Tuesday, July 31, 2007

7 strikes - The "Unwritten Vision" & Finding a Systematic Methodology for Pitching Game Ideas

If this were baseball, the team may still be hopeful, but this is a video game, which includes baseball video games, so maybe hope is alive. Our last three ideas sent to Adult Swim were rejected and may not have been our best yet, although I probably shouldn't speak specifically about any of them, we all felt like the writing of the pitches themselves was very strong. Somehow we're always optimistic sending off these little guys, even though we've been rejected and tell each other that our chances are slim, our hopes always end up high in the sky where they shouldn't be.

"IDEAS! You are grounded!"

It's true, we need to ground ourselves and our lofty ideas of having hope for the future, especially when you offer up the fate of that future to another party for approval or disapproval. Chances are that our notions of which ideas are good and bad have a lot more to do with the "unwritten vision" inside our heads than what the actual written idea turns out to be on paper. For me, our ideas that we pitch turn into a fantasy of sorts, and part of the fuel that feeds that fantasy is the idea of the pitch's acceptance.

"Man, if we get to make this, it'll look like this, this and the player can do this! It'll be so cool!"

But this kind of thinking is counter-productive to pitching a really solid idea to a very critical audience with an even more critical target audience. By doing this we're essentially attaching our own convoluted emotions to the game's worth, that ultimately has nothing to do with the game itself. This ends up being a catch-22 since the hope and excitement of creating our own original game fuels us to work on it really hard, but in the same turn, it also clouds our judgment during that initial process.

"So how the hell do we see with eyes unclouded Ashitaka?"

I'm not exactly sure but I think we'll need a more systematic approach, and I think that's something we're closing in on as we go through this epic journey to save the forest spirit. In my opinion, that systematic approach would be more like a venture into the marketing world as opposed to just "using our gut." The gut is definitely more fun and better suited for our own internally-funded-games, but the marketing approach would probably lend itself to a higher success rate.

Who knows, but I'd say mix in more research, systematic methodology (pop-culture flow charts?), more criticism, emphasize character, and a lot of testing and we may just figure this thing out.

After writing this post and thinking about the nature of our pitches, and Adult Swim's reception of said pitches, I wonder if this is just a case of a generational gap. I think it's safe to say we believe in the web2.0 process of publishing, just getting it out there and seeing what everyone says, then re-iterating until it succeeds, however in contrast with AS's process, they appear to be founded in a quasi-traditional publishing process with just releasing one time, and hashing it out behind closed doors until it's up to snuff.

While that may not have a ton to do with our ideas sucking in the opinion of AS, I think it's part of the frustration we're experiencing.

Josh's response (I hope you don't mind if I add some input here)

The processes being referred to here are agile development for us and waterfall development for Adult Swim, respectively.

It's becoming pretty clear that the waterfall method only works in video games for select cases. That's why you are seeing a pathetic 20% success rate in video games versus the more typical 80% success rate of other media. Most people who analyze such things narrow the causes down to these:

1. The complex nature of video games creates a lot of chaos, which you simply can't plan for. Things go wrong and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

2. The interactive nature of video games creates a huge possibility space for events to occur. When you design a game, it's very difficult to think of all of the possibilities of actions that can occur, all of the problems inherent in those actions, and all of the solutions to those problems.

3. The industry is still in its infancy. We don't have a proven method for designing good games. So far it has been "guess and check."

Agile development tries to solve this by assuming that - whether you blame chaos, limited knowledge of possibility, or lack of established methodology - problems will occur no matter what and that you'll need to rework them to solve them. So get your product out the door as soon as possible to find out what those problems are - "release early." Then, release your product as frequently as you can so that whenever you go to solve your problems, you have as much information as possible about your product to inform your decision - "release often."

The problem with using this process for Adult Swim games is that it doesn't fit well with the website, since it is currently being treated like retail space in a media specialty store like Sam Goody. A small selection of finished, polished products are being presented in a way that assumes those who come across the page will be interested enough to play one or more of the games. The waterfall method will give you a finished, polished product to sell on the "shelf." In order to succeed here with the agile method, though, you need to be late enough in development that you have iterated a few times and came up with a polished product. The question then becomes "Who am I releasing early and often to, then?" And will Adult Swim even allow such a method?

The analogy of the retail space continues. In order to sell units - or in this case, traffic - you need to have an eye-catching cover - or in this case, gameplay video and description. Additionally, the game itself needs to be fun enough that Adult Swim can get more traffic through word-of-mouth advertising from people who have enjoyed it. So these are even two more reasons that it would be more fitting to use the waterfall method.

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