GDC 2012: Game devs find lessons in their failures
For the second year at GDC, game developers got together not to talk about their best practices or their successes, but instead about their failures.
The session, "Failure Workshop," was hampered by technical issues that caused various delays, and the irony of that wasn't lost on the amused speakers and audience. But eventually those problems were (mostly) ironed out.
Ron Carmel of World of Goo house 2D Boy hosted the panel, and opened by stressing the importance of sharing experiences of failure. If people don't talk about and share their failures, "We're missing out on 90 percent of our learning opportunities," Carmel said.
He talked about dispelling the "success myth," explaining that "the successes that you see usually come after a long string of failure." Even Carmel's 2D Boy was not an overnight success.
Jamie Cheng of Eets and Shank developer Klei Entertainment talked about his studio's failure -- an online game called Sugar Rush. The studio worked on it for three years, did the art style for the game five different times, held three closed betas, and was only two weeks away from a full ship. But it never shipped.
Cheng said the game was originally called Eets: Sugar Rush, and had marshmallows fighting one another. It was greenlit by Nexon in Vancouver.
The game gradually became a mish-mash of ideas from the game developers and ideas from the publisher. It became diluted, and the game didn't really know what it was supposed to be.
Impending failure became clearer when Nexon Vancouver totally shut down, and with that, the backend for the game was gone.
But the studio still didn't want to give up, so it tried to convert Sugar Rush to a game called Scrappers for consoles. But it still didn't ship.
"We didn't have a conviction of what we really wanted to do," said Cheng "...We didn't know [how to work with a publisher] as an independent [studio]."
Klei eventually created and successfully shipped Shank, a game made with a much clearer creative vision.
Next up for the workshop was Amir Rao of Supergiant Games. The studio did ship its first title, Bastion, to much success. But what's not known by most people is that it shipped without one big feature that failed.
Basiton had a rich art style, a unique reactive narrator, and, Rao said, "It was going to have a rich and exciting gardening feature."
The reasons for including this feature were clear for Rao. "Gardening is an aesthetic that everybody understands. ... We wanted to try and take that aesthetic ... and apply that to an action RPG, because that is something that we haven't seen before."
The studio spent a year working on the gardening feature, influenced by games like Viva Pinata, Harvest Moon, and even certain systems from Civilization Revolution.
Player would find seeds out in the world, bring them back to the hub called Bastion, put them in planters, water them, and wait to see what they would become. The problem was that players had "no idea what was happening," said Rao. "It's really hard to communicate the intermediate part of planting" that happens between burying the seed, and having the final plant.
"You know people understand a lot better than planting? A menu," Rao determined.
Scott Anderson and his team were working on a puzzle/platformer game called Shadow Physics, a project that appeared at first to be set up for success, but eventually was abandoned.
"About eight months ago we lost our funding, and the game was cancelled," Anderson said. Shadow Physics was previously funded by Indie Fund.
The failure has since sunk in, and Anderson admitted, "The game was a great concept but it wasn't really a lot of fun...ever."
There were other various reasons why Shadow Physics failed. "We were driven by external rewards," such as fortune and fame, Anderson said, instead of a true passion for the project.
There were also problems with the game's tech, and the gameplay relied too much on the physics engine. He said the game was just not "tight," and there were unpredictable game systems.
"The game just didn't work," Anderson said. "We chased certain Braid mechanics a little too much," he added. He said at times there was too much "Braid envy" going on in the game design.
There were also issues with the development process, iteration was becoming expensive, and the hiring process was based on if they liked the person, rather than if he or she was a good fit.
Additionally, communication issues "were a big problem with the team in general." People wanted to avoid conflict, but then it became a "passive aggressive war zone," said Anderson.
Shadow Physics was supposed to be an Xbox Live Arcade game, but the combination of Indie Fund and that platform was fatal, said Anderson. Shadow Physics had a relatively low budget, and was chasing high-budget XBLA successes like Limbo and Shadow Complex.
In the end, Anderson said the game "didn't really have a champion," and was eventually abandoned.
Fantastic Contraption developer Colin Northway talked about the importance of identifying failure in its early stages. He spent several months trying to find the gameplay breakthrough in projects such as the bird-inspired Flocking, but they just didn't materialize.
Flocking was a project "that I thought was fantastic and a good idea, but one ... that I couldn't get to function as a video game," said Northway. He stressed to developers that just because you're really in love with an idea, "you won't always be able to make a game about that."
"I was looking under smaller and smaller rocks for game ideas," he said. That search is often futile. "That's the downfall of a lot of game designers," he said.
"When you're doing game design you should be picking among the ripest fruit... your job is to find the sweetest fruit. ... your job is not to eke something out of the cracks that will be playable."
Now, Northway feels that he has found his way out of the game design wilderness. He's currently working on a beautiful game called Incredipede, which appeared at Tokyo Game Show's Sense of Wonder Night. "I hope none of you get lost, and I hope all of you make your way out," he said.