My what a purposefully controversial post title this is.
I’ve been working in the games industry for nearly ten years now which I think makes me something of an old man in games industry terms at the ripe old age of 28 (seriously if you go to just about any developer you will mostly find an office full of spotty twenty-something graduates). In all my time I’ve been a proponent of Intelligent Design when it comes to making a videogame. By that I mean writing lots of documents, having lots of meetings and cogitating long and hard on every single aspect of the project.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” - Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
In ten years of games development I have never worked on a game where the resulting product paid more than a passing resemblance to what was originally designed. Such is the way with an inherently creative process like videogame design. Once you start to implement features and interact with them then juices start flowing and you start to have new ideas or realise that something would work a bit better if you changed it. Part of this is because the only people who read Design Documents are other Designers.
Design documents will get nailed down into what is termed a “Functional Spec” which is often written either by the assigned programmer or a Designer who happens to be a Programmer in disguise (like me). A Functional Spec will take the ideas generated by the Design team and try to boil them down into the rules, systems and variables that are actually needed to implement it. These tend to be the most useful documents and where the majority of documentation time should really be spent. It’s these documents that work out what content is required to make the feature work and how it’s all going to plug together. They are absolutely essential to the first implementation of a feature.
They are then useless after that point.
Once you have the first implementation of a feature in your hands to play with documentation is largely useless and tends to get thrown to the side of the road. Everybody has ideas and tweaks they want to make and often a feature will end up being scrapped completely or turn into some other feature nobody ever thought the game needed but turned out to be essential (Vehicle Melee in Wheelman was such a feature. It was never “Designed” it just kinda happened one day). From this point on Evolution takes over.
What happens next is called “Creativity” and it’s something that likes to run around without any pants on and if you cage it in bureaucracy it will fade and eventually die. Without it though you won’t end up with a fun game. You’ll end up with something that might look like a fun game but here is a tip: If the people you’re paying to make the game don’t enjoy making it then the people who are going to pay you for it probably aren’t going to either.
Alot of Producers hate this bit in games development because it doesn’t fit neatly onto a schedule but it is absolutely necessary and vital to having something worthwhile when you ship. Unfortunately this part of development (usually called “Prototype” in my experience) tends to be the bit of the schedule that gets cut the fastest when it turns out that you have content requirements to meet. You promised the Publisher 150 levels over 10 different environments. What you didn’t promise the Publisher was that the game would be fun. The term “Deliverable” will be thrown around and the time required to actually turn a feature from a Functional Spec into something amazing will shrink to almost nothing.
The reality is that you really can’t design a videogame up front and expect it to be amazing and awesome without first playing it and then making revisions to it. I doubt there are many composers out there who won’t spend ages fiddling around with the music before they consider it ready. The problem the games industry generally has though is that with teams of 300 people and budgets up the wazoo individuals can no longer move fast enough or with enough freedom to be truly Creative bound as they are by Bureaucracy. If you wondered why Indie games tend to be more Creative it’s because they are created in atmospheres that foster Creativity and allow swift revision, iteration and evolution before exposing themselves to the world.
Creativity in the Games Industry struggles purely because of the “Industry” part. The same way it struggles in the Music and Film “Industries”. To me this is the best evidence I’ve seen that games are an artform. They’ve suffered the exact same fate as all the others.