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Iterating Games to an Evolutionary Dead-End

May 9, 2013

I wrote before about how evolving fun was a key concept of how games work now in a networked environment. We are seeing this writ-large in free-to-play and other areas. While a powerful method it also has its dangers:

Evolution is efficient to the point of stupidity. Incremental change is, by its nature, about the minimum effort in to get the maximum result. Thus it moves blindly along a path bit by bit unable to see that this route may lead to strange results because by the time the mistake is realised, the energy required to change what was once minor is now so major that it is simply not evolutionarily feasible to drive the alterations needed. The Giraffe laryngeal nerve is the classic example of this. In games we will see titles that appear to be successful and yet under the bonnet have major structural or design issues that are not apparent in the current environment, but a small shift in the play-space will result in exposure of these issues and so create major upheaval out of proportion to the environmental change.

So it was with great interest that I read Tadhg Kelly’s article on The Scientism Delusion. It’s an excellent article and well worth reading the whole thing. It shows another danger of the iterative approach – that by doing what others do, you just increase the competition you face as you all head for the same green pastures:

Formulaic thinking is incredibly common in the games industry. It comes largely from an engineering mindset, which is unsurprising given how closely developing games and software have always been linked. In software every application is essentially trying to solve a problem by providing features, and over time an application builds into a suite of features that users like. And sometimes the resulting applications become so over-complicated that a new developer reinvents them for simplicity, and the cycle begins again. It almost seems scientific.

What I’m talking about is understanding the difference between the act of creation and the process of creation. Of course you should be iterating. Of course you should be evaluating and playtesting and trying to figure out what will make your game fun. Of course you should be looking at the market and trying to find the right approach to get where you want to be. But the thing you should not be doing is following others’ successes to the letter on the cod-understanding that that constitutes a scientific approach. All it is is a fearful approach.

All creative industries exist in a tension of seeking the formula that works, as creativity is inherently risky, yet is doomed to fail in finding this formula, because creativity is inherently risky. See this example from theatre to see what I mean.

Video: Dawkins’s Biomorphs evolve to please us visually…

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