Quality or Quantity?

Feb 25, 2012

Today’s question came from an undergraduate following a recent, slightly updated presentation of my Controlling Project Size posted on HobbyGameDev last month. I gave a more brief response than this on the spot, but as I think it’s something many new developers are likely to wonder about, I’ll try to provide a bit more complete answer.

I’ve decided to categorize this as an Intermediate entry since I presume here that you already have some functional game development skills, and are in the process of figuring out how to best exercise and improve upon them to advance your work and establish a personal identity as a developer. This also partly explains the tension between my previous entry and this one, since an Advanced developer typically isn’t as actively searching for their personal style and undiscovered strengths.

Q: Which is more important when students are making games: quality or quantity?

A: That’s a bit of a trick question. It’s a false dichotomy. Quality is ultimately what really counts, but quantity is a means to quality.

Create even one game that especially stands out in quality, and provided that people find out about it, whatever else you’ve worked on before or work on for awhile after probably won’t seem to matter much by comparison.

The observation of that pattern from hit games sometimes leads to the confused idea that we should simply spend years at a time turning out a quality game. The problem is that quality isn’t like filling up a bucket, in which we can just pour more quality in given enough time to do so.

Quality is a soft concept, and a constantly moving target, wrapped up in all kinds of intangibles and unpredictables: timing in relation to what else has been in popular media lately, how original or innovative or (paradoxically) familiar it feels to the particular audience that finds it, and countless nuances in implementation where thousands, even millions of little decisions along the way need to add up just so to really ‘click’ in the final result. A thorough QA/polish cycle can help make the most of what’s there, but it can’t fundamentally change what’s there.

Like I mentioned in the presentation:

Focus groups seemed to unanimously indicate that Star Wars – the original film – would completely bomb.

Experienced creators and long-time players are continually surprised by what turns out to work and what falls flat. If it were up to game companies and indies, every game ever released would be critically acclaimed, but in practice we know that’s not how it works. It’s generally impossible to tell until it’s too late whether a game will come out well or poorly, and even then, it’s impossible to say for sure either way until well after release.

Part of why giant, completely uncreative businesses like Zynga build their companies by churning out clone after clone of games invented by other people is that the majority of untested ideas don’t pan out, but by verbatim copying the designs of others they’re able to capitalize on the exploratory risks already taken by other people and companies. Effectively, they’re outsourcing their R&D to their competitors. Since I assume you don’t want everyone in the development community to hate you though, I trust that you’re probably looking to do something that’s at least partly new.

(Cloning with variation to learn while growing code and experience to draw upon for later original work is quite different, and something I outright encourage. Competitive analysis is just a smart part of business, too; no sense in completely ignoring the 3 decades of lessons learned. It’s the complete, shameless, point-for-point and creatively-devoid knockoff that’s objectionable.)

Nor is quality directly proportional to the time and energy put into it. There are bargain bins out there overflowing with really bad games, begging to be sold even at a loss, that people invested a lot of money and time into polishing only to see them fail miserably. Occasionally, though admittedly it’s extremely rare, we see games come out of game jams that change the gaming landscape – Canabalt, the breakaway hit by Adam Atomic and Danny B that established the single-button running game genre, “was a 5 day game, most of it was made in a weekend.”

My daily experimental gameplay/interaction series (highlights), which I alternate between being overly proud of and completely embarrassed by, wasn’t undertaken for the sake of making a lot of things, but for the hope of discovering a few things worth being made. I was searching for ideas that I wouldn’t have stumbled upon or developed otherwise. That’s how I stumbled upon the foundational ideas behind feelforit, Tumult, Burnit, and indirectly, Transcend.

feelforit (the iOS version, though this links to the web/Flash port) was an IndieCade 2010 Finalist. feelforit was not hard to make, and did not take me very long to put together, but discovering the idea at the center of the interaction required my making those daily prototypes for 219 consecutive days.

Granted, feelforit is no Canabalt. But you know what is? Crayon Physics by Petri Purhho, which he stumbled into during his binge making monthly games. Or World of Goo, which got its start as Kyle Gabler’s Tower of Goo as part of the weekly single-author experimental gameplay projects. In each case, even though the core game took a larger development push to bring to market quality, the core concepts were discovered through quantity-oriented development.

The PC Freeware I developed or helped develop that I put forth on my older site includes only a tiny, curated subset of the dozens of other finished projects I worked on.

There’s a major selection bias at work when we think about the media we like. We obviously know about the ones that we know about, and don’t know or think much about the ones that we haven’t heard of. The overwhelming majority of commercial failures don’t even get negative press.

Minecraft was not Notch’s first game, he has been making them since he was 8 years old back in 1987.

Bram Stoker wrote more than a dozen books before and after Dracula that weren’t Dracula – odds are quite good you’ve never heard of any of them, despite, I can only assume, Stoker applying a generally similar approach and quality of talent to each of them.

In my effort to combat the idea that quality is somehow the opposite of quantity, I also don’t mean to go too far in the opposite direction, implying somehow that quantity inevitably leads to quality, or that game production is somehow a completely random crapshoot. There’s a lot more than luck going on here.

Part of how volume tends to help is that it splits up what’s going on in our lives at the time, what’s on our minds throughout development, and who we’re collaborating with. Even when a particular combination of circumstances doesn’t directly lead to success, it can still help get some rookie junk out of our systems, get us more comfortable with the process so that we’re less distracted by logistical uncertainty on later projects, and lead to other types of realizations that might indirectly help solve problems we’ll eventually run into on another game. In addition to evolving a mechanic I discovered during the InteractionArtist series, feelforit‘s codebase also built-on graphics tricks I had previously figured out for my earlier iOS title Burnit.

Maybe you’ll find there’s a particular genre or type of work that you do especially well. Creating a variety of projects is much more likely to lead to that discovery than getting buried in one initial effort that has limited potential anyhow. If it turns out something about how you think and work would lead to an amazing racing game, you’ll never know if you devote years to churning out a one-on-one fighting game.

No matter who you are and what you’ve done, the best 15% of your work is better than the other 85% of it. But to apply a filter like that, you first have to have completed enough projects to be able to meaningfully evaluate and curate that set, burying the worst of it while still having something to show.

In closing, this is a little relevant, and a lot of awesome:

“…the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.” (beginning at 1:05)

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