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overactor

What's the true worth of an initial game idea?

107 posts in this topic

Before reading this post, I'd like you to keep in mind that this is my personal opinion and that I am not presenting it as absolute truth, but rather putting it out there and asking for opinions on the matter.

 

There seems to be a lot of hate directed towards the 'idea guy' in the gaming community.

He adds little to the project in terms of both work and end result. The quality of a game comes down to execution, iteration and polish.

That is at least, if you'll believe the popular opinion on the matter.

I tend to disagree though, and I'd like to explain my views by tying this question into another one: "Can video games be art?"

 

At first glance, there seems to be very little preventing video games from being an art form. Much like film, it mixes several media to create a new one. Many of the processes required to make a game a reality are considered an art form.
An argument you encounter often is that interactivity, exactly what makes a medium a game, is what keeps it from being a piece of art. People have done a better job than I possibly could explaining why this argument is faulty, so I won't go into that. Where they tend to go wrong though, in my opinion, is when they try to identify the real reason why some people have troubles recognizing games as an art form. Apparently, they are too new as a medium. For one thing, this means that they have a bit of growing to do. Additionally, people who didn't grow up with it, don't fully understand the medium. I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I'd like to point out a very real problem that I think is hindering games.

 

The lack of appreciation and even depreciation of the 'idea guy'.

What I think is absolutely essential for art, is that the creator has something they want to share with the world. They have a vision for what they want their piece do art to become and make decisions when creating it based on that vision. Not based on what the money thinks it should be, not based on what will go down well with the audience and not even (primarily) based on what will make for the 'better' piece of art.

It's true that everyone in the gaming business, including the janitor, has ideas for games, but let me ask you this question: Does everyone have good game ideas?

 

Now, I'm not saying that the 'idea guy' should be held on a pedestal and that his contribution to the game, the initial idea, is the only thing that counts. It is still very true that, if the only thing he has to add is the initial idea, he is of not much worth. After all, what worth is a great idea for a painting if you can't paint? And that's what makes an artist, the essential skill set necessary to create his art and the initial idea.

 

This just leaves one more question, when it comes to making games, who is the painter? Well, that would be the game designer. Because as people have argued before me, game designing is a skill set and I will say more even, it is the only one truly essential to the quality of games.

So where do the other people involved in making a game fit into this metaphor? If the game designer is the painter, the 3d modeler, animator or 2d artist might be the manufacturer of the paint. And the programmers can be the one who made the canvas the painter is using. They are all admirable professions, without them, no painting could be made, and it is pretty awesome if the painter does some of these things himself, but that's not what makes a great artist, it's the technical skill and knowledge as a painter and more importantly, the initial idea and vision.

Edited by overactor
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People hate on the idea guy, because an initial idea is nothing by itself. A game designer doesn't write down an initial idea, put it in an envelope and wait for it to be made. Designing a game is a collaboration between everyone involved. The designer, the programmers, the artists, the animators, the audio staff and the business managers all work together as a multi-disciplined team. As with all art, you often have to work within constraints. The programmers and businessmen are often the ones that will be dictating constraints to the designers and artists, who then have to work within that space. Also, programmers may unexpectedly defeat constrains, and open up new avenues to design within. Actually, every department is dictating contraints/requirements/limitations/possibilities to every other department, and reacting to the options they're given.

 

The people that do this kind of design work are real world game designers.

 

I think this sums it all up very well. On hobbyist projects, idea aren't usually wanted because everyone has ideas. If it's just a hobby, why just sit and take orders? If I do that; it's not a hobby anymore. It's a job. There's so much work involved in making a game; if all someone does is talk about their great idea, there will be resentment.

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I do agree with your views on the stereotypical idea guy. An idea on its own isn't worth much and an idea guy without a skill set definitely isn't worth anything. Especially if his ideas aren't even good.

But i still hold my view that possessing a skill set does not make an artist, it is necessary, but not essential.

 

I'll try to clarify what I meant using your strawman argument concerning Rembrandt and the guy who had the idea to paint Jesus calming a storm.

I said the designer is the painter and that he needs to have a great initial idea and a vision to be a great artist. In this case, the initial idea came from someone else. Does this mean that the other guy is the real artist and Rembrandt merely the technical implementor? Maybe. It all depends on why he thought his idea was a good one. Does he understand how it will translate into a painting and what message it can convey to the consumer? Then yes, he can be considered an artist. And if he somehow translated that to Rembrandt and Rembrandt merely tweeked it a bit using his technical knowledge about painting, then Rembrandt should not be considered the artist. However, if that guy just thought it would look cool and Rembrandt saw how it could work out and be a great piece of art. Then Rembrandt is the artist and the other person simply sparked some great idea in his mind.

 

There are many people with great technical skill, not very many of them can be considered great artists though.

Bad design and great implementation leads to good entertainment, good design and bad entertainment leads to bad art.

I'll take good entertainment over bad art any day, but that doesn't change that striving for art in stead of entertainment has some value to it.

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//EDIT:  Damn, took too long typing and had a couple of additional replies sneak in before I posted...

 

There's a real difference between a game designer and an "idea guy".

 

 

A game designer has real value; they provide vision and guidance, and are often the driving force behind indie projects.  A real designer is able to work within constraints, is able to "find the fun" and build a complementary experience around that, is able to measure and adjust for the impact of various elements within a design, and can often be the difference between an interesting tech-demo and a masterpiece of game design that can become a smash hit.  There are very few people who question this, but unfortunately most people who think they're designers are actually just "idea guys".

 

An "idea guy" is exactly as useless as common wisdom tells you it is, and isn't the person who fills the role you're describing.  They have an idea which may or may not be good, and offer little if any additional value to a project.  Projects with an "idea guy" on board are completed despite the idea guy, and are only better than "programmer only" projects out of luck if at all.

 

 

Essentially -- if we put aside the subjective and realistically meaningless point about games as art -- you're correct about a real designer, but the thing you've missed is that "the idea guy" is a very poor substitute for the real thing.  You'll find very few people who dispute the value of a real designer, but they're absolutely right to devalue the idea guy, and it's a real shame that particular scorn isn't universal enough to prevent hordes of projects that are doomed before they even begin.

 

 

Hodgman summed it up very well when he said:

 

design is a real skill set, which is why most games companies will have a few on their payroll. However, it's not their initial ideas that make them valuable, it's their skill at being a guiding hand throughout the entire development of the game that makes them valuable.
Your stereotypical idea guy does not possess this skill set, or any skill set really.

 

See also some of the discussion from the topic "what programmers want from a designer", in which several people touch on the value of real designers.

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There is no person who just walks up to a painter and says I want to paint a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and then the painter just paints it. Its usually the painter himself who decides what to paint. The most common "designer" of a song is a singer songwriter. Or one guy who does lyrics and then another who plays or w/e.

 

People who can ONLY think up ideas and have no technical skills are worthless. You know the only case where someone tells the singer what to sing? Industrialized pop music. You know who decides? The suits. The same for painting. A rich person commissions a portrait. You can design any damn game you want if you FINANCE it, too.

 

So to clarify, things an idea guy needs to be valuable:

Money

or

Programming

or

Art

 

In which case he is a suit or a programmer or an artist, too. And generally unless you are a suit, the artists and programmers get to make decisions, too.

 

There is no where in the art world a case where people sit around dreaming up ideas and then get someone with skill or talent to make that complicated art piece for free. Not one fucking place.

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f the game designer is the painter, the 3d modeler, animator or 2d artist might be the manufacturer of the paint. And the programmers can be the one who made the canvas the painter is using.

No, that metaphor completely misses the point that the interaction between designers, programmers and artists are all two-way interactions. The artists and programmers, the artists and designers, and the designers and programmers, all supply work to each other and feed off each other. All those relationships are reactive and dependent on each other.

For this metaphor, you'd need the painter to require some specific kind of paint and canvas that don't yet exist, and his art to be an iterative process that requires a search for both the final painted image that he's after, and a search to develop the kinds of paints/canvasses that will allow this image to be created. This journey would likely change directions at different points as certain limitations in the search for paint/canvas are decided upon. All of this R&D is also costing money, so all the artisans involved must balance the amount of time they spend on each area with the value that it will bring to the artistic vision, which is where project management comes in (which is often another skill that good game designers are expected to be trained in, but the stereotypical idea guy lacks).

 

I must say that I was fully aware of my metaphor being lacking in that aspect and knew that that would cause some backlash. It's clear that programmers, 2d artists etc. play a much larger and more interactive role in the creation of a game. But the fact remains that they usually don't touch the heart of the game and merely provide the framework and tools the game designer can work with. And if the game designer is REALLY good at his job, they shouldn't meddle with his process besides telling him what limitations he's working with.

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f the game designer is the painter, the 3d modeler, animator or 2d artist might be the manufacturer of the paint. And the programmers can be the one who made the canvas the painter is using.

No, that metaphor completely misses the point that the interaction between designers, programmers and artists are all two-way interactions. The artists and programmers, the artists and designers, and the designers and programmers, all supply work to each other and feed off each other. All those relationships are reactive and dependent on each other.

For this metaphor, you'd need the painter to require some specific kind of paint and canvas that don't yet exist, and his art to be an iterative process that requires a search for both the final painted image that he's after, and a search to develop the kinds of paints/canvasses that will allow this image to be created. This journey would likely change directions at different points as certain limitations in the search for paint/canvas are decided upon. All of this R&D is also costing money, so all the artisans involved must balance the amount of time they spend on each area with the value that it will bring to the artistic vision, which is where project management comes in (which is often another skill that good game designers are expected to be trained in, but the stereotypical idea guy lacks).

 

I must say that I was fully aware of my metaphor being lacking in that aspect and knew that that would cause some backlash. It's clear that programmers, 2d artists etc. play a much larger and more interactive role in the creation of a game. But the fact remains that they usually don't touch the heart of the game and merely provide the framework and tools the game designer can work with. And if the game designer is REALLY good at his job, they shouldn't meddle with his process besides telling him what limitations he's working with.

This is nonsense. If the game designer has a dumb idea they should tell him it won't be fun or it won't work the way he is thinking.. And btw, whenever someone types "REALLY" in all caps, I prepare for a No True Scotsman Fallacy.

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This is nonsense. If the game designer has a dumb idea they should tell him it won't be fun or it won't work the way he is thinking.. And btw, whenever someone types "REALLY" in all caps, I prepare for a No True Scotsman Fallacy.

 

This is exactly why I said he needs to be really good. If his idea is dumb, he isn't a particularly good designer in my book.

If a hobbyist painter goes to the paint shop and tells the guy who made the paint what he's going to paint. He might very well adjust a few things based on what the person tells him to adjust to improve his paintings. But do you really believe that this is going to result in a masterpiece?

If a modern day Rembrandt goes to the same paint shop though, he likely won't need to ask the guy working there for any advice. If he did, he wouldn't be worth calling a modern day Rembrandt.

 

 

I'd like to add that I realize there are practical problems preventing things from working this way, A game is not a painting after all, not by a long stretch. But that doesn't mean it can't be an ideal to strive towards.

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Art is an implementation, not an idea. Rembrant was not famous because of his ideas but of his execution of these ideas.

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No... Sorry to be blunt, but it's obvious that you've never actually worked with a large team of professional game developers, because that's not how things work out in the real world.

Even the best game designer can't sit down and design exactly how every single mechanic in the game will function from button input to frame-by-frame changes in the game state. There's an initial idea with some guideance for how it should be implemented, this is produced, and then refined over time. It usually will not exactly match the idea that the designer had in mind, and/or it will demonstrate why the designer's original idea is lacking and needs refinement. These refinements will be created both independently and collaboratively by everyone involved in that particular area, which will involve the game designers (there may be general ones, and specialists -- e.g. combat designers, level designers, mechanic designers, etc) the artists (e.g. environment, character animation, concept, etc) and the programmers (e.g. general engine/technology, general game mechanics, and specialists like animation programmers, etc). If someone on the team is just a passive tool to be used to implement specifications to the letter, then they belong at a finance company, not a games studio.

 


The people who are actually taking the designers ideas and bringing them to life through code and art have a huge amount of influence as to how they turn out. They will inject their own creativity in to the process, just as the game designer does. Often, many different variations on a game mechanic will be developed and tested, to try and find the most fun incarnation of the game idea. The game designer will not have thought up every single one of these variations.

 

The best designers are the ones who can implement their own ideas and thus keep the feedback loop very tight.

Often, a gameplay programmer with some specialty -- e.g. third person movement controllers, or weapon animation controllers, or AI navigation and planning systems, or multi-character interaction systems -- will have a lot more creative insight into their particular speciality than the game designer does. When trying to implement a designer's abstract ideas, these programmers will internally have to iterate on their implementations many times, and many of the small nuances that separate a good mechanic from a great mechanic will be injected by these programmer's own creativity independently from the game designer's overall vision. In this sense, the guy working on the "third person movement controller" may be a programmer and a "movement designer" at the same time -- and the same goes for the animators; their creativity and skills may inject new possibilities into the implementation which were unimagined by the original designer, and they may reshape the game for the better. A good designer will be receptive of the inputs of all the creative people on the team, and not just dictate that everyone stick to the original GDD to the letter.

Often the high-level game designer will deliberately be vague in areas that are not his speciality to allow other designers on the team enough freedom to make their contributions great.

 

I'm not going to deny that I haven't worked with large teams, because I would be lying.

I should have said they usually don't touch the heart of the game, I should have said they shouldn't.

It's clear that making a game requires a lot more technical skill than making a painting, which is exactly why paintings tend to turn out as more artful than games do. People who don't share the vision of the artist get to mess with his product, it might be largely necessary to deliver a decent product, but it's far from ideal.

A good compromise would be having a game designer with a maximum amount of knowledge about all the aspects involved n making a game and a team that only suggests things to the main game designer but lets him process what they tell him and use it as he sees fit, without further discussion. Unless of course what he wants is impossible, but that would mean that he's not a very good game designer.

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Coming back to the first point Hodgman made about games (or anything else) as art, isn't what the audience think and feel about a piece more important than any intrinsic quality of either the product or artist?  What's so great about Rembrandt other than the fact that people like his work?  Isn't Picasso just a crappy painter until people decide that they like his unusual style?

 

If a game is considered art it will probably have little-to-nothing to do with the designer or his vision for it, much as people like songs because of a feeling or something it reminds them of rather than what the composer wrote it about, or as people like paintings because of something they imagine or see in the imagery rather than what the artist saw and attempted to portray.

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Ah, the good old 'Ideas Have Value' argument. 

 

The trouble with these arguments is that they usually involve some guy who has little or no practical development experience, trying to tell experienced developers how they think industry should work. Meanwhile the experienced guys try to explain how it actually does work.

 

Unimplemented ideas have no value. If you don't believe this, feel free to try and prove me wrong. Daydream up a bunch of game ideas and try to sell them. A thing is worth what someone will pay for it, after all.

 

You're exactly right, someone with enthusiasm suggests how they think things should be and someone worn down by the industry talks beside the question by stating how things are.

I never said unimplemented ideas have any value, it's the passion and vision of a talented game designer that give them value, but that doesn't mean that there isn't such a thing as a bad and a good idea. And a great idea for that matter.

If a thing is worth what someone will pay for it, the Call of Duty series must be the epitome of gaming.

 

 

If it's of any value, I'm not making record sales with any of my game designs because I don't think I have what it takes to be a master game designer.

Edited by overactor
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Pretty much agree with a bunch of other replies, it isn't the initial big picture idea that's valuable, it's the thousands of small decisions that the designer makes during the course of development that determine how good the game is. The disdain for 'idea guys' in the indie community partially comes from the fact that with small teams you just can't afford to have one guy who only does design and can't program or make art. (Although I think the main reason is that most of the people who just say they want to design games don't really know what it takes to be a game designer and as a result aren't actually any good at it.)

 

Still, there's definitely a lot of value to having one or more person doing the work of a lead designer or art director. Sure, the initial concept isn't nearly as important or difficult to get right as the full implementation, but the overall direction and artistic vision of the game is important throughout the development process. It's a big advantage to have an interesting concept and a coherent vision of what the game is going to be, otherwise you run the risk of making a mismatch of conflicting ideas or churning out a technically proficient but generic and uninspired game.

 

Good idea + good implementation = good game

Bad idea + good implementation = playable but generic game

Good idea + bad implementation = wasted potential, "could have been good, but isn't"

Bad idea + bad implementation = worthless

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A good compromise would be having a game designer with a maximum amount of knowledge about all the aspects involved n making a game and a team that only suggests things to the main game designer but lets him process what they tell him and use it as he sees fit, without further discussion.

On a big budget game, a designer can't possibly have a maxium amount of knowledge about every aspect involved in it's creation... It takes 10 years to master a skill, and there's more than 10 specialists involved in the game, so this hypothetical designer would be long dead of natural causes.

In smaller games, sure, the designer can have his fingers in every pie -- this is usually how small 2/3 man projects are made, where the designer will know about every aspect because they are also one of the implementors.

 

It's only on really large projects that it's economically feasible to have a full-time designer (or several designers each with their own speciality).

Seeing that these designers can't possibly know how every aspect of implementation actually works, they need to defer some decisions to other specialists (that's the whole point of having specialists). As mentioned before, AI systems are a great example of this, but so are movement systems -- e.g. the first assassins creed had a team of several dozen people working on just the mechanics behind the main character's movement. There's no way that a single designer could sit down and theory-craft all of the details behind that movement controller that those two-dozen specialists discovered during their implementation process, up-front, without a feedback loop, into an immutable GDD.

 

someone with enthusiasm suggests how they think things should be and someone worn down by the industry talks beside the question by stating how things are.

I'm not worn down and trying to erode your enthusiasm, nor trying to talk beside the question. There are a lot of reasons for why it's a general consensus that an initial idea does not have much value, and also why this stereotype exists, which we're trying to explain.

Implementing someone's game ideas necessarily requires creativity on the part of the implementer. The design given to an implementer is necessarily vague, otherwise it would already be an implementation and not a design! Implementers are not just a tool to be manipulated by a GDD, but an active participant in the design process, being guided by the game designer.

If they are a tool, they are a tool that is necessarily in a conversation with the designer, guiding his hand while his hand guides it. A great artist is one that can use his tools well, so a great designer is one that is a master of conversation with his tools.

The fact that you disregard this participation as meddling, robs you of the ability to understand the implementation process and the role of a designer in it, so there's nothing much we can say here.

 

If a thing is worth what someone will pay for it, the Call of Duty series must be the epitome of gaming.

No, it's just a valuable game. Publishers would pay a lot of money just to own that name.

FWIW, even bland, generic, middle-of-the-road games like COD require talented designers. Even just getting a bland game out the door, complete in it's bland vision, on time, requires a large amount of talent. It may be a different kind of talent from the ones that produce the cult-classics though. A real visionary and critically acclaimed designer might actually be a failure if required to produce intentionally bland blockbusters wink.png Everyone has their niche.

Edited by Hodgman
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Good idea + good implementation = good game
Bad idea + good implementation = playable but generic game
Good idea + bad implementation = wasted potential, "could have been good, but isn't"
Bad idea + bad implementation = worthless

 

What about a good game with good implementation where every element implemented was carefully considered by someone who is very passionate about the project and is a talented game designer?

 

As an answer to Hodgman's last post: You are right that on very large projects, it becomes basically impossible for one person to have a full overview of everything. This is why large projects will always be so different from what small and medium sized projects. There is nothing wrong with tinkering with a formula when it is necessary, but every step away from the original idea is likely going to detract somewhat from its personality. Of course it can improve the end product but it seems obvious  that starting out with an idea that needs a minimal amount of tinkering and having said tinkering done by the person who originally came up with the idea will result in a game with more soul.

 

I agree with most of what you're saying, really. This is a very idealistic view of game design, I just think that there is nothing wrong with the ideal itself. And that it could be strived for a bit more in the gaming industry, especially the indie community.

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What about a good game with good implementation where every element implemented was carefully considered by someone who is very passionate about the project and is a talented game designer?

For a good game, this is usually the case. But I think your unstated assumption is that this "someone" is/should be one individual. For smaller games, maybe. For larger games, this is impractical.

 

There is nothing wrong with tinkering with a formula when it is necessary, but every step away from the original idea is likely going to detract somewhat from its personality. Of course it can improve the end product but it seems obvious  that starting out with an idea that needs a minimal amount of tinkering and having said tinkering done by the person who originally came up with the idea will result in a game with more soul.

It depends. The "soul" and "personality" include how open to collaboration you are, how you handle other people's creative inputs and willing to compromise when you might be wrong or misguided. A game designed by a tyrannical dictator may certainly have a strong soul, and you probably would feel it through the end product.

 

This is a very idealistic view of game design, I just think that there is nothing wrong with the ideal itself. And that it could be strived for a bit more in the gaming industry, especially the indie community.

Perhaps. I don't think it is the most pressing game design problem in the game industry, indie or not.

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You need artists and nerds to make video games

unfortunately neither artists nor nerds have the right personality for making entertaining video games ...

 

You need gamers to buy video games

unfortunately gamers are generally boring people

so the video game industry makes boring games for boring people to buy

 

That is why current video games are so boring

 

Making video games is 100x more fun than playing them

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You need artists and nerds to make video games
unfortunately neither artists nor nerds have the right personality for making entertaining video games ...

Most people don't have one description to their personality. Game programmers usually get interested in game programming because they have an idea(good or bad) for a game that they want to make. Artists tend to be creative people that can be creative not only visually but also in writing, and a project vision. There are also plenty of programmers that are also artists that are also very generally creative people.

You need gamers to buy video games
unfortunately gamers are generally boring people
so the video game industry makes boring games for boring people to buy

Again, most "gamers" are average people that have other hobbies too. Not everybody that plays games does it in their underwear in their Mom's garage sipping coke all day. 

Of course, with anything, there are the people who have become obsessed, but they could still be very interesting people that have been trapped in their virtual worlds.

That is why current video games are so boring

I do think that most of the new triple-A shoot em-up games have been pretty generic and boring, but there is a whole world of great indie developers, made up of programmers and artists, most of which are creative people, almost all of which where at won point "gamers" because that's how they got interested in it in the first place.

 

Are games art?

This reminds of the argument made in "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud about if comic books are art.

It is in the eye of the beholder. 

But art could also be defined as anything that humans have made which is not systematically created. Something with a creative process.

Making video games is 100x more fun than playing them

Agreed. Games, like watching TV, aren't fulfilling after you turn them off. But accomplishment gives me a great fuzzy feeling for a long time. 

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Making video games is 100x more fun than playing them

Agreed. Games, like watching TV, aren't fulfilling after you turn them off. 

I submit that you are playing the wrong games.

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You're exactly right, someone with enthusiasm suggests how they think things should be and someone worn down by the industry talks beside the question by stating how things are.

 

Unfortunately, even with all the enthusiasm in the world, the lack of experience basically means your idea of 'how things should be' may not very well rooted in reality.

 

Let's suppose though, for the sake of argument, you're right. Idea Guys are a downtrodden and under-appreciated font of creativity, and games developers should make better use of them.

 

How do you propose we harness their untapped potential? Should studios start hiring Idea Guys? What are you actually proposing here?

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