Video Game Design: Striving for Perfect v. Good Enough

When is a video game shippable? When it's as perfect as it can be - or when it's good enough to not embarrass a game dev?

More than a few video game designers have a few credits on our resume which we are, shall we say, less than proud of. Let's face it - most of us have a few real stinkers. Nobody sets out to make a bad game but sometimes circumstances dictate otherwise. Video game development is a commercial art. So by definition, game designers struggle to balance the demands of a business alongside their creative aspirations. Eventually, everybody needs to ship or suffer the ignominious fate of Duke Nukem Forever. But the eternal question for game developers is when is the product done?

There are essentially two answers. On the one hand, it's done when it is as good as it can possibly be - or "perfect". And on the other, it's done at the point of being "good enough" - meaning, there are no illusions about perfection.

In the "Perfect" camp, we have Pixar. For those of us who study the workplace cultures of organizations, Pixar stands out as an aspirational ideal. Their track record for delivering products which are both commercial and creative successes is practically unparalleled. The closest in the game industry I can think of is Blizzard (a company that is more than willing to can games which is feels will besmirch its reputation for quality). Pixar, similarly, has the fortitude to go back to the drawing board for projects which they felt just weren't delivering the Pixar magic. The director of Ratatouille was replaced when the film wasn't coming together. Toy Story 2 was famously halted in mid-production, re-written in a weekend and re-worked through a Herculean effort. But the results speak for themselves. Pixar has developed numerous internal processes for catching under-performing efforts and correcting them, not to mention taking good work and juicing it to max. Everything about their company culture is geared towards delivering "perfection".

In the "Good Enough" camp, we have Zynga. The company is practically premised on the "release early, release often" mantra of web software development. Delivering a product in the online space, they are famous for exposing users early to their efforts, getting detailed and scientific feedback and quickly iterating to deliver a new version which is incrementally better. It's is worth remembering that the first version of Farmville was developed and released in a mere five weeks. Interestingly, Zynga is also a company very willing to kill underwhelming efforts. The difference being that Zynga will kill those games which don't demonstrate they are gaining any traction with users. But where Zynga differs from a Pixar is that I doubt they would claim to producing "perfect" games but rather, games which are good enough to demonstrate an idea or feature. And then listen to their users - to both what they say and what they actually do. Which then leads to a new "good enough" release which is an incremental improvement over the previous. Do it enough times and you deliver a game like Farmville which at it's peak commanded the attention of more than 80 million users - a virtual "nation" larger than Germany, France or the United Kingdom.

So ultimately, which is better? To be perfect or good enough?

I doubt anyone can actually answer this questions - but here's my stab at it anyway. I'd wager most video game designers in their heart of hearts want to deliver perfection. They want to be like Pixar - only delivering the most towering and impressive critical and financial successes. In fact, I think most game designers work in exactly this manner. But I also think the business realities are geared towards "good enough". The average executive or producer would probably admit they'd rather have an on-time, on-budget "good enough" project rather than one that chases the elusive goal of "perfect". This is despite the fact that you can see a direct correlation between games with very high meta-critic ratings and their commercial success.

And I think it's the clash of ideals that causes the problem. When video game designers are chasing perfection when their leadership would be more happy with "good enough", problems ensue. The thing about Pixar and Zynga is that everyone seems to be rowing the boat in the same direction.

And I think its worth noting - it takes enormous discipline to deliver on perfection. It demands a culture of unyielding - and perhaps ruthless - honesty. It's not something that many organizations, not to mention most video game designers, have the stomach to stand. So if you're not willing to pay the very steep price for perfection - maybe you'd better adjust your thinking and start targeting the less-grandiose but likely more achievable "good enough".

- Sean Dugan is The Boss Monster’s founding editor and all-too-frequent contributor.

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Image by Julia Manzerova

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