November 19, 2009

Do Great Games Take A Decade?

Jamie Fristrom reminded me of an old Joel Spolsky article which claims that any major piece of software takes 10 years of development time to really get good.

The part of Joel's post that really intrigued me at first was the idea of purposely having a small launch, so that only the die-hard early adopters would be around to see the problems that you've shoved out the door.

I've mentioned this before, when discussing how EVE and WAR arrived at 300k subscribers by such different paths:

EVE had a very small playerbase to witness its early its mistakes. It actually had a fairly troubled launch: It reviewed much more poorly (with a 69 Metacritic) than WAR did (with it's 86 Metacritic). But nobody remembers that, because nobody was playing it. EVE corrected many of its problems while it still had a very small userbase of devoted players, before trying to reach out to a larger market. WAR probably made fewer mistakes with its launch, but it made them in front of many many more people.
What's especially impressive, though, is that many of those early adopters have been remarkably loyal to the game to this day. I saw an interview recently where CCP's CEO stated that ~20% of EVE's subscribers from its launch month (May 2003) are STILL subbed to the game.

This makes me think that a small launch strategy might be the way to go (although I doubt many other companies would have the discipline to pull it off).

[Did anybody else see that video? I'm having no luck finding it again.]

The part of the article that is haunting me, though, is the idea that it takes ten years for a piece of software to really mature. It struck me as a bit ridiculous at first, as something that only makes sense for something huge like an operating system. However, the more I think of it, the more examples I notice of games that fit this profile.

Ten year juggernauts

At first it sounds a little crazy that it would take a game 10 years to really hit its stride, but our first instinct is to only think of the time that a game has been live, not the years of development before release.

CCP was founded in 1997, and developed a board game "in its first three years" to help finance EVE. I can't find anything specifically stating when EVE's development began, but it seems to have been sometime 1999 or 2000. EVE is now a ten year old piece of software.

As of this month, so is World of Warcraft, according to Rob Pardo:

But if you do want to try to be that No.1 MMO, it's hard, because not only are you going up against the five years of development we had, you're up against five more years of development that we've had since the game launched.
I find this interesting because from what I've seen so far of the Catyclysm expansion and its revamp of all the old content, I think this will be the year that WoW finally reaches its full potential.


Team Fortress 2 is also a ten-year game. What we now know as TF2 began development in either 1998 or 1999, depending on how you look at it. The timelines on this one are a bit confusing, since TFC was actually a spinoff of an even earlier TF2 incarnation(!), and development may have been suspended for some amount of time, but ten years of linear time have definitely passed.

I also think it took until this year for TF2 to really grow into itself. The class balancing, new gameplay modes, unlockable weapons, and achievements would be sorely missed if the game were reverted to its launch day state. Once the final classes receive their updates next year, I expect the game to feel really complete.

Everquest II is an interesting example, because its launch was a bit rough but its live team is often said to have drastically improved the game in the years since then. I know some people who have tried or returned to the game recently and who have been really blown away by how much they like it.

I can't find any exact info about when development began, but Everquest's success resulted in the formation of SOE in 2000, I'm guessing that game will soon reach its 10 year milestone as well.

So, what do you think of all this? Does it really take that 10 years for these huge software projects to become great? Would you invest that much time into a game if you knew it could be as great as EVE, WoW, or TF2?

I'm beginning to think I would.

[Edit: Eolirin in the comments pointed me towards a great post on a similar topic from Bill Harris. I particularly like his term "inkblot" to describe the slow process of games gaining quality, players, and notoriety.]

36 comments:

Stabs said...

It seems to me more complex than that.

WoW's success in the last three years where it has grown and grown is only partly because the game experience is improving.

It's also because the product is reaching people who had never considered a MMO before.

Co-workers are mentioning MMOs to their colleagues more these days whereas before they would have kept their gaming a guilty secret.

Children are being exposed to MMOs like Wizard101 and Free Realms and naturally move on to WoW as they out-grow those games.

WoW's localisations in China and Russia were highly successful.

All of these cultural phenomena, reaching out to untapped markets will not be repeatable in quite the same way for future games.
(Although possibly innovative industry people will come up with other ways to tap into new markets).

Another big point for both WoW and Eve (I don't know about TF2) is that they are so good at harnessing player programming talent. This effectively means they have an additional pool of hundreds of unpaid developers whose work gets QA-ed by the public.
(eg http://wow.curse.com/downloads/wow-addons/default.aspx
and
http://www.eveonline.com/ingameboard.asp?a=channel&channelID=3525 )

Not every game is developed by its fans and that seems to me to be a key part of these titles' longevity.

Lastly the ten year figure seems arbitrary. Won't these games still be great next year? Weren't they great games already last year? So why not nine or eleven years?

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

Hirvox said...

Another big point for both WoW and Eve (I don't know about TF2) is that they are so good at harnessing player programming talent.
The Team Fortress franchise as a whole owes it's existence to ID Software's decision to make Quake highly moddable, even more so than Doom was. The first Team Fortress was a 100% fan-made total conversion of Quake, and they have continued to benefit from fan-made programming and content ever since. And Valve is by no means the only company founded and run by player programmers..

Eolirin said...

I think it's "about" right, as a rule of thumb. But it doesn't always work that way.

If you look at where UO or SWG went, you can see that it's just as easy to break a piece of software in the process as it is to mature it properly.

I do think that your assessment on small launches is not only spot on, it's really the only bit of hope for any company that's NOT Activison Blizzard or EA. You're not going to be able to compete against WoW, or (probably) SWTOR without the sorts of resources that only Blizzard and Bioware have (Well, maybe ArenaNet can pull it off, but those guys are sharp). So it needs to be smaller, and targeted to an underrepresented niche, and you need to know how to improve what you started with rather than making it worse over time instead.

You need a really coherent kernel of gameplay that you can build on, and you absolutely need the right team, but you can build something long running with that I think.

XIX said...

How about, If something manages to survive 10years of active development, it's probably good.

Unless its windows.

Eolirin said...

Btw Mike, I was skiming through this other blog I like a lot, and I noticed this old post that seems like it has some resonance with what you're talking about here. I can't link it directly (the month is as close as I can get), but it's the one titled The Inkblot.

http://dubiousquality.blogspot.com/2008_01_01_archive.html

Crimson Starfire said...

Great post!

Good game graphics are only really important for the launch of the game. After that it's all about the gameplay. This is where older games have the advantage. They've been fine tuning their gameplay to perfection for years.

I thought WoW would have been succeeded within two years of it's launch, but it's still going strong. I used to hate the game (primarly for its business model), but if it keeps getting better I might even end up playing it again. No sense in playing one of the new WoW clones (WAR, Aion etc) when you can just play the original minus the 40,000 launch issues.

I'm all for a small launch with gradual improvements to ultimately be rewarded with a high quality game. Game companies just need to recognise that time is their friend, not their enemy. The best testers and game designers are in fact their user base, not their in house staff. After all, the staff aren't paying to play the game.

golergka said...

After some experience with free2play titles that get no hype from press and are ready at about 20% on the time of release to the public (open beta) I'm surely agreed with you on the launch issue; MMO developers that are hyping their game prior to release don't stop surprising me: are they trying to sell boxes or sell their service (in form of subscription or RMT)?

On the other hand, I wouldn't be so sure that 10 years are required for any great piece software or any really good game. We can remember A LOT of great software and games that were developed in a few years, or even faster than one year, I'm sure. I think it only applies to really ambitious titles, such as Eve (which is really a unique online game) or software juggernauts like Excel or Windows.

Mike Darga said...

Yeah, I'm definitely playing devil's advocate a bit here. A game won't be amazing in even 50 years if it's not moving in the right direction to begin with.

All three of the games I mention were already great after 5 years, but each of them has some significant things coming online nowish that make them seem "complete" in a way that they never did before:

WoW's 0-60 revamp and finally fixed LFG tool. It occurs to me that WoW can't really get much better after that without resolving its fundamental confusion between being a PvP and PvE game. I'm sure it will still improve, but Cataclysm seems to be the biggest missing piece.

Likewise, EVE's new sovereignty system and wormholes seem to be a big missing piece. Including Dust 514 may be the moment that EVE feels "complete," or at least starts a whole new era.

TF2, aside from its problems with the item drop system, will be a complete game to me when the class updates are finished (next year?). The new gameplay modes have been really huge as well. I can't imagine playing TF2 without payload.

I'm sure these games will all continue to get better and better, but there does seem to be something about them as they stand at the ~10 year mark. I guess the way to phrase is is that it seems like the developers could stop working on them pretty soon and they'd be in a really good place.

Mike Darga said...

By the way, I really think you guys have a great point that involving your playerbase is really one thing that these great games have in common.

WoW is constantly adopting improvements which showed up originally in mods.

EVE has altered its design drastically in response to player behavior, and the CSM is taking that concept even further.

TF2 is taking community made maps and releasing them as part of the official game, which is great for everybody involved.

Having players on board with your success like that is a really great thing and its importance probably can't be overestimated.

@eo: I'll check out the link, thanks.

I definitely agree, deciding how much to try and emulate WoW is definitely the game design crisis of this decade. We're not doing a very good job of deciding how to do that, and I'd like to talk about that in greater depth soon.

Eolirin said...

I look forward to seeing your response to the WoW emulation problem, since I have a few ideas of my own with regard to that :)

But to make a broader point of it, it's not just WoW. Right now the games industry as a whole seems to be diverging into a handful of paradigms and the one where the most money is being funneled is really struggling with this issue in a general sense: How much time do you spend chasing something that's already proven, already hugely successful, and already has a strong lock on a specific market? How much does it have to be like Modern Warfare 2, or Grand Theft Auto, or Final Fantasy, or whatever the "big thing" in the genre you're working in is?

The above group is really what you usually think about when you think "gaming" but there are alternatives:

You've got the indies, who just make games and don't try to be anything else, and all of the difficulties that crop up as a result of small budgets and no marketing.

And then you've got the social games people, and the web guys, and their vector is pretty untested in terms of sustainability, but is certainly interesting.

You can't do the same sorts of projects with them of course, but maybe that's not such a bad thing.

I think the big problem right now is that none of this really hooks up, none of it really interacts. You've got these different ways of doing things, and there's no synergy, no interplay. I really think we could use some structural reformation, where you can move between those areas, where you can do your huge AAA games, and then apply some of that to the social space and build some community driven stuff around it, and then take a break and move into some indie type experimentation, and then leverage that back up in the other direction.

I think EA is kind of starting to move in that direction, so it'll be interesting to see how it works out, and I think they're still probably not going to get it "quite" right... I don't think they're necessarily developer centric enough. But I think that whoever manages to get that to work right is really going to be the ones who manage to put out the most interesting stuff, and who manage to push their developers to the limits of their creativity.

Wow, that was much longer than I intended. Heh. Maybe I should start that blog after all ;p

Hirvox said...

I think the big problem right now is that none of this really hooks up, none of it really interacts. You've got these different ways of doing things, and there's no synergy, no interplay. I really think we could use some structural reformation, where you can move between those areas, where you can do your huge AAA games, and then apply some of that to the social space and build some community driven stuff around it, and then take a break and move into some indie type experimentation, and then leverage that back up in the other direction.

The FPS companies have been doing exactly that for the last 15 years or so.

1) FPS company releases it's new AAA title (like Quake or Unreal Tournament), complete with dedicated server support, map editors and API documentation.

2) Players set up a range of servers catering to different tastes. Communities form around the servers and ideas start to get swapped around.

3) Ideas coalesce, and player developers come up with custom maps, custom models and even custom gameplay. For example, Capture the Flag and Team Fortress started up like this.

4a) The FPS company absorbs the cream of the crop into it's own workforce. ID absorbed the Capture the Flag team, Valve absorbed the Team Fortress guys.

4b) Player developers set up their own game companies. They have plenty of experience with a game engine, so they license it and build a full game with it. Valve bought rights to Quake 2, modified it and the result was.. Half-Life, an AAA title on it's own right.

5) Go to 1). Repeat.

Eolirin said...

Hirvox, player mods aren't *quite* what I was talking about. You're too stifled by the base that you build from, and there's not enough crossover from hobbyist to professional that way either.

Don't get me wrong, I think modding is hugely important, and I think looking at the modding structure could lead to some important insights on this issue, but what I'm looking for runs quite a bit deeper than that. It's more about asking "What can World of Goo teach us about how to make really huge, complex, AAA games?"

You can get some of that via FPS modding (L4D grew out of a simple experiment with a CS mod), but it's not ideally suited for it either; it's too narrow.

Hirvox said...

Hirvox, player mods aren't *quite* what I was talking about. You're too stifled by the base that you build from, and there's not enough crossover from hobbyist to professional that way either.
Stifled how? Like you couldn't turn an FPS into a platformer? Or a racing game? On the commercial side, there's MMOs and RPGs. Granted, completely rewriting the gameplay ruleset does require quite a bit of work, so that's somewhat unlikely to work as a community effort unless the idea itself is extremely strong. But I don't see any way around that in any development model.

Matthew Gallant said...

I think the iterative process of making sequels fulfils a similar role. Halo 3 is ~6 years older than Halo: Combat Evolved; Halo 4 may hit the hallowed 10 year mark. Bungie will continue to react to player feedback and metrics, making small perfecting modifications in each sequel.

Isn't Halo then also a 10 year old game, broken up into successive massive sequel "patches"? Or do you feel that the process that these MMOs use is fundamentally different?

Mike Darga said...

That's a really excellent point Matthew. By that criterion, Halo,
Halflife, The Sims, and Call of Duty are all ten year games.

I should have thought of this actually, because I remember reading at one point that TF2 was really on it's third from-stratch iteration by the time it was released.

Valve effectively made two games that weren't as good beforehand, but just had the luxury of never releasing them.

Eolirin said...

Hirvox, it's more about the gameplay mechanics. It'd be easier and better to take a display engine and then do all the coding work for the gameplay elements than to mod an FPS into something else. You can do it, but it's harder than it needs to be.

Graphical engine middleware is one thing, modding existing games is another.

Hirvox said...

Hirvox, it's more about the gameplay mechanics. It'd be easier and better to take a display engine and then do all the coding work for the gameplay elements than to mod an FPS into something else. You can do it, but it's harder than it needs to be.
But the point is that the latest releases from ID, Epic and Valve are display engines that come with generic modules like physics and networking, and are bundled with FPS gameplay and art assets. You're either going to throw code away or not get it in first place if you want to do something that is not an FPS.

So.. how do you propose to make game development easier without tying the game into a specific genre? What should the game companies do that they aren't already doing? And why is it in their own self-interest to do it?

Eolirin said...

They should take a page out of Google's book and create Independent Development labs where employees can randomly work on stuff for a portion of their time. Just mess around. Get a few people together and build, from the ground up, smaller games, during some scheduled off-time.

And they should focus more on leveraging IP and design up and down the scale from mobile and social games to AAA games, with stuff in between. (Like EA is starting to do)

The first of those two things leads to a culture of innovation, the benefits of which should be self-evident; you never know where the next big idea is going to come from. The more ideas you have being incubated the more likely you are to stumble into an idea that leads to the next Sims.

The second one is just plain good business sense.

We also need to be paying greater attention to what lessons we can learn about the genres and subfields we're working on from different genres and subfields, and there's really not enough of that either. People really need to stop and think about what a light casual flash game can teach them about making a big complex MMO. If you think hard enough about it, there's a LOT more there than you'd give credit for on first blush.

Hirvox said...

Ah, you're focusing more on the idea generation side, not refining and implementation.

They should take a page out of Google's book and create Independent Development labs where employees can randomly work on stuff for a portion of their time. Just mess around. Get a few people together and build, from the ground up, smaller games, during some scheduled off-time.
I see where you're going with this, but the problem with this approach is that you're constrained by the size of your existing workforce. By contrast, community efforts like the Make Something Unreal contest are only constrained by the size of your fan base. Granted, there's bound to be some groupthink among FPS game fans, but you probably won't apply for a job in an FPS company if you hate FPSes, either.

And they should focus more on leveraging IP and design up and down the scale from mobile and social games to AAA games, with stuff in between. (Like EA is starting to do)
I agree that this is a side that's been neglected. Quite a few game companies and IP holders got burned when the last mobile gaming bubble burst, so they're somewhat vary of trying again, especially in the middle of a recession.

Still, there's people like John Carmack who not only implements ID's next-gen engines, but also dabbles in iPhone development, like assisting with the handheld Wolfenstein 3D port. The iPhone version of Katamari Damacy is okay, but I was somewhat disappointed when I found out that the cell stage of Spore was not ported in Spore Origins, but simplified even more. And it lacks Spore's major innovation: cross-pollination of creatures designed by other players.

People really need to stop and think about what a light casual flash game can teach them about making a big complex MMO. If you think hard enough about it, there's a LOT more there than you'd give credit for on first blush.
You're preaching to the choir here. ;-) I chuckle at games like Achievement Unlocked or Upgrade Complete and prefer Canabalt to Mirror's Edge.

Eolirin said...

I see where you're going with this, but the problem with this approach is that you're constrained by the size of your existing workforce. By contrast, community efforts like the Make Something Unreal contest are only constrained by the size of your fan base. Granted, there's bound to be some groupthink among FPS game fans, but you probably won't apply for a job in an FPS company if you hate FPSes, either.

While there are more modders than there are developers, there are less modders than there are fans, even fewer good modders, and they're not being held to the same standards/have greater limitations on their ability to work. I'm not about to diminish the value and importance of the mod communities (they're really important), but having that isn't the same as having your developers actively engaged in creative processes more often, and in more different ways. You can swipe neat ideas from what other people are doing from time to time, but there's not enough personal development in it either. You need to personally be going through the process.

Because it's more than just having someone come up with an idea, it's about the process of having to *think* about things in different ways. And while the mod community can be and should be leveraged better to get talent into the industry, the industry still has to leverage it's own talent, still needs to grow it's own developers. So you can't just leave it at that.

Richard Conroy said...

I think the 10 year requirement is only a requirement for games and projects that are large scale. Which applies to Operating Systems, MMOGs, and the AAA games that you mention.

As a contrast I don't think World of Goo took 10 years to develop, but it is clearly a great game.

There is another meme out there - that the difference between normal and great is 10 years of practice. It is something recorded in individuals who push themselves to learn their craft. Perhaps the context of Joels original article is that this concept applies to teams and organisations too.

Mike Darga said...

Great point Richard. I remember seeing that 10,000 hours to mastery is a big theme in Malcolm Gladwell's newest book Outliers. I haven't had a chance to read it, but I like the concept.

Richard Conroy said...

Mike, I think that book is the source of my comment. Its a theme that is quite recurring in the articles I read (non gamedev related).

Though I think i was pushing the metaphor here.

Mike Darga said...

Well this whole post is just one big metaphor strain to begin with heh.

I do really like the idea though that possibly the length of time isn't actually because the game is maturing, but moreso because the people making it are gaining more mastery at making it.

I imagine if you have a high turnover rate on you team, the time to great game much increases, and if you have a consistent team of great people who stick around, it's much shorter.

Richard Conroy said...

We are stretching the metaphor by implying that the causes of greatness in individuals scales to teams.

It doesn't work like that, but I am sure that there are new theories.

A team composed of individuals, who are each masters according to the previous statement, can perform epic level achievements.

The achievements in epic game design (Half Life, etc.) are certainly up there with the achievements of the best musicians (Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac).

There is some literature that describes greatness in teams too.

It would be nice to see some of this recognise the achievements in game design.

Eolirin said...

@Richard, working together well with the people around you is a skill too, remember. I don't see any reason to think it's a skill that you can't get better at either. Maybe we should ask, "Do Great Teams Take a Decade?" :)

Richard Conroy said...

@Eolirin I think that the rules change with great teams. Great teams form quickly or not at all. (My $0.02c).

Great individuals may not work together to form a great team. Individuals who work well together do not necessarily make great things.

There is no science that describes how individuals collaborate to make great things. It is probably something that cannot be orchestrated or planned. It is probably something that is self-organised more often that it is not.

I picked my Pink FLoyd, Fleetwood Mac examples on purpose ;-P

Eolirin said...

I dunno. I think it's usually that way, perhaps. But I think if you're working with people you work well with, you only get better at working well with them as time goes on. You go from good to great to amazing. You have to learn to recognize the weak points and the flaws, and how you can best support each other, and that only comes with time and experience.

That being said, I'm not sold on the idea that it's not possible to orchestrate; I think that's a failing in our understanding of group dynamics and human creativity. I don't think it's an unknowable, unpredictable, uncontrollable thing. We're just not there yet.

Mike Darga said...

It's a really interesting question.

On the one hand, I think there is a skill to collaborating, which you can learn in one place and then bring with you to another place.

Then there's an organization's ability to encourage good collaboration, which can be improved by individuals but must take some time for the organization to master and also involves things like making the right hiring decisions.

Then there's the ability for a given set of people to work together, shore up each others' weaknesses, read each others' minds, etc. This takes some time to develop, no matter how great the company is or how skilled the individuals are at collaborating.

The interesting thing about the last one is that it's something that actually gets a bit worse every time someone new leaves or joins the team. It's something that must be constantly improved or it will decay, unlike an individual's ability to collaborate which seems to me to be something that you don't forget.

Mike Darga said...

Coincidentally, here's something interesting from an old Gabe Newell interview I was just reading:

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2007/11/21/rps-exclusive-gabe-newell-interview/

(on why he hired the Narbacular Drop team to make Portal)

Gabe: Something that gamers should probably understand is how important it is that game teams stick together. No matter how good a job a team does the first time they make a game they’re going to do a much better job the second or third time. There’s just so much value in a team having shared experiences to draw on, and my reaction looking at these kids was that they had done this fabulous thing. I go to all these trade shows and see all these tedious, derivative, lifeless games, and these kids had done something that was better than 98% of the gameplay I see. The idea that they wouldn’t work together again was a tragedy. They needed an opportunity to work together and ship a full-on game. If they were able to do that exciting a game the first time, then it’s nothing to what they’ll be able to do in the future. It turned out to be a really good idea.

Tesh said...

"A team composed of individuals, who are each masters according to the previous statement, can perform epic level achievements."

That is, if they are allowed to exercise their mastery. I've been on more than one team and project that were micromanaged, to the point where the lead specifically stated that he couldn't trust anyone but himself to make decisions. That guts a team, kills schedules, and ultimately constipates a project, all in the name of refinement.

When a team is bottlenecked through one or two people, it is inherently constrained by those people. Individuals can't achieve epic greatness in that environment. That runs contrary to the dev process.

Mike Darga said...

There are definitely some things here that are worth a whole discussion of their own. In the meantime here's something interesting:

http://bit.ly/kL7cq

Ed Catmull of Pixar on collective creativity and hands-off management.

(hat tip to Charlie Cleveland, whose blog I just found this on)

Richard Conroy said...

@Tesh

+1 +1 +1

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Tesh said...

Ed Catmull came to my alma mater and gave a great speech that included many of the same comments. I dearly wish more managers understood his comments. (And that Pixar would make a satellite studio at my alma mater, but I digress...)

When you hire professionals to do a job, let them do the blasted job.

Of course, this is somewhat afield of the topic, but it is tangentially related. Truly, if you want people to do their best work, micromanaging them with a schedule bludgeon, blame games or ego issues, no amount of time will compensate for structural deficits in your project... and more time can even make things worse.

Switching gears, what about "live" teams? They aren't always the same people as the originators, but if they are empowered to make changes and slaughter the sacred cows, games really can be great. On the other hand, if they are merely maintenance bots, a game can't "grow up" and adapt with the times.

With that in mind, I can't help but think that sometimes, a game's greatness comes from a willingness to let new eyes look at it, and make significant changes.

Zhe Jiang (Jason) said...

I do agree with it!
I personally any successful product which is in a great design has to cost a very long time to adjudge, fix, then adjudge, fix for hundreds even thousands times before it reaches the final perfect design.

For example, the best game software company, Blizzard, it has many classic world famous games such as startcraft, warcraft, world of warcraft. Every game from Blizzard takes several years of design development. It has nothing to do with the technology such as development tools or programming languages. For example, the most recent game from Blizzard, StarCraft 2, still took years before it's released even the current hardware and software for game developments is much more powerful than before. We can see Blizzard spends most of the development on the game design, to add new ideas/attributes to the game, and redesign it again and again to balance each components to find a perfect combination of the design.

Good games may not take a long time to build, but Great game does take years even a decade!

Zhe Jiang

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