The truth about cake

   22/10/2010 at 20:03       Derek Littlewood       11 COMMENTS.
 - Eggbox Interactive, Derek Littlewood, Game Developer, Industry-Insider, The truth about the cake

Games are, as Portal so capably demonstrated, all a big lie.  About cake. At their very best it's easy to fall enthusiastically under the illusion that maybe the world really does extend to the horizon and beyond - and that you can actually get there too - or that every single character that you pass is a genuine, thinking being, as brilliant and flawed as ourselves.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this - most entertainment is illusory, and illusion has always made great entertainment.  The trick, as a game developer, is twofold: one, to ensure that the player never sees beyond the illusion; and two, to never start believing the illusion yourself.

The reason the illusion is so vital is because it contributes so significantly to the player's sense of immersion; seeing the exposed, spinning cogs of a game engine at work is akin to watching a magician stuffing a rabbit under the hidden base of his hat in terms of how much it detracts from the experience of watching them.  And it's for this reason that it is an entirely honourable pursuit for any games developer to beg, cheat and steal in every way they can think of in order to lie convincingly to the player.

I'll never fail to be amazed at the bare faced cheek with which some developers achieve this. Perhaps my favourite, recounted by one of my ex-FRD colleagues from their experience developing GoldenEye, was the way one of the very first guards you encounter in the game runs and presses an alarm button upon spotting the player.  This caused the vast majority of gamers to not unreasonably credit the AI with the remarkable intelligence to raise the alarm in case of an emergency. And yet, in truth there are just a handful of places in the game where this happens, and every single one is pre-scripted.  It's simply that the illusion created by this first encounter is so bewitching that it stays with the player for the rest of the game.

It would take an especially zealous or attention-deficit gamer to claim that the many and various lies woven in front of them don't fail at some point or other.  We've all been there - that (hopefully brief) glimpse 'behind the scenes' (or, if you'd prefer a more colourful metaphor, 'up the skirts') of the game engine, whether it be characters running into walls/round in circles, or the level giving way to the ETERNAL ABYSS (otherwise known as the sky box).

In my experience, many gamers are quite remarkably forgiving of this phenomenon, even to the extent of devising apparently legitimate explanations for them.  In one case I witnessed a gamer helpfully dismiss a bug in TimeSplitters 2, where an AI character was continuing to shoot another AI character who was very much already dead, as instead being demonstration of an advanced AI behaviour where the aggressor was 'going in for afters'.  (Also an excellent bit of phrase coinage, I thought).

It's always nice to see gamers so readily buying into the illusion that you're trying to sell them as a developer, mainly because your resources, time and hardware are always limited.  Even if you're Valve, or Team ICO, or any one of the other handful of extremely privileged developers in the industry that genuinely has true creative freedom with their work; even they cannot do everything they would like to, because there is only so much memory, only so many processor cycles, and ultimately, only so much time.

The solution to this problem is simply to accept that your game is imperfect.  There are some things it will not do well, and there are some it will not do at all. These are the things you have to muster all of the smoke and mirrors at your disposal in order to hide, with the end result being a game that only does a few things, but looks as though it does a lot more.

And this brings me to to the second, more serious problem, because it's only when the developer starts to believe their own illusion – that the game really can do everything, and it really can be perfect – that things start to go really wrong, for this way lies madness, and more to the point, missed deadlines and budget forecasts that make for upsetting bedtime reading.

This isn't to excuse bugs and cut corners; as I suggested earlier, any glimpse behind the scenes is a dent to the player's immersion, but there is a significant difference between knowing your game is imperfect and limited, whilst making it appear otherwise, and actually trying to make something that is perfect and limitless.

To even start thinking that you really can make an AI character that thinks for itself, or render an entire world down to an infinitesimal level of detail, let alone actually telling other people about it, is a dangerous habit to get into, not just because gamers tend to be pretty unforgiving of projects that over-promise and under-deliver, but also because it is an inevitability that your engine, the hardware it runs on, and the people actually making the thing, can't work miracles.  Have the cake or eat it, in other words - but don't try both.

Derek Littlewood is a experienced videogame designer and producer, and runs Eggbox Interactive. 

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