Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lessons about failure


I happened across a wonderful nugget of design philosophy, while reading an interview with Clinton Keith, the head of High Moon Studios' technical department. It bundles up lessons from Miyamoto, the joy of failing fast and the benefits of using Stage Gate-type processes in one delightfully juicy quote.

"If you want someone to fail, you want them to fail fast, before they spend a lot of money. That's how Nintendo was. When I was working on the Dream Team [at Angel Studios], they wanted us to do this DNA-based driving game called Buggy Boogie. You had these vehicles that would eat other vehicles and adopt their powers and morph. It was really cool. But they would sign three month contracts, and Miyamoto himself would say that he did not want any documents. He would just say, "Find the fun, and I'll be back in three months to take a look at what you have."

We went through about three iterations of that. We busted our hump trying different things, but at the end of it, he kept coming back and saying that it wasn't there, and it wasn't fun. We were a new company that didn't know how to make games. After about six or nine months, he came back and said, "You guys have really worked hard, and we see the progress, but we're not seeing the product. But another opportunity has come up for a fantasy golf game, so why don't you guys work on that? In three months, we'll be back. Show us a golf game."

So rather than getting pissed off at us and canceling the contract after two years and millions of dollars, they spent just a tiny fraction of that with a small team and said, "Well, it was just a bad idea." It maintained the relationship with them, so we could go off and do something else.
The Lessons
Here are the tidbits I squeezed out:
  • Give yourself a short period of time to 'find the fun' in a design. Give a small team for a few months to iterate on a new design idea. Your goal is come up with the enjoyable core game mechanics. Toss the lengthy design docs. That can come later. If you don't have the fun core of your game, all the design docs in the world won't help your title.
  • If the fun isn't there, move on. Many ideas are bad ideas. You didn't know until you tried. Luckily game designs are a dime a dozen, so perhaps another one will be more fruitful.
  • If you do fail, it isn't the end of the world. Failure is a reasonable and obvious part of the process of creating games.
Much of how creative people see the world is marred by the success bias. We are constantly surrounded by successful, beautiful creations. It is natural to assume that somewhere out there are people who can just create an amazing game at the snap of their fingers. We look at our lump of an attempt and the comparison can be soul shattering.

What we don't see are the failures, those thousands of experiments that never made the final cut. There is a thread over at TIGsource where they are posting incomplete projects. This is the reality, the secret underbelly of both the marvelous IGD competition entries and many commercial successes. You will fail many times before you creating something amazing.

The multitude of playtests that arise from the plethora of exploratory project will inevitably give you more failures than successes. The smart folks use failures to learn and improve. Failing quickly and cheaply means you'll get to really good ideas faster. The path to success is intentionally strewn with failure. Embracing failure is a fundamental lesson of good design and one that is not taught nearly enough.

So when you look at your feeble, twitching prototype and compare it to the latest vibrant screens of some Miyamoto masterpiece, don't give up hope. He likely went down that path as well. Pick yourself up. Is there are spark of fun in your idea? Can your coax it into a bright flame? If not, you should have no regrets. For there is always the next glorious idea waiting to be explored.

take care
Danc