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)