Myths of Process and a Nonlinear View of History

July 21st 2004

From Six Degrees

by Duncan J. Watts

A Nonlinear View of History

The notion that outcomes can only be properly understood in terms of the interaction of individuals, each of whom is reacting in real time to the decisions and actions of others, presents us with a quite different view of cause and effect than the one to which we are generally accustomed. Conventionally, when something or someone is successful, we assume that the extent of the success is proportional to some underlying measure of merit or significance. Successful artists are creative geniuses, successful leaders are visionaries, and successful products are just what consumers are looking for. Success, however is a descriptor that can only be applied after the fact, and with hindsight it is easy to be wise. Our typically outcome-oriented view of the world, therefore, leads us to attribute the success of something to whatever characteristics it happens to exhibit, whether or not those characteristics where ever recognized as special beforehand.

What we don’t generally consider is that the very same thing, with the very same characteristics, just as easily could have been a dismal failure.

Watts is using this brilliantly described insight to support the argument that elements of culture are parts of a complex network of interaction, and can therefore not be considered in terms of simple cause and effect. This idea is one which would be useful to apply to videogame development, I think.

It is our natural reaction, whenever we experience an effective videogame (be it effective from a design or commercial point of view), to immediately try to discover the process that was used to create this success. These examples of process often become part of videogame legend. I would consider the following examples of legendary process.

1. The team on Metal Gear Solid 2 each had a book in which they sketched and jotted down ideas. At the end of the week, the team’s senior staff would examine everyone’s book and consider including the ideas.

2. The team on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had a large wall at one end of the office, on which they stuck Post-It notes. These notes represented brainstormed ideas about features to add to the game.

3. Lionhead Studios have a continual influx of young work-experience testers that play the studio’s games, sit in on design meetings and offer their opinions.

4. John Carmack takes his laptop on holiday and works seven days a week.

5. Miyamoto’s teams at NCL habitually take a game to beta, scrap it, and start again from scratch.

6. Yu Suzuki invited his six-year-old child into the development of Shenmue, in order to get their opinion on gameplay and story.

It is the received wisdom that these examples of esoteric process are significant contributing factors to the success of the associated games. That people who take chances and push the boundaries in process can expect to reap the rewards in games that likewise push the boundaries in user experience or commercial success. I’m not sure that this is the case at all. As Watts says;

Conventionally, when something or someone is successful, we assume that the extent of the success is proportional to some underlying measure of merit or significance.

What if the people behind successful games had no idea what they were doing to manufacture that success? What if these were processes that were too subtle, complex or unconscious to be identified, let alone communicated to others? What if (as is often the case) successful creators and teams are unable to repeat their initial success precisely because they are unable to determine what they did right in the first place? What if none of these esoteric and legendary methods has any effect on the projects at all?

The relationship between cause and effect in other people products in other people companies is so complex, and probably so different to ours in our individual teams, that I think it should be given significantly less consideration than we currently give it. If we continue to analyse process over product, then we are doomed to see random success and failure, and we will never have a codified set of skills that we can pass onto other designers. We’ll be forever worshipping artistic geniuses, only to scratch our head in confusion when they create a dud next time around.

We need to look at the actual experience of playing the game in as much detail as we examine the process of developing the game. We need to identify what it is about the low and high level structure of Ocarina of Time that makes it so compelling, before we read three hundred interviews with Miyamoto in which he talks about applying the experiences of playing as a child to development. We need to understand the complexities of the cultural and economic landscape that make State of Emergency outsell Beyond Good and Evil, before we blame the failure of the latter on the magic get-out-clause of ‘bad marketing’.

By looking at a game in detail, precisely examining the experience and possibilities of the product, we get right to the centre of things. Yes, Kojima might have come across that game mechanic while reading Plato, but that doesn’t mean we should all rush out and buy The Republic. The path which he took to create that mechanic can never been re-created, even by him, so lets not waste our time examining it. We need to look at what it is about the object itself that works, before making any assumptions about the process that created it. Once we think we’ve determined what the game is doing right, then we can look at creating a process tailored to our individual circumstances which that can help us emulate that kind of success.

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