Image by Ian D via Flickr
Pretty much every designer I know has a pitch, or twenty, in his or her back pocket. It's a pitch for that designer's perfect game. I've got about half a dozen of them, myself. Whenever I'm at a place that needs help deciding what it's going to do next, I take them out of that back pocket, dust them off and freshen them up, then put them in front of the powers that be... to inevitably be shot down, ridiculed and derided until I'm laughed out the door. The better powers say things like, "That's a great idea, but there's just no way this place could do it" while the worst say thing like, "No one would ever play that game, that's retarded." What happens next is, of course, the most galling part. You end up assigned to the next project and it is, inevitably, a project that makes you think either "that's a great idea, but there's just no way this place could do it" or "no one would ever play that game, it's retarded." Are you starting to see the pattern?
We end up crafting the dream projects of our (usually) benevolent overlords. They've worked an entire career to be in a position to make that game, and there is no freakin' way they're going to miss that opportunity. Can you blame them? After all, they had to work their way up the ladder the same way the rest of us are climbing right now, didn’t they? They had to have that pitch shot down and derided and so they bided their time, waiting till it was their job to green light a project and them *bam* it's time for the dream project to come up.
It's not particularly just, but it is what it is. The sad part isn't that it happens, really, but that it doesn't have to happen. It didn't have to be this way. Would it surprise you to learn that it's a question of faith?
Designers, hell game developers as a body, are incredibly diverse. We all have different tastes and desires and we most assuredly have differing creative impulses. What we have in diversity, we make up for in a decided lack of empathy. Well, maybe that's not fair, but what I mean is this: We see our perspective and usually, no matter what we claim, that's it. That's all we see. So when I dust off my dream pitch and I give it to someone I can pretty much guess how it’s going to go based on the gaming habits of the person I'm giving the pitch to. If that person doesn't game for the same reasons I do, the pitch is dead in the water before I even say "thanks for giving me the chance to pitch this..." Simply put: Unless the person being pitched can see himself playing the game, he has no faith the game will succeed.
This is so prevalent in the industry that it colors everything we do. Want to add a feature like housing to your MMO? You better hope your boss has played a game with housing before and liked it, because no matter how reasoned your pitch, or well designed your system might be, it isn't going to happen otherwise.
It's about faith - faith that the passion you see in your team is backed by knowledge and experience that applies to question at hand, be that what game to do next or what features to include in a game. I'll tell you right now: In this industry, we seldom - if ever - take anything on faith. Marketing has no faith that the developers know what kinds of game will sell, developers have no faith in the decisions made by management or even by each other and, sadly, even our customers often lack the faith that we make decisions with their best interests at heart. I'm not saying this lack of faith hasn't been earned in a million mistakes made across this industry's short life, but I am saying that this lack of faith is unwarranted -- that it's like carrying a grudge long after amends have been made.
I don't remember who said it, but someone once said that our successes are irrelevant, that it's our failures that define us because there's nothing to learn from success. You can succeed without ever making the right decision, all while never wondering why you managed to succeed. However, when you fail, you usually take the time to look at that failure and figure out what went wrong. It's called learning and it's sort of central to what being a human being is about, right? So, for the management teams of our industry, I have a question: How can we prove to you we've learned from our mistakes if you never allow us to be in the position to make those mistakes again?
Maybe more importantly, how can this industry ever learn and advance if all you do is focus on copying what has worked before?
In the MMO scene, we can't continue to believe that just copying WoW is the way to succeed. First of all, it hasn't worked once, not for anyone that's tried; secondly even if that's a winning formula, how often can you replicate it before your work is just called "formulaic" and ignored by a tired and jaded player base?
We have to try new things if we want to keep succeeding, but if our higher-ups don't have the faith in us to let us experiment, how can that happen? Never mind the MMO scene, what about the rest of the industry? Is it any better? You know what? You Wii players can put your hands down. What the Wii's doing isn't really new... and who's really succeeding there, besides Nintendo? Seems like the folks with any faith at all over there are the folks at Nintendo and I'm not convinced the truly innovative titles are getting made, even there.
The fact is, our whole damned industry is suffering a crisis of faith. I used to naively think it was about "risk", but it's not. Every game is a risk, especially the ones that just copy what worked elsewhere. No, risk is not what we avoid, what we avoid is having faith in anyone else. We need to start having some faith in each other and in our ability to make decisions for our benefit. CEOs, listen to your officers. Officers, listen to your veeps. Veeps, listen to your directors. Most importantly of all: directors, listen to your teams! Have the faith in them to bring you something truly great and I guarantee they will. Sure, you may not be able to get your pivot table to show you how it'll make millions but give it a shot; after all you hired experienced experts to do a job, why not stand aside and let them do it?
Besides, how do you know they won't want to make your dream project, anyway?