Killing Your Babies

2 Feb

‘Kill your babies’ is a literary term that means to never get too attached to any particular iteration of your work, because you’ll probably have to change those things in order to get the end result you want.

This previous weekend I was a participant in Vancouver’s Game Jam, and while this tennet was mentioned, its importance in practice was underplayed.

There was lots of talk on our newly assembled team about the designers’ “commitment” to the game after drawing up another iteration of the current paper prototype.  Some people had it about them that the original pitch was to be prototyped and, whether it turned out to be fun or not aside, simply digitized.  Disaster ensued.

The saying is from the literary world, and that means you have to pay careful attention to the meaning of the words.  Kill.  Your.  Babies.  Babies are your offspring; they’re carrying on your spirit, making sure your genetics stay in the pool.  The same can be said for a game idea; it represents you because it carries a bit of you with the design, shows your character.  It is atrocious to kill one’s own baby, but you have to do it in order to get the best.  Think of it like making babies until you got one that was ‘just right’, and that was the only baby to live.  Sometimes that baby will come along right away, but when it doesn’t you need to get rid of it and try again.

It surprises me that the concept seems as absurd to some people as the literal interpretation would to anyone.

Maybe the problem lies within the word iteration.  This is the definition I would apply to game design.

Also called successive approximation. a problem-solving or computational method in which a succession of approximations, each building on the one preceding, is used to achieve a desired degree of accuracy.

My fear is that, like ‘innovation’, iteration has become a buzzword that aspiring designers pick up and mimic back to more experienced developers, not knowing exactly what it means, not being told because they mimic its use so well.  

Good game design requires — and always seems to divide people into — three parties.  There are the Optimists, the Pragmatists, and the Neutrals.  I’ll prove the point using an example.

A small team is standing around some sort of a prototype, let’s say it’s a paper prototype for a platformer.  The Optimists will ask what everyone thinks.  The Pragmatists will say it needs to be worked on or a new prototype needs to be made with some major changes.  The Optimists will say that this first prototype will work and no time can be wasted talking about it.  The Neutrals are usually the tiebreakers.  Whoever can appeal to ‘the rest of the team’ will probably end up getting their way.  Most often the Pragmatists garner the support of the Neutrals, but when the Optimists win out there can be terrible consequences.

And I say this because, as any writer will tell you about first drafts, the first draft of a videogame is never good.  A team needs to realize that there is an iterative process they can follow to change and evolve the game into something very near the best it can be.  A game can never improve if the Optimists are convinced that the first prototype will work, even if it doesn’t pass the ‘fun’ test.  Because every game idea can be envisioned and made, but that doesn’t guarantee it will be any good.

So if you’re working on anything iterative, a videogame or a piece of writing, don’t attach yourself to an idea that will hold you back.  Get rid of it and carry on; don’t be an Optimist right away.

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5 Responses to “Killing Your Babies”

  1. Duncan February 4, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    Personally I like Kyle Gabler advice in the Global Game Jam keynotes. Don’t get too attached to ideas in the first place. The less attached you are to an idea the more able you are to step away from the original concept and toward something that is actually fun to play.

  2. whattoputherehmm February 5, 2009 at 12:14 am #

    Pics of the ordeal?

  3. nickhalme February 5, 2009 at 12:23 am #

    You can find some pics here http://ggjvancouver09.blogspot.com/

  4. Miko Wilson February 8, 2009 at 6:54 am #

    Duncan, can you link us to the game that you helped out on? VFS game design from across the pond! Yahoey!

  5. justonemoregame February 9, 2009 at 1:57 am #

    Great post. (found you via the “GGJ tag” from my blog, if you’re interested) Oh, and your other GGJ post – from the lecturer asking “Why weren’t you there?” – was gutsy stuff.

    I’d love to have been involved in my local GGJ (I’m in Newcastle, Australia) But sadly, the only Aussie event was in Perth – a 5 hr plane trip away.

    Undeterred, I was able to e-interview the organiser, and source some interesting stories, photos & screenshots.
    http://justonemoregame.wordpress.com/2009/02/08/perths-pizza-powered-programmers/

    Oh, and any tips for a blogger who’s only been going for 2 months – are always appreciated. 🙂

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