The Failure Workshop
Kyle Gabler opens the failure workshop with the story about a game entitled "Robot and the Cities That Built Him" which was to be a project based off of a seven day experimental gameplay project. "Because we're game developers, we started by making a bunch of different units," he said. "This is an indie game! The robots are not destructive, they're a metaphor."
"But that wasn't big enough," he said. Then the game became "Robot and the cities... the musical!" And it started with bunnies jumping through the forest singing "it's a fuzzy wuzzy day." And this is the best thing ever, I think. "Their fuzzy wuzzy skins peels off revealing cold metal beneath."
"...but it's still not fun," he said "and so we did what we should have done six months earlier" and they made a quick prototype with as little production effort as possible. And then they realized the game wasn't fun "or deep or interesting in any way." "The second reason this is horrible is that we had lasers [...] and it just wasn't us. I don't know, I'll never make a game with a sword in it." 2D Boy extrapolated two things from their experience: "No amount of theming will save a bad idea" and the second thing was that "Trying to live up to a previous game is paralyzing."
Then George Fan (of Plants vs. Zombies and Popcap fame) took the stage. He opened his bit with a slide entitled "My Failure Story." He continued with a little background on his history as a child doodling and sketching out game ideas in rough drawings on papers. And he ended this with "Cat-Mouse-Foosball," the first game he made; "hey, [the design] worked for Bomberman, why couldn't it work for Cat-Mouse-Foosball." "I prototyped one level of the game and realized how poorly it played and never bothered with the rest," citing all of the other peripheral design work he did at the start of the project as being a waste of time. Fan then showed a demo that he made in the present of Cat-Mouse-Foosball and considered it an accurate representation, albeit ten years later, of how bad the game was.
"In 2001, I almost quit making games forever..." Fan says in another slide. "The first thing I had to do was recognize the distinction between a thing I was familiar with [illustration] and something I was not [game design]." "Games are more like this complicated machine" rather than a quick sketch someone can envision in their head or jot down on a piece of paper. "[Games just] aren't something you can keep in your head once." This led Fan to his first conclusion: "Start prototyping the game as soon as you can [...] you're not going to know if the game is fun or not until you're actually sitting there playing the game." He ended his presentation by saying "Don't give up! If you love what you do, you will persevere."
Next up in the failure workshop was Matthew Wegner, who founded Flashbang Studios (which started as a casual game development company with only three people). "After we had some money in the bank" a few years later, Flashbang then went on to make a variety of games that were done in, roughly, eight weeks a piece and uploaded to Blurst.com. And this whole process didn't lead Flashbang to any money. Wegner simplified this to saying eight weeks is too little time to make a game like World of Goo but too much time for a game like Canabalt. Flashbang's first game, Offroad Velociraptor Safari, was their first release and accounted for almost a third of all of their traffic. "We set Blurst up in such a way as if it failed [...] we still had a really great time."
Wegner then moved on to Off-Road Velociraptor Safari HD which would take their most popular game and make an HD version of it for consoles. They spent three months on the HD version building off of the web version and preparing it for publisher work. Wegner then showed off the result of this time with the trailer for Offroad Velociraptor Safari HD. "We were definitely pushing in this HD direction [...] and it turned out to be a pretty big mistake. We were currently three people and by calling the game HD" Flashbang was setting unrealistic expectations to everyone who would play the game. "And it turned out that we actually hated working on this" and the act of simply polishing an old game with better graphics and sanded edges. Wegner summarized this with a quote from Dean Karnazes: "Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness."
Summarizing the issues with the HD approach, Wegner related a unicycle example to lead to his eventual point "we weren't willing to fall backwards" and get weird and clever with the game they were working on. The team then redirected a little and attempted to become a bit more non-photorealistic with a cartography look and explore, in similar senses, with the gameplay mechanics. One of the design mistakes Flashbang drew from this redirection is that they failed "design[ing] for players."
Chris Hecker ended the Failure Workshop with his "Rock Climbing Failure." "We're going to concentrate on the failures between 2001 and 2003," Hecker said, joking about ignoring the other independent failures. Hecker talked about everything he was involved with during this period of time that wasn't "ship[ing] the game." He then demoed the game.
"So what went wrong?" he asked. He then listed out: "Technology rat-holing. Non-game distractions. And lack of ass-in-chair." Hecker then demonstrated a ridiculous level of math in Mathematica. It was pretty great. Hecker said all of these failures all boil down to one single problem: "I was scared of game design," continuing, "Design is hard, unpredictable, mysterious, unstable." He concluded by pointing to Spy Party and saying that while all of the aforementioned problems still arise, he is solving the fundamental problem by making sure that everything he does is playable.