Learning From Other Industries

Todd Howard, video game producer of Fallout 3 and Skyrim, gave the opening keynote at D.I.C.E. 2012. I have never played either of these games, but I know what they are and where they come from. Their success in the modern industry of gaming is of profound interest not only for just the product and experience in gaming that they deliver, but moreover, how these teams are brought together, how they work in order to produce them. Todd had some very good observations about software development in the gaming industry which apply to engineering and any creative effort. I wanted to expand on his ideas with some of my own.

“Define the Experience, not the features.”

As engineers or designers, we often get trapped by lists of features and the cingulated, dirty specifics of what individual pieces should be brought into the design or solution. Todd’s approach is to define the experience. This is how the interaction should feel; these are how the elements come together. He would often take a single image or a brief sketch and say, this is what this aspect of the game should be like–leaving the entire details of fulfillment up to his team of designers. This would capture the essence of what was wanted without stifling the creative effort or give a trite list of limiting perspectives.

Keep it simple.

This should be the adage of engineering. I was once told by an inveterate engineer that a sign of new engineer is putting too much complexity. It is better to engineer for simplicity. Simplicity will be easier to maintain and more flexible.

Doing things right will take far longer than you expect.
“We can do anything, we just can’t do everything.”

There are two ideas wrapped up in these statements. The first is to always put confidence in your team. We can do anything. This is the motto that should always be upheld and acknowledged. Possibilities are endless–there is just a limited amount of time to cover the things that you want and to do things right will always take more time than what you expect.

Great games are played, not made.

In Todd’s words, “Get to a working design faster in order to create more ‘opportunity time'”. I would apply this idea to engineering this way: Engineering is the functional product. When engaged in the process of making something, use it–make prototypes and try it out. The more use something gets, the better known it becomes. The better known something becomes the better someone can know how to improve on it. Prototype Prototype Prototype. You’ll learn more the first day of prototyping than weeks of preparation.

Admitting mistakes is essential.

Mistakes will be made. It is important to acknowledge them and more importantly–to know what needs to be changed in order to move forward. Make mistakes, but never make the same mistake. Learn quickly and move forward. There is no sense in worrying about admitting mistakes, error is unavoidable. It is by far more important and a better use of effort to acknowledge and move forward.

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