Self Confidence, Egotism, and Prudence

September 2nd, 2012

Once upon a time, there was a famous Greek sculptor (although not famous enough for his name to stick in my failing memory) who became aggravated by the constant niggling of critics. So he invited some of them to individually comment on a work in progress, asking for their advice on how to proceed. He then implemented the suggestions of his critics. Sure enough, the final result was a grotesque monstrosity.

Every creative work must embody a unified vision, a clear sense of purpose, a single aesthetic. Committees make lousy art. Even those media that require the unified efforts of many contributors, such as cinema, have evolved a system for coping with this imperative. The director rules over a collective of artists, each of whom rules their own fiefdom. The director can overrule any individual’s decisions, but a wise director knows to use a light touch in guiding his gaggle of cackling geese. Enforcing a single vision while inspiring each artist to their best demands rare skills, which is why the director is usually seen as the prime creative force behind a movie.

The most impressive creative works are always the child of a single artistic vision. Many movies are based on novels, and all novels are the handiwork of individuals. Painting, sculpture, theater, music, poetry – these are all the domain of individual creative spirits.

At the same time, a prudent artist should pay some heed to criticisms. I have always struggled with the conflict between confidence in my own aesthetic and the humility to recognize the value of criticism. Yet my own experiences seem to argue for a pig-headed insistence on my own ideas.

Back in 1981, I began working on the game that eventually became my first big hit,
Eastern Front (1941). I had just finished several games for official Atari publication, and I was chafing under the many demands and constraints placed on me by “the organization”. At work, I shifted to a new job not involving direct production of software, and at home I worked on Eastern Front (1941). I swore that this was myanybody project, that I was doing it to satisfy my own aesthetic, and I didn’t care if ever played it. The result was a genuine masterpiece, and a huge commercial success.

There are two sides to every story: the working title of the game was
Ourrah Pobeda, a Russian war cry meaning “Hurray for Victory!” Dale Yocum, the man who published my game, fought long and hard to get me to change the title, and I eventually relented and renamed it Eastern Front (1941), a title I considered dull and devoid of character. I suspect that, had I not relented, the game would have been a failure; can you pronounce Ourrah Pobeda?

After Atari collapsed, I moved on to the Macintosh and went to work on another highly personal project about geopolitics. For me, this was no mere personal project: this was a crusade. I poured my passion into it. My agent found a publisher for it (Random House) and they assigned somebody to supervise my work. This poor fellow was hopelessly unqualified to supervise me; at one point, I exploded at him “You know nothing about game design, nothing about geopolitics, and nothing about computer programming; why are you supervising this project?” Shortly thereafter, Random House pulled out of the project.

The fellow’s basic concerns about the project were valid, and I was quite aware of the problems he cited; the problem was that he had no idea of how to reframe the problem in a useful fashion. He made idiotic suggestions that would have made matters worse. I knew that his misgivings had a valid basis, but he was just getting in the way. I mentally masticated the problem for weeks thereafter, and slowly altered the design to address the problems. The end result was
Balance of Power, which was a huge hit and made my reputation.

In subsequent projects, I vacillated between pigheadedness and openness to suggestions. In general, I leaned toward pig-headedness, trusting my own judgement over that of others. Sometimes I was unyielding, refusing to accept a change urged on me by others. Sometimes I instantly embraced a good idea. Because the fights over changes extended over weeks while the acceptance of good suggestions spanned a few minutes, the fights made a stronger impression than the acceptances, and I developed a reputation for pig-headedness, a reputation I won’t contest with conviction.

My greatest design disaster, however, came when I was insufficiently pigheaded. My efforts in interactive storytelling, extending over twenty years, were less sure-footed than my game designs. Cognizant of my own poor grasp of narrative, I was unduly solicitous of outside advice, and I paid too much heed to the urgings of others. My failings here are beautifully exemplified by my handling of the problem of Stages. In my system, a Stage is a location on which Actors interact with each other. In my original design, Stages were devoid of location; an Actor simply moved from one Stage to another without consideration for distance. This runs counter to the standard systems in games, in which everything exists on a map, and everything has spatial coordinates. People using my technology begged me, urged me, demanded of me that I include spatial locations for the Stages. I had excellent theoretical justification for my position, but eventually I caved in to their importunations. It was a stupid, stupid mistake on my part and it degraded the system. I should have stood my ground.

Now with
Balance of the Planet I face similar issues. I’m getting lots of criticism on the design, some of which is excellent. The best advice plays on a problem that has been gnawing at my innards for months: that the relationship between cause and effect is difficult to perceive. The constant harping on this problem has transformed the quiet whispering in my mind that something is amiss into a roaring, crashing thunder demanding correction. This is the most important benefit I have derived from the Kickstarter experience.

On the other hand sit the many demands for better visual presentation. They say that the screens are dull, repetitive, or unprofessional. They want something more visually appealing. The giveaway here is the vagueness of these criticisms. When I query the complainers, asking for explication of the point, they shuffle their feet, refer me to a book on visual design, or offer a link to a nice web page. None of their suggestions apply directly to
Balance of the Planet; they are exhortatory rather than explanatory.

I suspect that what’s really bothering them is that there are just three page layouts for the entire game:

1. the basic page layout with title, image, value, explanatory text, and control buttons at the bottom
2. the backgrounder layout with title, image, explanatory text, and single “Back” button.
3. the bar chart page, identical to the basic page except replacing the image with the bar chart.

I suspect that they want to see a greater variety of layouts. But why should I have more layouts? What purpose would a greater variety of layouts serve? I will be implementing a new layout in the spaghetti chart display, and I expect that it will be of much assistance in figuring out causal relationships. But my approach is functional rather than phenomenological. For me, the sole purpose of anything I present to the user is to communicate something. Yes, a visually nice display performs the function better than a cluttered mess – but I don’t think that anybody is claiming my visual designs to be cluttered messes. Nevertheless, I shall consider the possibility of adding some more page designs to help the player understand what’s going on.

In so doing, I set an alarm bell ringing softly. Am I just yielding to social pressure rather than maintaining the discipline to do what’s best regardless of what the peanut gallery thinks? Everybody thought that
Eastern Front (1941) was a waste of time – until it was finished. Just about every publisher in the industry (except for a startup called Mindscape) turned down Balance of Power, because nobody would ever buy a game about diplomacy. When I began working on interactive storytelling twenty years ago, all my game designer friends thought I’d lost my mind. “Stories?!?!?” they said.

Should I trust my gut or heed others’ advice?