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


  1. Thank you for posting this, it's really help me understand how I work.

  2. After years working with waterfall model and highly documented iterative software development processes, I came to a company that uses agile software development methods including small life-cycle iterations and focuses on functionality.

    From that day onward, I swear by that system. Running into this article just confirms how lean (agile) software development methods are used in the game industry.

  3. This is how we do things where I'm at now and I can't see people working any other way. Rapid prototyping and iterative development seems to be the only real way to go. Everything else feels doomed to frustration, failure, and early onset of crunch time.

  4. Very inspiring post. It gave me something to think about...

  5. Great advice, but sometimes easier said than done.

  6. This reminds of an old interview with Richie Sambora I saw on TB about 10 years ago. He said that on an average, when they are on tour, the Bon Jovi band writes about 40 songs a week, every week. Almost of all of them are really crappy but once in a while they are able to find a platinum hit in one of them

  7. Even though I like to think of myself as a "hardcore" programmer, this is exactly why I think it's worthwhile to learn a "game-maker" type engine for rapid prototyping. Torque Game Builder is my engine of choice for rapid idea-checking, but there are other great ones too.

    Great post, Dan.


  8. You can't fool me. You say this article is about game design, but it's really about how to live your life.

  9. Dna like games, thought about that to. Came to the conclusion that the game with the most fun using dna is a kirby like game. Where you just get abilities from creatures without the difficult dna stuff getting in the way.

    Think other dna games are possible, but this is the most easy to create, when you distill a dna using game to only the fun parts.

  10. Hello Danc, I REALLY enjoyed your old article on a system for game notation. I know I am really late on this, but I just found it and I could not miss the opportunity to contact you, so I am hijacking this post, I hope you don't mind. I'm Alessandro Canossa, at the moment writing a Phd dissertation on level design in Denmark. I don't know how to get in touch with you, but if you have time and are curious enough to google me, please send me a line. I am not a webstalker, I'd just like to hear your opinion on my some of my articles. Ciao and thanks in advance.

  11. Nice article on how Miyamoto works. I definitely agree that the path of making a game fun is littered with the burnt corpses of game prototypes that just were not fun to begin with.

  12. Indeed, sometimes it's better to go for quantity over (what you think might become) quality. When doing concept art I rely a lot of serendipity... I think some people call it the shotgun method.

    However, I think this method of only skimming the surface for gems can sometimes lead to shallow games which try to compensate with more lateral content (unlockables, paraphrases and other easily exhaustible stuff).

    I think there's probably many great game concepts which await deeper under the surface, and you have to spend some time digging through dirt to find them. Some of my favourite games are made by people who had the vision and guts to take a shovel and walk out into the middle of a barren wasteland... where only the skeleton of the town's fool grinned back at them.

    I think the fun in some game concepts only emerges when some pretty complex parts are stacked together and functioning. These games can't be prototyped as easily (and probably aren't pitchable).

  13. Hi, Danc

    can i have your email address, there is a great idea about casual game development i want share with you .

    i look foward to your feedback , thanks

  14. btw, you can send email to me


  15. Another excellent post, Danc. :)

    Hey! I didn't know you read this blog, Arne.

  16. that reminds me of an excellent game

  17. Ideas are a dime-a-dozen. Designs aren't. And good designs are extremely rare.

  18. You know, we just went through this process, only it was a six month 'iteration' with Miyamoto on an unannounced title.

    I'm not really sure how I feel about it afterwards. The Nintendo part was fine, though we really wanted more feedback from them. I did feel rather discouraged afterwards, but I don't think it was exactly a Nintendo thing.

    Strange circles, anyway.