Monday, April 7, 2014

The Miserable Plight of Producers Who Know Best

Right now, I would sincerely, very sincerely, like to write something on agile design, but as that is just too damn close to where I am in the book right now, I have to let that go.

The regular reader will have noticed that I haven't written a straight post since last Wednesday, and it would be fair to assume that that's because I've been busy and I haven't had time and that I've been putting my resources towards other things and so on.  That would be total bullshit, but it's a fair assumption.

The real issue would be that since Wednesday, I have been unable to stop thinking of new ways to write Wednesday's post again.  I am myself still geeking out over the philosophical premise I advanced ... and if I had written a post yesterday or Friday or any time before now, I would have hammered on the points I'd already made to no real purpose.

The best I can manage at this time is to discuss something else Clay Shirky said just five months ago, while talking about agile design and the crash and burn of Obama's .gov website for health care.  It was regarding the expectation of producing a program for the general public that would be perfect for launch-day, and how the idea that 'failure is not an option' is an idea that no engineer would embrace, as depicted in the film Apollo 13.  The error was that the government withheld everything about the .gov launch until the last possible moment, with the expectation that it would be 'perfect' upon launch, and of course it wasn't.  Public tests were not made, the disaster was augmented by the President's poor choice of speech on the day of the launch and the whole thing proved to be an unmitigated mess ... primarily because it was envisioned as something that would happen all at once, and thus make a sweeping change.

The alternative that Shirky argues, and indeed that most any engineer would argue, is that the process needs to be halted - however painful that is - as often as it needs to be halted, that failure IS an option, indeed, an expectation, and that ad hoc dates need to be suspended over the course of the product being made right.  As Shirky says, would you rather jump from the first floor forty times, or from the 40th floor once.  Too often, we're still thinking of product launches in terms of jumping from the 40th floor and hoping that we'll fly.

The reader should, from that, be able to conceive of the post that then goes on to talk about how the game world needs to be constructed in dimensions of one first-floor addition at a time, instead of trying to make the whole world at once and launch it, but I already said, I'm not talking about agile design.  Instead, I'm going to make Shirky's point again, pedantically, because damn it that's where I am right now.

The problem is, I think, that people perceive the launch of anything in the way that performances are prepared.  The cast is gathered, they're taught their lines, the scenes are blocked and the various aspects of the production are created and finished for Opening Night.  Before the curtain goes up, there is great tension from the need to give a perfect performance.  That is because everyone knows, from Hollywood if from no place else, that if the critics don't like the performance, the show will close and everyone will have to go back to dishwashing or drywalling.

It is actually a lot of shit, and particularly funny shit in the fact that Hollywood and the movies repeatedly portrays the theatrical stage in these terms mainly because the stage is competition.  It is, incidentally, the same reason that television and the movies are so repeatedly ridiculous about their depiction of the internet and computer games - there's a financial reason to downplay, for the audience, any reason to be interested in those obviously dumb and ridiculous things.  Movies and their portrayal of theatre is no different.

Remember that the movies are all about doing it until you get it right.  Thus it seems poignant to point out that theatre is obviously a lot less practical, because you can't do another take and if you don't do it perfect, the critics close you down and you all go home.

Plays in the good old days did not, however, actually open on Broadway (though they do now, which is probably why so many of them are so crappy).  What they used to do was open in Cincinnati, or Cleveland, or Buffalo, where presumably the hicks lived, and where the show and its cast could be tested.  Plays, particularly comedies, take more than rehearsing to an empty house to sort out and reach their peak quality. Timing, staging, the reliability of the performers and so on are things that can take months to smooth out ... and the best place to do that was in some reasonably sized city where an audience could be obtained as guinea pigs for an expected number of bad performances while things were improved.  Once everyone in Buffalo said the play was crap, the idea was then to move on and insult everyone in Peoria, Indianapolis and Schnectady, until the play started to get some positive local reviews in time for it to move to either Philadelphia or Boston, the last stop before it hit New York.

So, in effect, plays were, like computer programs, tested first, until they were finally put on stage in the only city that really mattered.  New York mattered because people came from all over the country, and from across the Pond, to visit New York, where they would take in a play.  People did not come from all over the country to see a play in Kalamazoo, so it didn't matter if the play bombed there.

Here's what I'm saying, that will not be included in the book.  If you're going to make a world, than what you want to do is drag your world over to some venue, preferably in Utica, because its a funny sounding name for a city, and have a bunch of people who don't matter, and about whom you don't give a fuck, play in it and give you feedback.  Then, make changes.  That's the critical part.  Make Changes.  When people in Syracuse or Waterbury didn't laugh at the neck-tie scene in the 2nd Act, they changed the necktie scene or they got rid of it.  They didn't say, "Well, the neck-tie scene worked in my opinion, the people of Waterbury just don't understand quality theatre."  Well, some people said that.  People who then went on to become plumbers and car salesmen after their producing careers ended in a sad, miserable, empty-theatre mess.

But, I know, the reader is not going to do that.  Because if there's any argument that's out there that will never change, it is that DMs know best.  Even if the table empties of players.  The DM always knows best.


James said...

I know a friend of a friend who was designing a tabletop game. He spent years on the project, running campaigns for his friends and tweaking things constantly. Then he tried bringing it to strangers.

The game bombed, because in all the editing it had become completely incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't been playing it for years. He ended up abandoning the project shortly thereafter, but what you say reminds me of that, though as a tangential point.

It would be interesting to be able to test our worlds (as DMs) with new players, just to see what works and what doesn't. Hell, with the internet, it is even feasible. But we won't, not really.

Empty houses never boo.

Dan Thomas said...

The old Engineering adage for Projects:
- Quality/Safety
- Resources
- Schedule
Pick two. The third is derived.
Try to pick three = project fail.

For a DM creating a game:
- Resoure is the DM himself, plus maybe play testers
- Quality is the DM's
- Schedule is the open variable