Sticking with a vision, for better or worse
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I don't know about you, but I admit I have an issue sometimes when executing an idea and finding that it's veering off course, even though sometimes it's for the better. Generally I'm speaking of something that happens when I'm working on a game, but this goes for all manner of creative venture (from drawing, running an RPG campaign, or even customizing a car or motorcycle).
There's a magic that happens in the moment an idea comes together. Sometimes it's a fresh bolt out of the blue (usually right as I'm waking up in the morning), and more often than not it's a series of older inspirations that click into place in a complimentary way to work with some new development. However it happens, there's that moment of, "holy shit, that can work!" followed by a romanticized implementation in one's head where everything is polished and perfect and in soft focus and angels are singing and slow motion soccer cheers echo through the background... good idea moments are like the purest form of drug.
But there's also a magic that happens during the act of executing an idea. The vision is clarifying on the screen, things pictured in the newlywed stage of the concept are becoming sweet reality, and amazing things are simply getting the hell done. Writers speak of how characters seem to come alive as they write, of how a story can take on a will of its own as events flow onto page after page. Those moments for a game developer happen with every new technical bump and design hurdle we encounter. We adapt to unforeseen challenges and flow around the obstacles dozens of times a day.
So what happens when one of those course adjustments creates something that simply doesn't jive with that original hazy blissful vision? What if the new development is kind of awesome, and you're consciously aware that it *could* be a much better path forward, even though it's not what you pictured originally? If we stay the course and throw out the new hotness are we bold visionaries sticking to our creative guns, or are we being rigid and unable to adapt? If we change our minds to see where it leads are we adaptive and resourceful, or are we floundering around with no clue what the hell we're trying to achieve? The answer to those judgements are as much about internal authenticity as it is about how we're perceived by those around us, but for both, can only clarify in hindsight (and even then, only if you're lucky).
I don't think it's an overstatement when I say these moments are among the most difficult moments a developer can encounter. A key branching point for a project can impact you (and those you work with) for years, like some cruel sliding door puzzle eating at your confidence.
One of my personal examples was dealing with issues in Gears of War that revolved around cover combat. We built the game to be tactical, a metaphor of a wild west shootout with players hunkered down behind "techno-barrels" poking up to blast hyper-lethal lead at each other. The reality of multiplayer online evolved into something very different though. Players quickly mastered the art of nimbly flinging themselves about the battlefield, forgoing cover in favor of rolling around their opponents in order to get close enough for point blank shots. It was like someone invited Neo to the O.K. Corral, and it blew the doors off our vision of how the game was "supposed" to be played.
Even though we still made something pretty damn legendary, and took huge pride in our accomplishments, it's impossible to not play a rousing game of, "I wonder if we should have tried something else?" I think it's a fair assessment to say we never really picked a firm side in that battle, and who knows? Maybe that was exactly the right move? Maybe not? It's a tough thing to quantify.
Another example is this VR game I'm working on. It focuses on this miniature world in front of you, and was built entirely around the positional tracking of the device allowing you to physically move your head around at your self and get up close to these cool little objects all around you. You sit at your desk, but leaning around and craning your head around naturally feels downright amazing. It's like the essence of awesome VR to me.
Earlier this week I made a little test mode where I can move the world, rotate it as a whole, and drag it around. After playing with my original game for the last 2 months, my initial reaction was basically, "Woah! This is awesome and different! Score!" About a day later I realized something... I had completely stopped moving my head around while playing. I no longer poked my head upward to investigate an object flying right over my head, I never bent forward slightly to look around an obstacle... I would just hit the lazy key to rotate the world around instead.
I had actually solved something I had been wrestling with in an earlier prototype, and it felt pretty natural and easy to use, but it absolutely dumped all over the sense of immersion that was my original inspiration. I turned it off by default, buried it like an easter egg, and kind of think of it as this "feature that must not be named". In some alternate universe I probably just solved VR movement controls and made history... but in this one I stuck to my guns damnit (let's hope not wrecking everything in the process).
Sure, there's important decisions being made that affect projects all the time, but often those come down to logistics or practicality... often there's a "better" or more efficient choice. It's the subjective ones that pull the game notably away from your first inspirations... yeah, it's those that can really haunt you.
The thing is (for my money anyway) there's not a "right" answer for these moments. In fact, I truly never feel any wiser about these dilemmas, even after 20 years of regularly encountering them while working on games. They're just such a case by case issue that I'm not sure there's benefit in a strong philosophy one way or the other. I've tried different approaches in many cases, and without fail it's a classic case of feeling damned if you do, or damned if you don't. Those moments seem a likely culprit for the self doubt that so many game developers feel, especially with impostor syndrome so common among us.
Things get even more complicated as team dynamics come into play. Ideally we want to surround ourselves with amazingly talented people working together for a common vision, right? So what happens when one of those awesome partners shows you something they're insanely excited about, and yet that thing clearly wasn't in your glowing sacred bolt of initial clarity (please note sarcasm)? I actually do have more of a tendency in these cases, although I know designers who absolutely disagree on this. What you're seeing at that very moment is what we *should* be looking for if we truly value how our teammates actually contribute to the project, instead of simply being pixel monkeys. To me, that person's excitement alone has a load of value, and that enthusiasm can fuel them creatively through weeks of otherwise boring work that may be critical to shipping.
Stifling a respected member's contribution can create all kinds of long lasting issues, and if not handled well can absolutely breed resentment that negatively affects the entire project. Sure, not everyone can simply do whatever they want on the project, but it's a critical skill to see something and really evaluate, "ok, so, this clearly isn't how I imagined this feature... but honestly, it's pretty goddamn cool right?"
Think back in your own experiences and you're guaranteed to find some moment when you pitched something you just knew would be a huge contribution to a project. Recognize when you're on the other side of that table and give it the consideration it deserves. To many devs, that consideration is practically everything. Recognize that it's also a pretty linear scale. The larger the organization, the less room there is for that sort of adaptability. Get down to one or two people and you should be absolutely hemorrhaging personal vision into a project.
So, I'd love to hear wisdom on this topic, different philosophies, etc. I wish I had an easy formula, in the unlikely event you have one, perhaps I can learn from it.
As always, thanks so much for reading my super late night ramblings