Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Severe Doubt

I’ve been suffering from severe doubt with regards to the value of my game design thoughts. A friend whose opinion I value on this matter continually subjects my thoughts to a kind of opposition that makes me doubt the validity of putting them on paper at all. Am I writing no more than a collection of misguided justifications for my own taste and perspective? Am I only an elitist clinging to what little foothold in the sheer cliff face of subjectivity that will allow me to raise my head above the press of all the other pundits and gamers?

I feel trapped between a will to further refine my thoughts and the knowledge that these thoughts may just be insubstantial and baseless. My doubts are only worsened because I cannot tell if my thoughts are actually baseless. I’m tempted to throw up my hands in despair after long conversations about fundamental topics in game design and how I approach its analysis. Perhaps I am no more than a thrashing lunatic—perhaps my mental faculties delude me into thinking that there is some significant systematic epistemology to game design at the very edge of my perception so, like a schizophrenic person, I continually shift my eyes to find the thing has disappeared, only to reappear once again barely out of my view a few seconds later.

“Fun” taunts me. Flitting before me, seemingly within my reach. I can nearly contain it in a theory only to see it has left merely one of its parts trapped in the confines of my thought, the rest of it still flutters, free. It slides through my fingers when I try to clap my hands together over it. I try to use logic to present ways to judge game design decisions, but the measuring stick is not logic, but fun. Logic can tell us if a game is designed consistently and if it follows some greater vision as evidenced by the patterns it exhibits when played and analyzed, but logic itself doesn’t capture the goal of game design, which is to generate fun.

Now that I’ve revealed my struggle to you, I wish to make clear a few points about my writing here so that you can better understand my intentions and why I communicate in the peculiar way I do.

A few things you should understand:

  • If experts of game design exist, I am not one of them and may never be. I claim no expertise. I think about game design every day and try to do so productively. This separates me from many game designers who practice professionally, I am told. Does this qualify me to have an opinion? Not entirely. But I feel that expressing my opinion here for others to read, enjoy, and argue against is better than keeping these opinions unexplored and unexpressed.
  • I’m just making stuff up here. I post my thoughts on game design. I express them not because I am in touch with some hidden truth to which others are blind. I write because I think, and thoughts unexpressed—especially those thoughts refined with some rigor—do nothing. There is no use in understanding and knowledge if it cannot be somehow conveyed. This is currently the primary way I can convey my limited understanding of game design. I’m working on games at the moment, but they are not close to release and may not be for some time. My only means of expression is this: the written word, written in the hopes that the small waves it generates among its readers will ignite some significant discussion, discovery, and ultimately better games.
  • I don’t have evidence to show you—I write based on my experience, analysis, and thought experiments. All of the work on game design I’ve ever read (that I can remember) contributes parts to each of the pieces I post here. All of the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues—each contributes. I base my thoughts on my own limited experience playing the games I find fun and a few that I do not enjoy but played to experiment. I do not approach game design as a scientist, but as a philosopher. If I make verifiable claims that I do not myself verify, I will gladly lean in the direction any significant evidence for or against my claim would sway me.
  • I don’t write here because I’ve found the truth. This brings to mind an aphorism I believe to carry some valuable insight: “He who claims to have found the truth has definitely not.” I may write as if I have found the truth, but I only do so because to fill my writing with disclaimers would make each post an exercise in extracting meaning from apologies instead of directly absorbing meaning. I don’t wish to cloud my writing further than my meager communication and thinking skills so far have clouded it, so I write persuasively with a bold tone. If I am wrong, I hope that the tone makes my mistakes obvious and encourages others to challenge me. If I am right, it serves well at convincing others of my case.
  • I am exploring. Because I am on a journey to find theories that allow myself and others to better design games, I write in an exploratory fashion. I try on new ideas through posting them on this blog and gauging reactions. I’ve learned significantly from this practice, and I will continue to do it. I hope that you can join me in this exploration—try to argue, in the comments, with the intention of exchanging information and ideas, not with the intention to show your superiority to me or to others in the conversation.

Now that I have written these disclaimers, I feel more comfortable proceeding. I hope that you will keep them in mind as you read my posts here.


Unknown said...

First time poster. I haven't been following this blog for very long (I've read maybe 20 posts?) but I think you're spot on. I think people tend to look for gratification to hard questions (What IS the meaning of life? Geez! Just tell me!), when really, it isn't that easy. From what I've read, you're clearly intelligent and I like the clear cut approach you take. I'm sort of in that same boat as you as well, making games, but I haven't quite had the time to express thoughts. I'm glad you are, though.

It's less your fault and more the fault of "everyone else", because of how they receive your content. I tend to view any kind of opinion as one more way to solve an ambiguous problem, as it's nigh-impossible to solve all problems with just one approach.

Truck on, my friend, truck on. By the way, I should be sleeping so I wouldn't be surprised if any part of this comment was weird or even wrong.

Kenny said...

If I had to name my "biggest problem" with your blog then it would be that quite often you don't seem to be open for a discussion; indeed you post your blog entry then won't post any replies to comments. History tells us that in the long run this can come down as 2 things for the readers:

1) you're an egoistic madman interested in only spewing out his thoughts to the world for the sake of spewing them out, and/or

2)you value the comments below what you consider worthy of discussion.

You say it is a discussion of your ideas, but on the other side more often than not I don't feel that way.

As far as actual content goes, I don't think you are less entitled than anyone except a few god-like names (like Will Wright) to talk about game design. Just because designer x made a mediocre at best, collection of "best of" features game with a shiny engine doesn't mean he knows more about game design - it actually tells us something else.. :]

I think your position of being an outsider yet deeply dug into design "studies" presents you and your blog with a valuable, unique flavor. Keep it up!

(As far as trapping that elusive thing for your ideas: I truly believe that in every generation there might be only a handful of people - if any! - that are capable of doing that completely by themselves. The rest of us, mere mortals, we need other people's help, opinion, criticism to achieve that.)

(Me, I'm terrible coming up with "seeds" for ideas but if I'm allowed to build on existing ones I can really flourish - even if the end result has little to do with the seed itself. What I'm saying here is that what you need to do is find out which way can you contribute creatively - if any - and learn to embrace and use that method. It really hurts my ego to admit that I am not a really original fella but there's not much I can do with that. It's also not to say I don't have good and new ideas, just that I can trace them back to a "thought of seed" that didn't come from me and withouth which my idea wouldn't exist.)

scrusi said...

I very much enjoy your blog as it is, it isn't your job as a blogger to provide us with rock-hard facts. I sometimes disagree with what you say or find that you've missed a crucial fact, but in that case I comment or respond with a post of my own.

As Kenny said, some more interactivity/response would be nice, but please don't stop posting interesting articles just because you think you might not be the biggest authority on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Here is a fun link btw. It is a subtitled lecture on "Introduction to literary theory".

I think this series of lectures will inspire anyone, to pursue whatever angle on meaning one might fancy. Which again will be fruitful for any kind of critisism (critique) I am sure.

It is split into various parts, and I think the lecturer is preseting the material in an interesting way.

It is a plus to be somewhat familiar with the various terms/names, and to have a sensibility towards the careful wording. Sometimes people express themselves less clearly, other times the exact wording is of importance.

Btw, I hold the view that so called 'schizophrenia' is probably a misunderstood and more importantly a deeply flawed concept/diagnose/idea/notion. It is odd that people on the internet seem to be opinionated about it, as if they knew what they were talking about.

evizaer said...

Thanks for your support, everyone.

I'm surprised that Kenny and Scrusi think I do not respond enough. If a comment presents something worth arguing against, I'll address it. If not, I leave it alone. I tend to avoid simply muttering assent to what others have said here because it clutters the comments. I hope that others can see what deserves their attention among the good comments here without me endorsing each one with a comment of my own. Most of the comments on this blog are sufficient on their own and need not be further argued or applauded. I'm not one of those bloggers who feels the need to respond to every comment and curate the discussion as if I'm some mild-mannered god. I'm just here to start something. The majority of my posts start nothing or receive a few minor tangential comments.

I think it is more egotistical to respond to each comment than it is to respond to a few.

Anonymous said...

"I think it is more egotistical to respond to each comment than it is to respond to a few."

I have to say that this make little sense to me. This statement basicly implies that it is abit egotistical to reply "to a few". And as such it doesn't make much sense to me.

I read somewhere that one of the advice for aspiring authors is to read other peoples books. And what I have learned myself, is to particularily always re-read my own texts. It's a nice way to correct things, and for doing rewrite's to clarify things and perchance to develop something further.

evizaer said...

Responding to each individual comment regardless of its merit or import would indicate that I'm so self-interested that I need to dignify every single noise people make in reaction to me with some word of my own. This would be a kind of "fishing for compliments". Obsessively tending to my blog would indicate an egotistical streak much wider than responding occasionally.

I read every comment, but I do not feel the need to address every point.

I also read a lot of other people's work. Unfortunately, much of it reaffirms what I already know or isn't particularly relevant to my thoughts. Many of the arguments other bloggers insist on making seem to have their roots in the same arguments I've read a thousand times--and seldom do they add much new.

Nils said...

I know your problem:
At first you think you know how to make your perfect game. All that is left is polishing some details.

You start out to describe the grand vision while you promise to go into the details soon.

You find out that it's actually not so easy at all. A lot of stuff depends on each other and other things. There is too much to be said than can be said.
It's just damn complicated.

You try to break it down into small pieces, but the process of breaking things up is compplicted in itself.

You doubt that you can actually offer any valueable insight at all.


Well the truth is:
A lot of very intelligent people try to design MMOS (and other games) for decades now. It's not easy to make a good game - even if you ignore technical limitations. A brilliant game seems to be like winning the lottery.

The only way I can see to really design a game is iteration. My mind simply hasn't enough processing power to do it in any different way.

This, however, is exactly the way games are created nowadays. The most successfull games producer is known for polishing (which means iterating) until 'it feels right'.

I do agree with you that it should be possible to make a grand sandbox game. Like EVE made by Blizzard in a non-WoW way.

In the end we need to acknowledge that the human mind is limited. Iiteration is the answer to many complicated problems - then again some problems cannot be solved by iteration, due to interdependence.

In such a scenario it might well be that the only way to produce that grand game is to try often enough.

Verilazic said...

I completely agree with you, Nils.

Evizaer, I wouldn't get too doubtful if I were you. Your friend might just like playing the devil's advocate. I know I do that to my RL friends from time to time, and sometimes it seriously drives them crazy. =)

If the only thing I liked about your thoughts was there coherency, I'd still say keep writing them. However, I think you have valuable insights too, so keep writing them.

One thing I think might be interesting to have answered (if you haven't already) is what exactly your aim would be if you actually were designing an MMO. What would you consider succuess to be? Making a healthy profit? Getting an exceptionally large playerbase? Teaching the players to appreciate something more than a treadmill? I can't recall reading your specific criteria, so what are they?

foolsage said...

I think your game design thoughts are interesting and often stimulating. I don't agree with you all the time but then I don't agree with Richard Bartle or Raph Koster all the time either; my disagreement isn't any sign that you lack insight. I like your approach though even when I disagree.

I don't agree (Ha! See, there I go...) with your concerns that responding to too many comments is a sign of ego. Rather, it can be seen as an interest in holding a discussion rather than holding forth as a lecturer. Your mileage may of course vary. ;)

Logan said...

don't give up.

"Am I writing no more than a collection of misguided justifications for my own taste and perspective?"

this.... but it's not necessarily a bad thing (everyone does this, pretty much constantly throughout their daily lives).. there's a reason you feel and think and analyze things the way you do... but in order to get at the source of those things, you must first figure out why you feel, think, and analyze a certain way in the first place... by trying to justify your opinions you can better discover what you truly think... but it takes a lot of time, and a whole lot of critical thinking... but that's something you seem to be equipped to deal with... it's just a slow process.. there won't be a lightbulb moment where everything suddenly makes sense... it's a long and arduous road that doesn't seem very fulfilling but in the end you'll understand yourself so much better... and only when you understand yourself can you truly understand the things around you.

i've been going through the same thing the past 6-8 months... i've been designing my own perfect MMO... at first it was pretty lame and uninspired... but the more i worked on it, the more i learned about myself, and as i learned about myself, the things around me, and mine and other's behaviors made more sense, which lead to more and better ideas for this MMO i've been designing... it's a slow process but i've seen huge improvements over the past few months... if you're open to changing and refining your opinions, then i'm sure you'll see the same improvements i did.

i hope that makes sense... it seems kind of cliche but it's true... through the process of trying to justify your own behaviors, you'll learn more about why you behave that way, and once you understand yourself, then you can better understand those things that influence you... i still don't think i'm making this as clear as it could be, but that's why i don't have my own blog... i'm just not a good writer.

Logan said...

my advice to you is to try and pretend that you are an upper lvl manager and your blog commenters are your employees... your goal should be to get as much useful information out of your employees as possible... by getting them to work to their full potential, you're helping yourself and reaping the benefits of their different insights and perspectives.

one mistake i see you make a lot is that if someone says something perfectly logical and reasonable, but doesn't directly relate to your topic, then you just ignore their comment... there's a good chance that the commenter actually has something useful to tell you, they just don't know how to get to that useful information... so instead of ignoring or attacking a comment that is logically sound but just off-topic, instead you should try and cultivate that comment and try and help the person figure out exactly what they're trying to get at... just humor your commenters and try and help them, to help you... you might find that your commenters could help you make a breakthrough... but they just need some help, they need a skilled manager to help them do their best work.

i know that probably didn't make much sense either... basically just try and get your commenters to think more deeply and critically and in the right direction, and maybe they'll surprise you with some really useful insight.

it seems silly not to use your biggest asset on this blog to it's highest effectiveness... it's good to get your own personal ideas out there... but to me personally, the point of a blog is to gain new insight and perspective from others, so that you can further refine and perfect your own thoughts and opinions...

try and milk your biggest asset (commenters) as much as possible. pretend you're the manager and it's your job to not only give direction, but more importantly, to cultivate the talent.

hope that makes sense and can maybe help you going forward...

sorry for the length.

Kenny said...

I don't want to reiterate Logan's points, so there goes where I differ: my advice is that when you read comments think about _what_ would you answer and if _that_ is worth posting. If it does then do it. Or of course reply if you feel like.. :]

" The majority of my posts start nothing or receive a few minor tangential comments."

So this is OUR fault now? ;))) j/k Seriously thought, if you don't seem to be pen to discussion, any kind of discussion, there won't be discussion and you won't start anything.

I would like to quote someone who said "The only bad idea is the unspoken idea". This is so true even if you have to wade through stupidity to get to it.

Kenny said...

thought = though

Void said...

I read your posts but don't normally comment.

I wanted to let you know that I love reading your blog. You analyze things in a unique way. I like seeing things from your perspective that I never would have thought of on my own.

Keep writing!

Gravity said...

The Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a remarkable theoretical and proven phenomena.

It is a cognitive bias in which people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

** Meanwhile, people with true knowledge tended to underestimate their competence. **

Hope that help you too.

Tesh said...

Writing need not be about expressing or getting feedback, sometimes it's about making sure your own thoughts make sense. Committing something to paper makes you think about it enough to make it make sense.

Of course, posting it to a blog does sort of imply that you're looking for some sort of feedback, for better or worse. There's nothing wrong with wanting to share your viewpoint, though. It may even help someone somewhere.

As to repeating ideas found elsewhere, it's been my experience that the human experience has a LOT of repetition in it. Sometimes it takes seeing something with a slightly different spin to make the connections and comprehension finally click. People do reread the same books time and again, after all, and the books don't change at all, unlike blog posts on repeated topics.

Sometimes, it's not about what the book itself has written in it, it's about what you bring to it. Coming back to a well-worn topic doesn't always mean that there's nothing there to be found or shared.

For example, I've read some historical accounts of the Great Depression, but only after the last few years of being a homeowner and trying to keep my family safe have I understood some aspects of it that I didn't before.

For another, I've watched "It's A Wonderful Life" a dozen times or more over the last twenty years, but it was only this last time that I really understood what George Bailey was about in his speech in the Savings and Loan when the bank run was making everyone panic. I changed in the last few years, digging more in to economics and finance, and watching the movie again, I saw a LOT more in it than I'd ever seen before. It's a nice little Christmas tale, but there's more going on under the hood if you understand the history and setting. The movie didn't change. I changed. Since I don't have perfect recall and wasn't trying to actively slot my new experiences into the movie, it took a reviewing of the show to really get things to click.

Every time I dig into a new story or game, I learn something because I'm trying to learn. Every time I *replay* a game or reread a book, I learn something. Education tends to be strongest when you're making new connections; there's a physiological basis for that, what with how neurons function. Revisiting an old topic in a new context can often be exactly what you need to make more connections.

Dblade said...

Your ideas are to help you make your MMO, by defining your own taste, helping you to network, and keeping your critical sense sharp. I think you are worrying too much about making a unififed theory.

I disagree with you often, but your thoughts matter, and your game will matter when you make it. Keep sight on the end result.

evizaer's friend said...

I am reasonably certain I'm the friend evizaer was referring to, and if I'm not, I am at least certain that I am a friend who regularly disagrees with him. We talk about most of his posts in a non-blog fashion, and in general I don't actually post on the blog because of this. In this case, I think it is useful for me to post because it will allow other people to address what I have to say, and to, perhaps, refute some of his accusations at himself.

You would be hard-pressed to find two people with such diametrically opposed tastes in games as evizaer and myself, a difference of opinion which extends into game design. While we do agree sometimes, it is also common that things he finds self-evident or reasonable, I find false or irrational. He certainly makes no secret of his distaste (perhaps contempt) for the games I like, and I have been known to challenge the right of his preferences to be considered games at all.

I am ashamed, somewhat, that I drove him to post this, if it was, in fact, me. Even if, evizaer, your postings are just a collection of justifications for your taste, they are still interesting and useful to people who are exploring their taste. They are still interesting to read, and while they may never have the impact you might hope, that is not a good reason not to post them. You are an intelligent person with interesting ideas, and the fact that another person with different ideas disagrees with you is not sufficient reason to doubt yourself.

The reason I am reasonably certain that I am the friend he referred to is because I have accused him of, reprimanded and questioned him about posting his opinions and ideas, subjective no matter how interesting, in the language of objective fact, frequently presented, to my reading, as gems of wisdom. The latter half of his post addresses my complaints fairly directly, but the very act of addressing them refutes some of them. My complaint, for instance, that he is presenting himself as an expert is clearly no longer valid.

My intent was never to discourage you from continuing, and I apologize for doing so. I do hope you realize that just because I disagree with what you have to say and how you say it doesn't mean I think you should stop saying it. Even if I'm not the friend you were referring to, I believe what I have said still applies.