Richard Feynman’s ‘Computer Disease’

June 27th 2004

From The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

by Richard Feynman

The world-famous physicist is describing his time spent on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico during WWII. The team have just taken supply of some IBM Tabulators to help them with the vast amount of calculations they are doing on the project. A certain Mr. Frankle is in charge of the machines, and Feynman notices a change in him…

Well, Mr. Frankle started this program and began to suffer from a disease, the computer disease, that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It’s a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. It was a serious problem that we were trying to do. The disease with computers is that you play with them. They are so wonderful. You have these x switches that determine, if it’s an even number you do this, if it’s an odd number you do that, and pretty soon you can do more and more elaborate things if you are clever enough, on one machine. And so after a while the whole system broke down. He wasn’t paying any attention; he wasn’t supervising anybody. The system was going very, very slowly. The real problem was he was sitting in a room figuring out how to make one tabulator automatically print arc-tangent x, and then it would start and it would print out columns and then bitsi, bitsi, bistsi and calculate the arc-tangents automatically by integrating as it went along and make a whole table in one operation. Absolutely useless. We HAD tables of arc-tangents, but if you’ve ever worked with computers you understand the disease. The DELIGHT to be able to see how much you can do. But he got the disease for the first time, the fellow who invented the thing got the disease.

So there you go. People were doing it at the very dawn of computing.

How many people have you seen succumb to this disease? Have you ever been infected yourself? Ever worked for a team that is infected to the point that they become shuffling zombies?

Designers, especially today, where technical expertise is pretty much a pre-requisite of the job, are very susceptible to this disease. As scripting languages and tools become more powerful, it is ever more tempting for designers (people who should be considering the customer experience above all others) to stop worrying about entertaining the public and concentrate on entertaining themselves.

We’ve all seen the signs. A coder exposes a new aspect of the game to the designers, and before even thinking about it they’ve got something on screen and they are entranced by the power in their hands. Before you know it, they’ve devised the videogame equivalent of Mr. Frankle’s ‘bitsi, bitsi, bitsi’ arc-tangent tables. A complex and satisfying technical problem with no use to the project whatsoever. It might be a complex AI manager that does things the player with never see. It might be a flashing icon in the HUD that a coder and artist should be dealing with in the last three months of the project. It might be a level which is full of clever tricks but plays like a dog.

I’m not suggesting those who succumb to the disease are weak or inferior at all. As soon as I find myself doing a vaguely technical task I get re-infected and start fiddling with useless crap which entertains me rather than contributing to player experience. What a smart designer needs to do is understand that they will succumb at some point during a technical task, be able to recognise the symptoms nice and early, and take the necessary steps for recovery as soon as possible.

Some designers might find they can cope by stopping technical work and doing some creative work for a day. Some might find they can simply concentrate their mind on the design document and implement like a robot, without giving themselves leeway to fiddle. Some might rely on a lead designer to pick them up and put them back on the straight and narrow. Others may become completely infected and become a coder (joke).

The worst thing that can happen is for this disease to infect an entire team, or someone in charge of a team. Under these circumstances the whole project becomes focused around the pleasure of the loop (idea, design, implement, results) and focus is permanently lost on the final end-user experience. Games developed this way are pretty easy to spot. They have lots of little moderately impressive elements, each technically impressive and entertaining for the viewer for about five minutes. They usually take over five years to develop. I once worked for a company who’s founder used to get excited about developing scripting languages that were fun for the scripters to use, or that in some way did something clever, new and completely useless. That company spent a year longer than scheduled implementing scripts on that project and in the end they all had to be hard coded because the scripting language was so impractical.

It all comes down to an ironic fact. Using computers is fun. They give you power and control and the opportunity to experiment and be creative. All of that entertainment is available to the user of the software or system. All we need to do as game designers and developers is make sure we are creating environments in which our customers feel that enjoyment as much as we do. We want the players to become infected, while staying away from the disease ourselves.