Friday, June 03, 2005

Great White Games #2

I was really surprised by the reaction to my Great White Games post. First and foremost, I was amazed at the outpouring of positive reaction to it, especially amongst the amateur game designer crowd. Perhaps most heartwarming example of this was Eric Finley's reference to it on the Iron Game Chef forum.

(Hey, Eric, I just remembered that I got in a fight with you about Nobilis LARP rules on RPGnet, like, three years ago. Isn't that funny?)

But also there was a contingent, who I'm not going to link to directly, 'cause I'm kind of going to put them down, who said "yeah, and what's your problem if I never finish my game, bub?" My initial reaction was, frankly, pretty negative, but I've been thinking more about it and I think that there's a lot there, and that it is wrong to just disregard it.

When you've been working on a game forever, and it just isn't working right for you, it is tiring and frustrating and it makes you angry at yourself and angry at your game. But, on the other hand, you have poured years of your own creative effort into this game, and it is your creation. Quite literally, it is a part of you, tied up in your self-identity. So when some asshole comes along and says "you know, you're never going to finish it" a "yeah, well, fuck you" or a "what does it matter to you that I never finish my games" reaction is pretty damned understandable.

I want to look at, I think, three things, though maybe that number is going to change as I write this.

The first is the self-identity issue. I do not believe that anyone is "just not the sort of designer that finishes games." I think that's bollocks, and I think it is the excuse of someone who, if I am being kind, has simply has bitten off more that they can chew and refuses to accept that. Any writer is capable of finishing a story, else they aren't really a writer. Any director produces finished movies. Painters finish paintings. Fundamentally, artist get art done.

This can be distinguished from taking a long time to let something develop. As an outsider, I can't tell the difference between a project that is slow going and a project that you will never finish, but you know the difference in your heart. This can also be distinguished from not being able to put all the pieces together. Finishing is a skill, not an intrinsic, and it is a skill that can be learned, usually through practice, which is why I offer finish a game as my foremost advice to designers, and why I proposed the foundation of a "journeyman game" tradition.

But there is no such thing as an artist that never finishes his art. That isn't a type. It isn't a classification. It's an oxymoron.

The second is something which I really didn't touch on in the essay, and I think that the lack of touching on this might have provoked some of those reactions, as well: What is your GWG good for? To have wasted ten, five, or even a single year of your creative life on a project that will never see fruition is, frankly, downright depressing. Fortunately, it is also wrong. The experience of having bitten off more than you can chew, of having worked on a huge, sprawling game that you can never finish, is something that I see as actually being very positive (having done it three or more times myself, of course, I am forced to see it that way.) Here are some of the benefits:

1) Practice. Vincent talks about practice games right here, in his blog. His practice games are tiny and miniscule, pretty much just constituting a single mechanic, but that doesn't mean that all practice games aren't the same way. A larger, bulkier, sprawlinger practice game is just as good for practice. I'm going to take as an example here Ben Morgan, who showed up at the Forge with a massive, sprawling, complicated, intricate, bizarre fantasy game and ended up producing Scarlet Wake, the butt-kickingest butt-kicking game that ever butt-kicked. One doesn't just produce a gem like Scarlet Wake out of thin air. You have to practice a lot to get that good. Fortunately, he did.

2) Reaching high. Almost all Great White Games have amazingly beautiful ambitions behind them. And that's not a bad thing at all, even if they can't all be fulfilled, because it gets you thinking. It gets you thinking about what you want out of gaming. It gets you thinking about what can be done with gaming. It gets you thinking about interesting ways to address problems.

3) Spare parts. Ron has talked about this, in the past, with relation to his pre-Sorcerer designs BSL and The Human Machine. Essentially, all that thought and effort produces, most likely, some really good game design ideas. Maybe not enough really good ideas to make your damn game hold together (or maybe you just don't have enough practice stitching them together -- finishing), but damn good ideas nonetheless. Guess what? Your old game is a source perfectly good material for your new game. No reason to let those good ideas go to waste.

Uhm, there was a third topic, but I can't remember it now at all. Ah yeah, it's short, and it has to do with finishing games.

If you finish a game, it isn't just that you will get new skills out of it, but also a very important internal change takes place. All those doubting voices (internal and external) that told you that you were a wannabe and you weren't a real game designer? Gone. Totally gone. And, in their absence, you can actually get along with the real work of design.

In short, in summary, failing to produce a particular game isn't a sin and it doesn't make you a bad person or a bad designer. I, as a peer designer and a game player, would rather that you produced a good game that you can finish, both for your own development as a designer (finishing is a separate skill) and for my own enjoyment, as your half-finished hip deep pile of notes is not something that I, you, or anyone can play and enjoy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't agree with this statement: All those doubting voices (internal and external) that told you that you were a wannabe and you weren't a real game designer? Gone. Totally gone. And, in their absence, you can actually get along with the real work of design.

Just cause of my personal experience. Finishing a game didn't get rid of this. If anything it made it worse cause I looked at all the fine work of my peers. When you complete something, but it is being outshined (is that a word) those naggin voices come back. They have a different tone and slightly different line to feed you, but they are there.

I would say that completion of said project drives you to continue and do better next time (or go back and revise the fucker).

4:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a GWG-would-be-author, the most overwhelming part of it for me is a feeling of unreadiness. "I can't run this game yet - I don't have the perfect group of people." "I can't finish this game yet - I'm not good enough. I need more practice. Otherwise I'll ruin it." "I can't publish this game yet - I'm still missing pieces of the world."

It's hard to say how much of this is legitimate and how much is a cop-out.

4:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I struggled with a lot of this, as I explained in my personal essay on game design. I thought of myself as a quitter and eventually realized that I wasn't finishing things because 1) I didn't like the stuff I'd started and 2) I didn't have the skills to complete those things.

Somewhere along the line, some concepts clicked for me and I drew together a lot of the ideas with which I'd played in prior game design tinkerings and out came a complete game, Verge. Before I knew it, I had 30 then 50 pages of material, without much effort.

I am starting to feel that internal change: that validation to myself that I am a game designer that only a finished game can produce. Like Keith, I have doubts that it will be "totally gone," but I am pretty sure I'll be happier and more confident. Verge isn't done but it's playable and players are excited about it and that's a great feeling.

I do think that my hip deep pile of notes might give other designers ideas, though. ;)

4:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A larger, bulkier, sprawlinger practice game is just as good for practice.

I don't think so. Experience cannot be expressed in time alone, you should always take into account the number of projects you finished.

If I write one game, and you write two, you have double the experience.


4:45 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Adam (Kenney) --

I think those are all cop-out phrases. Or, rather, they are demons that must be put away and only listened to when necessary.


4:54 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Jasper --

I disagree. If I write two Over the Bars and you write one Primetime Adventures well then, frankly, you have more experience that I do.


4:55 AM  
Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

Keith, I know what you mean. I have been hanging with a lot of game designers lately, and I feel really inadequate much of the time. Still, I can produce good stuff, dammit! And I will continue to do so!

4:57 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Brennan, Keith --

I know what you mean. Heck, I'm going to spend this weekend hanging out with Vincent Baker and Emily Boss (ooh, watch me namedrop), both people who fill me with a sense of fear and inadequacy about my own game design.

But, on the other hand, I think that this is a totally different sort of fear from that fear that I had as a fan writing games. Nowadays, Vincent scares me 'cause he's so much better at design than I am. He used to scare me because he was a game designer and I was just a wannabe.

Does that make any sense?


5:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I follow you. Vincent, Clinton and others make me want to kill them and hide the bodies so folks can dig my shit. Less insecurity I think and more frustation. Frustration that your shit gets pushed in the back of the room. Frustration that you didn't think of it first when you busted your ass. Frustration that the majoirity of gamers you encounter are a bunch of monkey fuckers who wouldn't know how to peel a banana if they took a course with a room full of gorillas.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Valamir said...

Ultimately, I think this boils down to Ego. The same ego that affects us all in our every day lives (the healthy kind, not the arrogant prick kind).

I've gotten alot of insight into this sort of ego in my career as an investment manager. What I do, for a living, is take other people's life savings...things they've scrimped and saved for years to earn, and invest it based on my own personal judgement and opinion.

You simply CAN'T do that day in and day out without KNOWING that you know what you're doing. And by knowing, I mean that deep inside internal conviction that allows you to face your responsibilities without debilitating fear...which is different from healthy fear. Healthy fear is a good thing...its a survival trait.

I submit...and here's where I bring this back on topic...that Keith, Adam, Brennan; what you are doing is conflating good fear with bad fear.

Those doubting the extent they prevent you from acting, prevent you from moving forward, paralize you with feelings of inadequacy...that's debilitating fear. That's what Ben is suggesting goes away once you've accomplished a finished game. I tend to agree. "go away" might be an oversimplification, but experience breeds courage.

To the extent those doubting voices drive you harder to seek ever higher levels of excellence. To the extent they prevent you from being sloppy and negligent. That's healthy fear. That's a good thing. That you want to embrace. Grow to love and appreciate that anxious knot in the pit of your stomach because it keeps you from fucking up big time. Don't be discouraged by it.

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I write two Over the Bars and you write one Primetime Adventures well then, frankly, you have more experience that I do.

Well, sure, this depends a little on the games in question, but you never write two Over the Bars, do you? You write Over the Bar and Polaris. (And Bliss Stage. And One Hundred Flowers.) In terms of GAINING experience and practice, I think you learned more from doing these projects as me writing one.


7:46 PM  
Blogger Harlequin said...

I dunno - I agree with Ben. An "act of finishing" is important, but not so dominant that it completely outweighs other considerations. For instance, an "act of publishing" is also an important skill-building exercise, one I'm looking at with courage but trepidation myself.

But one Over the Bar plus one 百花 do not, together, trump one PTA in terms of skills building. Two "act of finishing a game" actions, but not all that much of the other subskills. (Maybe "finishing your game" is a specialization under the Game Design skill, in the system of your choice.)

12:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yep, I'm one of the ones that had a bad negative vibe to your GWG post the first.

It didn't seem to be going in the same place this post goes - and this post seems much more in line with what I was trying to say.

Maybe even if the GWG never gets done, by working on such a sprawling epic, a designer can learn.

I would say that I've come round a bit to the idea that working on smaller designs as a way to see how rules interact - to gain craft if you will - could be a way to actually, eventually, succeed in finishing the GWG.

I will take issue with the idea that artists finish things a bit. In my experience with writers, painters, sculptors and poets (I know all of these varieties of artist), they pretty much universally just stop working on their art. That is to say, they themselves never think it's finished, they just reach a point where they feel that further fussing won't get them closer to their vision. I realize that my small sample isn't representative of all artists - and that I'm probably only arguing semantics at this point, but there it is.

Also, I wanted to chime in and support Valamir - embrace the good fear - the gut instinct. Reject the fear of rejection and failure. It can be tough to know the difference - but once you start embracing and listening to the fear, trying to read your own body and emotions when you feel that way, and trying to dive down to the root causes of those fears, you'll begin to build the skill to readily identify the good fear from the bad.

Also, finishing a game design will help getting over the stupid kind of fear of failure.


"Oh, it's you...

11:31 AM  

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