and structure their efforts around reaching for a meaningful shared goal create the world’s most amazing games.

If ‘Doing good things for other people’ is the general theme, you still need to answer some hard questions in order to bring folks on board.
  • Who is the customer? Specifically, who are we doing good things for?
  • Does their need really matter to them? If we make something cool, are they going to show us monetary love or are they going to guiltily look the other way and start walking faster?
  • Is our solution any good? Can we make something that they think is worth buying?
If you can answer these questions in a clear, highly positive manner, you have a team goal that helps cut across all existing boundaries. You give folks a reason to subsume their personal agendas into a greater goal.

If you give vague answers or switch goals depending on how the wind is blowing, people will call you on your bluff and move back to supporting their own goals. Most people want to believe in a greater good, but they aren’t complete idiots.

A coherent eco-system
Now that we’ve described a common goal for our integrative framework, we need to show folks how they fit into it all together. In essence, you are answering the question “How do we all work together to reach the goal?”

Here are some common ways that each group contributes:
  • Business: Business brings tools for measuring and managing sustainability and success of a product development effort. For example, ensuring that the company is profitable just means that the team can eat and continue doing what they love. Money can be seen as a useful measurement of value creation. If people pay you for your product, that’s a pretty good sign you are fulfilling customer needs.
  • Art: Art brings tools for identifying and meeting emotional needs that are not easily definable or reproducible by more empirical methods. Products are rarely bundles of only practical benefit. They can include status, comfort, stress relief, companionship and a million other fuzzy human benefits as part of their overall package. Those who promote games as art possesses potent tools for contributing these fuzzy human factors to a complete product.
  • Fun: The traditional entertainment perspective provides an established set of standard to benchmark your efforts against. Those who promote games as pure fun know what they like and are happy to tell you.
  • Production: The production / craft perspective bring together proven tools for building high quality products on time and under budget. Without production, you’ll never get your product out the door.
  • Theory: The theorists provide new empirical tools that can lead to radical innovative leaps. If making games is the craft of inducing fun in players, then theorists and academics provide the basic science that both drives the craft forward. They aren’t the only source, but they are an important input into the ecosystem of new game creation.
Each one of these is an essay onto itself, but I promised myself that I would try to write in more digestible chunks. :-) The important point is that it is easy to find common ground. Once you have an integrative framework and an understanding of shared goals, the benefit of widely divergent tools is quite apparent.

During the writing of this little essay, I ended up starting four other essays. There are lots of areas to explore and I found myself delving into team building, research technology transfer techniques and a half dozen other remarkably intriguing fields. If NPD or Product Design is to be a unifying philosophy, it certainly needs to be fleshed out in much greater detail. There are many practical questions just begging to be answered.

I'm tempted to say "Hey, isn't this exciting!" but it would be perhaps idealistic to expect all the participants in our industry to be focused on the same goal of seeing the big picture. Our charming Godfrey’s poem ends on a pessimistic note.

"So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!”

I prefer to remain optimistic. We have the start of at least one integrative framework that can help us avoid theological wars. We also have two big carrots that I hope will encourage others to pitch in:
  • We can advance game design by leveraging a common viewpoint. The result is tightly focused teams and a lot less arguing.
  • We can learn one another’s tools and use knowledge from multiple domains to solve our most difficult issues in innovative ways. The result is better games that satisfy customers more deeply.
Imagine for a moment if our blind men figured out that they were really describing an elephant. Would they train it to carry them about? Would they run away if it was angry (I would!). They certainly would figure out that perhaps they shouldn’t grab certain parts too tightly. At the very least, they could stop arguing and put their efforts into something a bit more practical.

Pause for a moment the next time you hear someone ranting on how their perspective on game development is correct and the other fellow is completely off his rocker. Perhaps it is worth asking “Hey, what is our common ground here?”

Take care
Danc. (aka Mr. Platitude)



  1. Ah, welcome back to the product design evangelist! :)

    Of course using car manufacturers as an example of good NPD use doesnt really help (have you seen modern cars? all are unquestionably similar and generally dull).

    I do agree though that its useful to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" every now and then and get a better perspective. Which can be hard when youre a grunt in the trenches rather than the general sat back at home sipping sherry looking at a map of the battlefield and eating filet mignon.

    But anyway, back to my point.

    Even though I agree that having alternative perspectives is useful, I dont clearly see how it can be practically applied in a "framework" manner. People just have the natural tendancy towards thier own viewpoint. We can at times alter that viewpoint, but inherently we are beasts that like the blinkers of our own world view. If we then somehow get another world view imposed on us, then we revolt against it. Your NPD framework seems like an idyllic nirvana where everyone sees the problem and can work towards a common solution. Give that politics is meant to have a similar thrust, is it surprising that I'm sceptical that it can be achieved?

    I'm going to have to read up on how this process actually happens at companies like Apple before I put my foot in it too far, but it seems to me that most truly great products dont particularly come from this process. Often they are simply inspired peices by one designer given a target goal (which often isnt the actual goal the designer has in mind of course).

    But hey, dont let me stop you trying to enlighten me some more about the product design concept Dan, I'm all for taking in new approaches.

  2. Hi Zoombapup!

    Ah, the classic "One guy with a vision changing the world single handedly." There is a meme that will never die.

    It is generally false if you look back at the history of innovation on the product front.

    The real pattern goes something like this:
    - A team of people come together to solve a problem. They all contribute, many in an absolutely critical fashion.
    - One guy grabs the credit. And the press laps it up.
    - History records that one man (it is rarely a woman that seems to step forth and claim credit) single handedly changed the world.
    - Millions of bright young men get the cult of individual success pounded into their head as the one true way of succeeding in life.

    If you look at the gaming world, it is a commonly held belief that Shigeru Miyamoto has designed most Nintendo games. Certainly he contributed and acted as an important catalyst. But most of the work, creative and otherwise was done by other people on the team.

    Now, there are certainly individual successes driven by one person. But they occur a lot less than our popular culture likes to promote.

    Success by gathering a team of people with differing perspectives is the dominant method of creating great products. You can learn how to manage such a system and achieve great success. Or you can stick to the myths of pop culture and the belief that you and you alone hold the answers to all problems that might come your way.

    Yep, there are certainly politics involved. Us techies like to imagine we can ignore social interaction, but convincing, promoting, cajoling, leading, arguing and making team members happy is a critical skill. Team members don't just happen to 'see the problem' That's why there is a process to help out with this messy exercise of creating a common goal. You go through copious excercises to define the problem and solution. The first 5 steps of the 7 step process focus on this fuzzy front end. You build the goal together so that there is team ownership, not a mission sent down from on high.

    Fun stuff.

    take care

    PS: Here's a fun little story about the process of designing 'boring cars'. If you go over to Japan, many of the cars are actually quite exciting and innovative. They are cute, colorful and come in a surprisingly wide variety of shapes.

    Yet they don't sell those cars in America. Why? Because Americans want boring cars. Time after time the concept tests come back asking for more stability, safety, reliability, etc. And the Civic rules the highways.

    That's one of the tricky parts about product design...sometimes when you truly listen to your customer, you find out that what they want and what you dream about creating are sometimes two different very things. :-)

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the need of finding more common ground and particularly with the need of managing individual goals (and egos) in the Western world.

    However the Japanese have groupwork and even groupthink encoded in them from an early age. It goes without saying that every person in a project always keeps in mind the needs of the other people working on (or related to) the project.

    On that matter, I think you are downplaying Miyamoto’s role in Nintendo games too much. He certainly didn’t single-handedly make them, neither can you say that everything good about these games is 100% his responsibility. But implying that the statement “Miyamoto designed the Super Mario and Zelda games” is somehow wrong is going a bit too far.

    Miyamoto’s been known to take a look at a design or a prototype and quickly determine what works, what doesn’t, and exactly how to change it for the better. He’s been reported to take his team’s work and “like a demon” mercilessly cut out anything that doesn’t fit in his vision of the game. Wind Waker and Super Mario Sunshine have been widely recognized as excellent games, yet “not quite there” in the legend status that the games Miyamoto was more closely involved with achieved.

    Now, he accepts and encourages contributions from others. Miyamoto has recognized many important elements from his games came into being almost by chance while playing around with ideas or prototypes. More than a defined vision, he has a feeling towards which he works, one that allows for change and foreign input. He is neither a dictator nor a mere catalyst. He is the gardener that carefully prunes and directs the growth of a bonsai. Which is exactly what I think a lead designer should do.

    Then again, if you happen to have a particular insight on how things happen inside EAD that the rest of us doesn’t have, I would very much appreciate if you shared your sources. :->

  4. I don't mean to downplay Miyamoto's role. What you describe is very much a leader / team catalyst. The team still contributes mightily, but there is often someone who acts as the 'keeper of the vision'. Even in a cross functional team, there are roles and responsibilities based off individual talents.

    I was reading up on the early days of Macintosh development and the role that Steve Jobs played.

    There's a great post on 'The Father of the Macintosh' that goes through the various roles that several critical people on the team held. (Link here: Full Article

    Arguements could be made that all three of the folks mentioned deserve the title of Father of the Mac. Steve Jobs, as a creative and catalytic leader, had a major impact. The same thing happens in game development. I don't know the details of EAD's development process, but I suspect that it remains a team effort fueled by passionate and talented team members and strong leadership.

    You still need the common goal and a framework for working together towards that goal.

    The flip side is that if you have the talented leader, you don't always get a great product. Saddle a creative genius with a team that hates one another and management that doesn't allow proper leeway to make changes, and I'd argue that you are going to get a pile of poo. Process can impeed progress like no other force known to man. :-)

    take care

  5. I just recently reviewed Virtuoso Teams which is an excellent guide to this sort of team based process, although it's not all about product design. It has some great case studies of teams that revolutinised their chosen fields.

  6. Danc,

    While I agree with you, I also see that (in our industry and elsewhere) the people who front the money for projects -- publishers, VCs, Angels -- ask "who are the leads?", not "who is the team", when determining what companies to fund.

    Sometimes the only people that matter are the company CEO and board members, and the actual dev team isn't even considered.

    Now, it's easy to say that this sort of thing is stupid and shortsighted and NO WONDER only 10% of the games that are funded make a reasonable amount of money... but then it's implied that there's this massive opportunity waiting out there for the one green-light guy who actually takes the time to look at the entire dev team. We've been in this model for years; where's the guy who got rich because he was smart about funding the right team?

    Whenever the answer is "no one's figured out the Big Secret yet", I get skeptical...

  7. "It is easy to lose track of the fact that we are all feeling up the same beast. We are all talking about games."

    Or are we?
    *he said while smoking a pipe and appearing enigamtic*.

    If I may stretch your analogy to breaking point (and what a good one it is by the way!), what if the blind men are feeling up four or five different animals that they all call 'Elephant'?

    This is the thing that most immediately jumps out at me with these arguments: The essential assumption that there's one elephant. I mean game, sorry :)

    Personally, I'm not convinced there is one elephant. It's common practise for us to use the one word 'game' to describe a multitude of different ideas, but aside from the conventions of linguistic history (I.e. computer game was the name coined all those years ago for this stuff), I haven't seen a compelling argument that draws them all together with any coherence.

    I have great sympathy with the articles, books, theories and whole schools of thought that have attempted in a variety of ways to create a linguistic common ground (I've even written one or two of them myself) but it's possibly a Sisyphean task.

    I think if you look at your product design methods as applying more to a loose grouping of elephants than one beast you might have better luck Danc.

  8. tadhg,

    Sometimes you have to go broad to be inclusive. Another way of stating what you are saying is that there are different types of games. This might require a broadening of the term game outside of some narrow technical definition, but that is fine.

    In fact, the larger framework already takes this broader perspective. It says that at a very big picture level, you are making a product that serves human needs (or in the case of research, contributing to the future creation of a product). Obviously this includes more than just games, but is also provide a root to start the discussion. "We at least say we are dealing with a large grey vertabrate. With a trunk." :-)

    take care

  9. This is something in the vein of what Tahdg was talking about. Another way of looking at games, that's neither "entertainment," "craft," "art," "business," or "theory."

    I say one possibility is that games are a medium. Interactive electronics can be all of those things and then some, much like the written word can be any number of things - a story, a technical manual, a description, an essay, and any number of denominations within these.

    The best thing, in my opinion, is not to look for a game that can be all things (as elusive a goal as a book that can be all things), but rather for all those involved with creating the game to know what the game is supposed to be, and what they are capable of making.

  10. On the subject of team-vs-individual merit in most products, I fundamentally agree that a "good team is better than a single individual with a vision" premise.

    I have heard many industry stories about guys like Peter Molyneux where the self-proclaimed creater of the god game genre has taken credit for the whole of his companies work, where as the reality is that he has almost entirely been sidelined to a public mouthpeice and only occasionally contributes anything that actually makes it into a game.

    I personally have found that both the "individual with a vision" and the "team with a plan" methods both work, but if I'd have to choose one, I'd go with the team anytime. Having been part of the team based input method, it *does* mean you have to be careful about who the team are, but fundamentally I believe that approach has a better chance of working across multiple titles.

    Having been on the team, it just feels fundamentally more sustainable.

  11. tadhg,

    Maybe I'm missing the point, but I assumed that for the purposes of this article, the Blind Men represent members of a single development team making one particular game.

    For example, the guys making Super Mario Galaxy are all fondling the same beast. It may be an Elephant, it may be a Hippo, but it's assumed they're all groping one single animal, because we know going into it that they were placed into a cage with a single beast and asked to identify it!