Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Sisyphus of Game Designers

- Sisyphus -
One profound lesson that I've learned during the course of this project is that it is really impossible for me to tell how long something is going to take.  A very good example is my current efforts at play-testing my Elthos RPG skills system, taking the feedback I got from my play testers, analyzing it, and then integrating the recommendations.   Wow!   Recommendations finished rolling in last Thanksgiving!   I'm still working on it!  Almost finished, but still!   WOW!   That's a very, very long time!

What took the most time?  The analysis, of course.  Actually, once I determined what needed to be programmed, it was difficult and tedious and time consuming (and not quite finished yet), but in all it did not take that long really.  Only maybe 10 hour stretched over 3 weeks.   That's not too terrible.  If I were not working a day job, and taking Wudan classes (which requires a lot of practice time), a some fascintating but time consuming personal matters, and family & friends, well, of course that 10 hours would have taken maybe 2 days instead of three weeks.  But as it is my calendar is packed solid every day, and so real life has a way of interfering with my fantasy life (of finishing this project in time for my fellow human beings to actually get a chance to try it out, hopefully before the world ends).

But really, it was the Analysis that took most of the time, and I did not expect that.  I should have expected that, but when I got my first set of emails on the skills system the ideas seemed reasonably simple enough to parse through and organize, so I expected the process to take maybe one month.   Hah!   Took a lot longer than that!

One take away from this was that communicating with the Player Testers by email has distinct pros and cons.   The positive side it is easy and the play testers can just jot down their thoughts and send them along very simply.  On the negative side it created a huge mass of emails that had interwoven comments about different facets of the problems (of which there were more than a few interlinked with each other) that had to then be tweezed out into individual (yet related) statements that could be analyzed.  That document in the end turned out to be 11 single spaced pages in MS Word!  Holy Macrel!   Unexpected!   That's what I'd call A LOT of information to analyze.  In case you're interested you can find the analysis on the Elthos RPG Forum here.  All of it, by the way, was really excellent information and feedback, so I'm very happy I have play testers willing to dig in and help me think through the issues!   It's absolutely great!   But it is also time consuming.  Not complaining, just explaining, so don't get me wrong.  I am writing this just as a hint and reminder to those who may also want to program their own game system in the future that these are the kinds of things that you can expect to happen along the way.   I didn't expect them, and so I was surprised.  Maybe you won't be quite as surprised as I've been.   Doubtful, but maybe.

Anyway, of course the analysis in the end distilled down to only a few statements.   And finally, it distilled down to two very simple formulas.  Hah!  The joke is on me that later people will scratch their heads and wonder, Gee - these two formulas are so incredible simple, so basic, so fundamentally no-brainers - what in the world took you so long!?   Next lesson learned:  sometimes to road to simplicity is very circuitous, winding, and torturous.  It was in this case fo'shizzle!

Don't get me wrong, though.  All of this effort was necessary in order for me to derive a simple system that actually balances and hangs together nicely.  It's just that this process of analysis and resolution took me a long time.  Especially when I have to balance the working on the project with my real life.   Were I to live in a cave with no day job, no family, no girlfriend or any friends at all, and a meager supply of food and water, then it would take much less time.   But that, friends, just ain't how my reality is configured.  Nor would I want it to be.  So the result is that ... it's slow.  Maybe if I had a team of top-flight programmer analysts to help me it would also go much faster.  You know, there may just be something to that!   But how to get from here to there?   Clue-free.

Of course, the risk I run is that because I am working on this project pretty much solo end-to-end, with few resources other than my own tiny fingers and a few pretty messed up computers (another reason for the delay was two severe computer crashes that cost me a lot of time), that I will get this project out into the public domain just in time for the sun to go into it's Red Giant phase, and our poor little world will be engulfed in a magnificent sea of scintillating fire.  Well, I hope I can get it finished before then.   That would be nice.

In fact, I hope to have it finished in time for people to try it out sometime soon.  Right now Elthos RPG is actually on the web.   It is in beta test mode.  It works, and does a pretty nice job, but I would also say that it's still got a lot of rough edges that need polishing.   I should probably mention that I started Elthos way back with my original rules system (still inherently intact) in 1978.  I began programming the system in QBasic in 1994.   I then converted over to Visual Basic in 1995 and finished the VB Application in 2000, and then extended and enhanced the application through 2005.   I should also mention that I did manage to play some pretty spectacular games with it over that period of time.  But anyway, I then began working on the simplified rules and Internet application for the "One Die System" which I created for use by the Literary Role Playing Game Society of Westchester in March of 2006.   So now it is an astonishing 2011, and I'm still not finished!  Yowza-Crikey-OMG!!  Good thing this is a really tremendously fun hobby!

Anyway... last lesson:  Keep At It!  It may seem like you'll never achieve your goal sometimes... but if you stick with it, eventually, one day, hopefully before the end of the world, you'll make it.  And then you'll be proud to look back and say, well, no matter how long it took, how difficult the challenges, and how discouraged I may have felt at times, I achieved my goal!  So...

Don't Rush Me!!  I'm working on it!  
hehe... :)

Sisyphus of Elthos

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