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Make Small Good
by Alexander Brandon on 05/18/10 09:37:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Passion is passion. We're here for a reason. We love games. And we all know that you can't stop people from working late, or on weekends, and that it can spur the creation of some amazing products. That 99% perspiration Edison spoke of (much to Tesla's chagrin in the end) counts for something. 

But beyond the EA Spouses of this world there is more to just recognizing when this work is pushed too far. There is the fundamental reason why it happens that way, and that reason is being ahead of the curve rather than behind it. Creating something ambitious without a demand in place, and doing so for as little expense and little time as possible.

The game business is not altogether unlike real estate, which I'm sure puts a very sour taste in people's mouths, but the bottom line truth is simple and can be expressed like this:

Spend less, profit more = success

In real estate, so the great Gene Hackman said in the Christopher Reeve Superman, "you need to buy for a little, and sell for a lot, right?" Not difficult to grasp, but this post is more than a rant, more than an observation. It is a means to assist with the creation of a thought process and a planning process that intelligently addresses how executives approach their development cycles, and in the end their profit margins.

Beyond that simple bottom line there are more factors, but one that is most common is this:

Cost, schedule = assumption 

Executives, producers, directors alike often make poor judgments about  how long something will take and how much it will cost, the two going hand in hand. The thought is that lower cost and tighter schedule mitigates risk. This leads to the following:

Estimated schedule + 50-80% = Real schedule

A very prominent and well known programmer who at the time was running a successful Shareware business told me "take how long you think a game is going to make and add seven months to it. That's how long it will really take". I think I've written about this before and have said he isn't far off. But think about it. How scary is it that schedules are always too short? What do you do about it? A related simple expression is also:

Estimated budget + 50-200% = Real budget 

So enough with what you mostly already know. The way to beat this is simple:

Make small good. 

Very much like a Jerry McGuire mission statement, I know. But man, is it true.

A very prominent and well known designer and studio director once told me an idea he had for a game that took place entirely in one building. Sheer genius. Create a wealth of interactivity in just one area. Given that a good bulk of the budget of games goes towards engineering and art assets, just think of what could be saved from simply using less space?

Fortunately gameplay times are no longer averaging the 60+ hours they used to, this is a reality of the numbers that BioWare has quickly realized and is once again attempting to break with TORO (and they probably will, they have a knack for that). But that is an exception. Overall those hours are averaging 20-30 for a AAA adventure game / FPS / RPG single player, and sessions are getting smaller even for MMOs, hence the clever move by Sony to release Free Realms to a more casual market.

Small game ideas are everywhere but they aren't exploited enough in every project. Every project can take a lesson from Braid, or half the games on Kongregate or even Facebook games. That doesn't mean to say jump in and make Facebook games because it's a growing sector. It means play them and recognize what makes them work, and apply it to your FPS a bit. Play older games and jot down mechanics and things that limited them yet made them effective and compelling.

Concentrating on dramatic expression as in Heavy Rain will continue to grow, but just imagine using ONLY 5 minutes of cinematics for an entire game and making those 5 minutes worthy of a dozen Oscars?

Another point to those with their hands on budgets is to do the research. You can't make a 2 million dollar AAA FPS or RPG to compete with the likes of Bioshock and Half Life. You can't even make a 5 million dollar one. Get real. Change your plan and look at a different way of competing with less. 

All of this leads back to NOT making bigger and grander. Smaller, and better. Just give it a try. You might surprise yourself.

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Alexander Kerezman
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If, however, you have a hypothetical game that you are designing in your head for its own sake, then bigger is better. Aiming for "big" and "best" will quickly teach you how tough assembling so many elements with quality is. But it will push you and force you to grow and mature as a designer.

But that's the only exception I can bring up - for hypothetical design projects. For REAL developments, I wholeheartedly agree with you.

Vinicius Bruno
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I agree with you. Thinking like a small cycles of deployment, that can be use, but, you just can consider this, and that can be useful for large or smaller projects, your choose.

But, the proportion like you said, that's right? Because this proportion, to me, need information of the structure in the implementation and with this you can calculate this proportion, right? (Please if I am wrong, let me know).

Alexander Brandon
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Alexander, excellent point. Simulating such a design as you say forces you to consider a lot of elements if you go through it in some way. Definitely a good practice if you have the time.

Pascal Langdale
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In theatre and film industries there is an understanding that often the best work is created because of it limitations. Not "in spite of", but "because of". Limitations force you to make creative responses that are often better than the obvious choice.

A couple of years ago I mentioned to a top games developer that if I were to make an interactive or "empathy'" game I'd make the drama, character, and narrative its strength, and keep it in one limited location. Make it smaller. He looked genuinely surprised. Although perhaps he was surprised I thought anyone would be interested. But times are changing, and I think we'll see small world empathy games becoming more common.

As a parallel - Film, for instance, can be equally high-risk, as games. But the most common filming process - military in scheduling and production - allows creative freedom when its needed, but is designed to avoid waste and loss of control.

I believe the shift you describe here is as much cultural as procedural. And that makes it a tougher prospect, but also more rewarding.

Alexander Bruce
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Although they absolutely rip the films apart, the Red Letter Media reviews of Star Wars have it spot on with regards to this. Number 10 in the Attack of the Clones review, as shown in the following video, is absolutely correct.

Being able to do absolutely anything gives you the power to make the first thing that comes to your mind, rather than having to really think about what would be the best way to express something.

Reid Kimball
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I'm still waiting for a really excellent 2-3hr FPS experience because it's cohesive and focused. Well, I actually stopped waiting and designed a 2-3hr FPS myself. Now I just need to build a team and go make it.

Ryan Moore
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I love Pascal Langdale's comments. First, about "empathy" games making "the drama, character, and narrative its strength." This really resonates with me. See the sub-culture of gaming that I am apart of has had lack luster experience with games until you reach those brief peak moments at end game after weeks and/or months of dedication to grinding through filler content. We are searching for an experience that has personal impact. We want to be seeing this sooner and getting into it faster. This is one reason why you are seeing a move towards casual gaming. You are able to jump right into content and have a wonderful experience.

Second, about the cultural and procedural shifts. There is an article (link below) that is close to this, it touches on the concept of developing sandbox type MMO that focuses on tool and feature creation instead of developing more and more content. This is a demonstration of both cultural and procedural shifts. The concept capitalizes on player developed interaction in the defined version of reality you create. Further leverage can be applied with player developed content and in the right context this could be congruent with the game and the community, supplying both hours of content & involvement.

cathy i
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Reid Kimball very good! I admire what you did. I tired creating myself but it is simply so hard for me.