Lessons learned by being The Worst Game Developer
I’m writing a video game. It is called Pebble, and in Pebble, there is a pebble. You contemplate the pebble. I haven’t decided if there is going to be music or not, but there will be a pebble, in a featureless grey expanse, and you can contemplate it.
Just thinking about writing this game has brought me some interesting realizations. I doubt I’m the first one to have them, but it was neat to see how they all fit together.
The first realization is just a recap of things I already knew about developing software: “You’re going to throw the first one away” and “Do the simplest thing that could possibly work”.
When I first came up with the idea for Pebble, it was as a tech demo for Tree, which is similar (There is a tree, you contemplate it), but more complicated, in that a tree is larger. I was going to use level-of-detail (LoD) rendering to support real-time generative zoom from birds-eye to bugs-eye views, store seeds so that the generated versions didn’t change between runs, etc. I read a bunch of papers on the topics, and saw that it was all very complex. I also hadn’t written anything, despite having read a lot of papers and learned a bit.
Eventually, I realized that if I had to load everything I needed to know into my head to write this game, first, I wouldn’t get around to writing it, and second, my head would explode.
Instead of either of those things, I’m writing the simplest bit of code that will draw something on my screen. The first version will draw a polygon, the second version will rotate it, and the third version will texture it. I’m going to have two code streams, one written using openFrameworks and one written using Polycode, so I can decide which of those libraries I’d rather use.
Once both libraries are through three versions, I’ll have the simplest thing that could possibly work, and I’ll throw the other one away.
Another revelation I had is that I don’t really know what pebbles look like. I mean, I have a general idea, but to render a pebble, a general idea doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t capture the variety of surface types that different kinds of weathering can cause, the colors of all the different rocks, and so forth. The reality of pebbles is way more complicated than the idea of pebbles
My girlfriend and I went out on a beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and looked at pebbles. Cape Cod is a terminal moraine, so the rocks there were pushed by glaciers from everywhere north of Cape Cod, and there are loads of different kinds of pebbles there.
This has two effects on my thinking about the design of Pebble, and of video games in general. The first is that the stone surface generation algorithim should be the simplest thing that could possibly work. The second is that AAA games in their current form are doomed.
AAA games have a huge amount of their budget dedicated to resources, such as the textures and designs of the characters. Because the current marketing push in video games is visual, each game is supposed to have better and better graphics than those before it, or people will mock it and it will loose sales. However, this is an infinite pit. Any game world is a map, a less-detailed reperesentation that conveys an impression of a more detailed real world. With real maps, the real world is assumed to also exist, but in games it doesn’t. You run around in Libery City in Grand Theft Auto, but “you” don’t “run” “around”. By pressing buttons, you cause the appearance of motion in a simulated person within a simulated, restricted world. The better the simulation gets, the more resources it requires. In real-world NYC, if you go to Battery Park, you can pick up gravel and throw it in the harbor. In the analogous unplaces in GTA, the ground is a perfect solid, smooth and impenetrable. In order to create a more perfect simulation, there would have to be simulated pebbles, and someone would have to create them.
All of these resources, the pebbles, clothes, guns, car tires, trees, buildings, and so forth in a video game are made by people. These people get paid, and so the more detail you want in a game, the more resources you need, and so the more people you have to pay. Taking longer to make the game doesn’t work, as the technology is constantly shifting, so “more people” is pretty much the only going solution at this point. Even licensing IP from other companies is just an abstraction of getting more people to work on the project.
As a result, the drive is now to make games more and more expensive to make, in order to get finer and finer quality of details that add nothing to the narrative, but make the finished package prettier. However, people are not going to pay hundreds of dollars for a game (except possibly that version of MechWarror that came with a big robot control console), so either the game market has to grow without bound, or the industry has to start putting an upper bound on how much they can invest in making a game.
In a way, I’m hoping Pebble is a signpost on the path of excessive detail, a huge amount of clever rendering algorithims and generative textures in pursuit of the perfect simulation of the experience of contemplating a small stone. Whether the signpost says “Welcome!” or “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” is an exercise for the reader.