Development, Popular Notions

Third Lebanon War is undeveloped in the sense that, after initial testing, it was the designer who made tweaks, not a third party; NWL, however, was submitted to Modern Warfare, provisionally accepted for publication, assigned a developer, who in turn requested subsequent tweaks from the designer (among them to reduce the number of die rolls) and then ignored some while and adding others of his own. Then in-house testing presumably took place. At least this much can be surmised from the back and forth between designer Brian Train and developer Eric Harvey, who shares something of his reasoning:

All in all, I can only suggest that we agree to disagree, and I’m sorry that your game as originally submitted was not exactly suitable for the magazine-game customer that wants games with less complexity.

Fair enough. This tallies with a popular notion of what a manual game developer does and even includes a slight dose of condescension as a bonus. Players and/or customers often employ holistic, naturalistic metaphors which seem inappropriate for the discipline. A design might be caused to grow and differentiate along lines natural to its kind, but I rarely see evidence of such tender, botanical care, certainly not in 3LW/NWL’s case. Modern Warfare knows what its subscribers want to see and will accordingly modify games to gratify them. Call it a Shoehorn Approach.

Not pictured are the attachment of artificial limbs, unnecessary counters, plastic squirrels, ambiguous rules, muddy topology, and yellow ribbons.

The real use of any definition is to complain in a more convincing fashion. Wargame development must be some very odd pornography indeed, if not for the narrow clientele, then for its slippery definition. What could there be beyond “I know wargame development when I see it.”? The following is a survey of game players’ understanding of development. A recent thread on Boardgame Geek supplies a decent handlist of development metaphors, many of which are dysfunctional.

Sometimes, the designer-developer working relationship is author to editor, screenwriter to director, musician to music producer, and finally the arcane theater director to dramaturge. Sometimes, developing games is likened to forging a sword. The designer is the metal and the developer is the hammer. The developer must have a strong hand, I guess. Or maybe the designer is a crazed artist while the developer wipes his chin and remains the knowing, sober judge of the designer’s real worth. This is a needlessly arrogant image and every variation comes with an unnecessary reminder that there is real money at stake for the publisher. If this bougie-romantic image had much truth to it, there would be want ads in every game magazine for game developers. Judging by 3LW/NWL, mediocre development seems to have been priced into Modern Warfare‘s cover price.  That a designer comes up with the mechanisms and a developer turns the game into physical product limits both roles and seems unlikely to produce a game with richer nuance. Call it the Do-No-Harm approach.

The old saw about design. “You may choose two.” My opinion? Glad you asked. “Slow down, already!”

Better notions of development seem to issue from actual experience and stress its cooperative nature, where the best development is done by playtesting teams. Maybe a developer has a limited role in creation, mostly acting as an agent of the publisher to see that the game is finished. Nobody says that development isn’t a worthwhile process but, even when minimally functional, it might not be an experience anyone would want to repeat with certain developers; it seems that good development is necessarily diplomatic.

The real economic constraint on all aspects of gaming is always time, expressed as the opportunity cost of playing one game over another. Successful game companies capable of bringing new ideas to market and advancing the idiom know what they mean by development. Others observe that the overabundance of wargames at this writing owes to a shortage of decent, experienced developers. Some designers strive, but do not hurry, to deliver fully-developed games. Call it the Simmons standard. Discussion of financial risk is often very overheated. If a publisher is taking existential risks every time he runs the presses, then he is doing it wrong and won’t be around long anyway. Publishing of any sort, traditionally, is a long-term losing proposition. I do not doubt for a minute that publishers who are concerned about risk are currently slowing their production. The problem is that the market has been an absorbing an ever-increasing number of games and, for the past decade or so, various publishers have seen this as a production problem, not a development one. So many mediocre games have been produced that they obscured the good ones.

Curiously, throughout my survey nobody raised the role physical proximity plays in effective development. Just as American publishing is unimaginable without New York City, one cannot really imagine the critical nexus of SPI circa 1980 in, say, Fort Worth. Nor could Avalon Hill be imagined anywhere other than in the greater Washington DC area. Physical proximity and access to a critical mass of playtesters, brings with it a charge of speed and creativity difficult to maintain otherwise, even via the Internet.

What do publishers themselves expect of development? Survey continues in the next post.

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