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The Designer's Notebook: Shut Up and Design!

April 9, 1999
 

I'm really sick of hype.

One way that a young, bright-eyed game developer turns into a cynical, jaded game developer is through exposure to the mindless blaring of superlatives that is the output of the public relations machine. After a while it all sounds the same, and you realize that you can't trust any of it.

I suppose to some extent hype is inevitable in our industry, and, for that matter, any entertainment industry. Since there are few objective standards for testing games, whether you like a game or not comes down to a matter of opinion. Hype is our way of trying to influence our customers' opinions. And some extraordinary-sounding claims really are justified. The games are a lot faster, a lot smoother, and a lot prettier than they used to be. With the hardware advancing the way it is, it's difficult to find language to describe these changes that doesn't sound like hyperbole. Still, I think hype represents a real danger to the development process.

Some years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with a bunch of other programmers listening to an Industry Mogul-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless promote his new piece of hardware. He put up a slide that showed how the number of colors that various devices could display had changed over the years. The EGA card could show 16 colors; the VGA, 256, and so on. His device, of course, was off the graph — it could display 16 million colors — more, he claimed, than a color TV set, which could only do 10 million.

Right there, he lost us. His machine used a color TV set for output! What's the good of having a device that can display 16 million colors if the color TV it's using for output can only display 10 million anyway? His box was handling 6 million more colors than it could ever show to the end user. (I should also point out that a color TV is an analog device, not a digital one, so it's theoretically capable of displaying an infinite number of colors, but he apparently wasn't aware of that.)

This was a classic example of mindless hype. The Industry Mogul put a bunch of big numbers on the screen and expected everyone to be impressed. But he was talking to technical people, whose job it is to work with numbers and to reason about what they mean. When he put that slide up, he insulted our intelligences, and that made us hostile and suspicious. We had come to the meeting prepared to be dazzled. When we left, we were offended and disappointed. His words had had the exact opposite effect from what he had hoped.

Later on, at a trade show, I saw the same machine being demonstrated by a chisel-jawed professional narrator with a sharp suit and an extraordinary amount of hair gel. He claimed that he was controlling a flight simulator flying over Yosemite valley, and every branch on every tree was being displayed in real time. I happened to know that this was an outright lie, because I had seen the same demo elsewhere. We were seeing a pre-rendered movie made with Vistapro. Wisely, the narrator disappeared through a door at the end of his presentation, so there was no way to question him.

The machine hit the market, flailed, gasped, and sank. It didn't die because of the hype; it died because it cost too much, did too little, and was a royal pain to develop for. But the hype was unable to save it. It was a poor product, and the hype made no friends in the development community at a time when the product needed all the friends it could get.

Back in early March of this year, two very different game companies, but both with big public relations budgets, announced that they were in serious trouble on the same day. One was Purple Moon, publisher of Rockett's New School and other games intended for girls. The other was Ripcord Games, publisher of Postal (strike one) and the egregious Space Bunnies Must Die (strike two).

Purple Moon was founded with the best of intentions. The company wanted to break the mold that most computer games seemed to be made from. It was going to build games that addressed girls' interests and were meaningful to their lives. Purple Moon did a ton of research to find out what concerned girls. Then it fired up the PR machine to trumpet all this to the world, making outrageous claims about how it was going to revolutionize the industry and make technology accessible to girls (just a little patronizing to the millions of girls who were cheerfully using computers already). But it worked. Purple Moon got a huge amount of press and attention.

The problem was that the company’s actual games were lame little adventures made with MacroMedia Director. They were too short, and offered poor value for the money. The artwork consisted of cartoony sketches. The voice-overs and sound effects were no more than adequate. Worst of all, the themes of the games were insipid: giving advice to friends, getting into the right crowd at school. In the planned series of soccer games, the entire first game was devoted to finding out who would get onto the team — you didn't even get to play soccer. God, who would want to relive that nightmare?

Girls come in all kinds, from those who like playing Quake and talking trash to those who seem to have been born with a cosmetic case in hand. But just like boys, girls have dreams that take them beyond their own worlds. The problem with Purple Moon's games, apart from their poor production values, was that they didn't fulfill any dreams.

Purple Moon claimed that it couldn’t compete with Barbie, Mattel's powerhouse license. Now, I'm extremely dubious about Barbie — I think her body presents an unachievable ideal that girls desperately try to emulate, to the detriment of their own mental and physical health. But the Barbie games are about fantasies more interesting than Purple Moon's, by anyone's measure. I'm sure Mattel does have more marketing money and a better distribution system than Purple Moon does. But Mattel also has better games.

The real irony in all of this is that Mattel seems to be bailing Purple Moon out by purchasing the company, presumably for the brand and the PR value. There’s something thoroughly incongruous about the very un-PC Mattel owning the highly-PC Purple Moon.

The other outfit that made the news on the same day was Ripcord Games. Parent company Matsushita announced it was either going to sell off or shut down Ripcord. Ripcord’s game hype attitude could not have been more different from Purple Moon's Space Bunnies Must Die was sexploitation schlock, with a huge-breasted, halter-topped heroine who danced, changed clothes, and shot giant rabbits. But Ripcord also cranked the volume knob on the hype amplifier up to 11. At the 1998 Electronic Entertainment Expo, the Space Bunnies Must Die logo — the mudflap girl with a gun — was printed on every available surface. Matsushita actually built a Space Bunnies Must Die tunnel in one of the hallways, and it was impossible to go from one part of the expo to another without passing through the tunnel.

And yet, Ripcord’s game was no more than a lame Tomb Raider rip-off. Huge breasts or not, Alison, the main character, wasn't that well rendered or animated. The story was silly. The backgrounds were unimpressive. The country-music soundtrack clashed with the space exploration theme. Nobody cared. If Space Bunnies Must Die was fulfilling a dream, it was too demented a dream for most people to identify with.

Over and over we see massively-hyped products that go nowhere. Remember Microsoft Bob? The Microsoft Bob logo was plastered all over the place at the Consumer Electronics Show; an airplane even pulled a banner so you could see it as you walked in from the parking lot. But it was a dumb product and nobody bought it.

The message here is simple: All the hype in the world cannot save a lame game. As a game developer, it's your job to make a good game, and for that you have to have a certain amount of objectivity and detachment. You need a sharp, self-critical eye, and to be constantly asking yourself, is this good enough? What would make it better? What deficiencies am I tolerating or overlooking? You must become your own toughest reviewer.

This is where the danger to the development process comes in. Stay the hell away from the PR and marketing departments, except as needed to teach them about your game. If you hang around too long, you’ll start to believe your own press releases, and when that happens, you slack off, thinking that the work is already done. I'm sure that’s what happened to Purple Moon and Ripcord Games and to Microsoft Bob. Their developers, and worse yet, their producers, got caught up in the PR frenzy and lost their detachment. The marketing department is there to sell your game, not to provide you with objective feedback. If you want to know what people really think of your game, ask the testers, who have played it until they're sick to death of it. You can generally count on them to give you the hard truth.

Of course you want to take pride in your own work. But that pride should come from a clear-eyed assessment of your own achievements, not from the inflated prose that appears in your ad copy. Clearly you can't have ads that say yours is "the second-best real-time strategy game on the market," but if the ads say it's the best and you know it's not, hang on to that knowledge — otherwise you're deluding yourself. You have to retain the ability to judge your own work.

The other thing to remember is that if you really do have a spectacularly good product, other people will hype it for you. id Software didn't have a ton of marketing money; they just put out the first few levels of Doom as shareware and let Usenet do the rest. Genuine public acclaim is worth far more than any advertising you can buy.

Keep your nose to the grindstone and your eye on the ball. Make the best game you know how. Don't brag or exaggerate in the press — it irritates people and blows your credibility if you can't deliver. Your job as a designer is to think and write, not to talk. Shut up and design.


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