So recently, a number of gaming news blogs have written some posts about this fan named Gerry Pugliese who wrote a 539-page document about how he would improve Mass Effect 3. While this particular situation might be a little on the abnormal side simply because of the size and amount of effort he put into it, it’s actually quite common for fans and players to talk and even publish “how they would have done it”, where they pat themselves on the back and say “All it would take to make this game great…” and put down the developers for not doing these simple and easy things to improve the game. Now… I’ll be honest. I haven’t read all 539 pages of Pugliese’s treatment, so it very well might not apply to this particular example. In the first 30 or 40 pages that I read of the document, however, it was pretty clear to me what the sort of problems were going to be. What I wanted to talk about in specific was the sort of differences in how a professional designer would approach something like this because it really isn’t terribly different from a developer post-mortem in spirit. Developer post-mortems are generally split into three sections - what we did wrong, what we did right, and how we can improve for the next project.
So here’s the thing about armchair designers. They tend to lack the context to make choices like how much time, effort, and/or money it will cost to get something done. After all, they’ve never had to deal with a budget or a production schedule or requirements before, so they aren’t necessarily aware they exist or how they work. They don’t know how long a cinematic scene will take to create, because they never had to wait for the motion capture and audio recording, or set up the positioning and timing, or make sure they stayed within the word budget, or had to create it without using any additional resources because the animation department was tasked up the wazoo already. Because the armchair designer lacks this crucial context, he lacks the necessary skills to determine whether something is easy or hard to do.
When you look at a game that’s shipped already, even if it feels incomplete, you’re looking at the product of about 1-3 years of intense labor. During that time, the developers have each spent 40-100 hours weekly working on the game, with the occasional two-week vacation annually thrown in to keep them sane. There’s no long stretches of idle time where they just don’t do anything. The developers are working for (almost) the entire time. So when you look at a game that’s shipped and want to add something, you need to be cognizant that, in order to make the whole game work, adding something means taking away something else. There’s no extra development time to come out of nowhere, and there’s no magical extension you can add unless you plan on justifying how such an extension will result in additional sales.
Let’s use Mass Effect 3 as our example case, since that’s the topic at hand. One of the additions in Pugliese’s treatment, for example, was a special romance scene between a female Shepard and Garrus, complete with a shirtless Garrus out of his armor. It certainly would have made for a special scene and a nice emotional bit if they could have done it. But as a designer, you have to think about the greater context here. There’s only so many Turian bodies, and none of them in the game are shirtless. Ever. So this means you need to create an entirely new body for this one scene that only the players who played female characters who were in a romance with Garrus (a romance that could only be initiated in Mass Effect 2) would ever see. We’re talking about a minority of a minority of a minority here. So what’s the tradeoff? The animations all use the same skeleton, so we could reuse some of those. But the special body itself would need to be created, skinned, mapped, tested, etc. What would we have to sacrifice? Most likely, we’d need to lose an entire body somewhere in the game. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a Turian. Maybe it’s a Krogan, or a Human, or a Salarian, or something else. But you’ve already got the schedule full, so in order to create this one-time-use body for Garrus that will only be seen by a tiny minority, you need to cut something else somewhere. Which body would get the cut? Who’s got a body to spare? Can you think of one?
It isn’t just the body though. There’s also a cinematic scene here that involves the lady Shepard and Garrus in some sort of romantic setting, complete with touching and kissing. Animation models in games lack any inherent sense of collision with each other, they will go right through each other without any problem or resistance whatsoever, and it looks terrible. In order to cover this up, cinematic designers must be very precise in placing the models, lining them up, and making them move in such a way that they don’t accidentally interpenetrate. This means that a scene where characters touch is much more complicated and time-consuming than one where they shoot each other or speak. When you have characters touching each other, the tiniest change in angle could throw the entire motion off. This means that when crafting the scene, a cinematic designer would have to spend significantly more time on it than a normal conversation of equal length.
So what do you cut to make room for this scene? The logical answer would be “something else from the Garrus romance.” You probably couldn’t cut something from the core game, due to the number of players who would see it compared to the number of players who would see this scene. You need roughly equal development time budgets for the other romance scenes as well, so you can’t really cut from Jack or Thane to give to Garrus, and if you cull it from other optional content so as to unbalance it just for Garrus you’ll see some major complaints from fans of the other characters (not that they won’t complain already). You can’t just cut from the fetch quests either - the quest designer you free up there won’t necessarily have the skills to do cinematic design. For something like this, you need a cinematic designer’s time so you have to cut from existing cinematics. The only real option is to cut from the rest of Garrus’s existing content to make room for this one. Is there really room for that within the game? The existing romantic content is already pretty bare-bones as it is for a reason.
This is one of the main differences between a professional designer and an amateur. The professional is cognizant about the cost of things and is keenly aware of the impending schedule. She knows that things have costs, and that there are only a finite amount of resources that can be spent on them. I guarantee you that the Mass Effect 3 developers have a list of things a mile long they would have loved to have done similar to the things Pugliese has in his treatment. They didn’t put out the game they did because it was everything they had dreamed of making, they put out the game they did because it was the best they could do given the time that they had and the circumstances they had to deal with. As Bioware General Manager Aaryn Flynn likes to say, “Show me a game with infinite budget and I’ll show you a game that never ships.” If you want to be a professional designer and are going to critique others’ work, you absolutely need to be cognizant of the sort of constraints that they would have to work under. If you look at a finished game and see something you want them to change, think about what you would have to sacrifice in order to get that thing. You absolutely must consider the sort of consequences that you’d have to deal with if you got to make the change you want, and you must consider whether it makes the game better overall.