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An educator's view on game design and psychology

Thoughts, ideas and commentary on the psychology of gamers and how this knowledge can be used to create better game designs, by a software engineering teacher/game developer.

Author: Scaroth

Game development as art, not engineering

Posted by Scaroth Friday June 19 2009 at 11:35PM
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What if a game is approached as a work of art, rather than as a work of engineering?

Maybe the view that software development is a form of engineering is flawed. For example, a classic software development analogy is building a house. You start with a clear idea of what you want the house to be, draw it up in a set of blueprints, then use these to construct the building. But the analogy is flawed because there's one critical difference between software and traditional forms of engineering: in the latter case, you know exactly what the end product will look like, how it will be structured, how it will work, etc..., be it a building, a bridge, an engine, a motor vehicle, a power tool, a wristwatch, a vending machine, etc...

However, this can't be done with software! Asking software developers to determine the exact look and functionality of a program up-front is similar to asking a painter, sculptor, writer, or sketch artist how the work will turn out. No artist ever knows exactly how the work will turn out. It wouldn't be art if they did. Art is an exploratory, creative process, where the work evolves over time in a non-deterministic way.

The history of software development shows that, even when detailed pre-planning and proven engineering principles are applied, the software almost always changes and evolves during the development process, and usually turns out somewhat different to what was originally planned. Even if the end result is very close to the plan, the process of getting there is littered with pot-holes, brick walls, and various obstacles that make the process anything but straightforward. Often, a sense of smooth flow is absent, replaced by a sense that things are not quite as elegant as they ought to be.

I propose that games, or indeed any software, should be approached as a work of art. An artist starts with an idea, a concept, develop and evolve it to a certain point in their mind, then they start translating that to a creative medium, be it words, music, paint, pencils, clay, etc... From then on, the work evolves, not only in the medium, but also in the mind of the artist. The two feed and change each other in a continuous feedback loop, from which the finished product eventually emerges.

What would happen if a game was approached the same way? Start with a basic idea, realise the most fundamental/interesting/easiest part of it, then evolve the game from that. writes:
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