Sunday, May 27, 2012

There is nothing lean about entertainment

Much of the talk as of late in development circles has been about so called "lean-development." The fundamental idea being that you get something out there with the most minimal effort, and if ti flops you drop it and look for something else to do.

This has been fueled by two other marked changes in the game development landscape.  The first was the birth of a new segment, so called "casual" or "social" gaming, with Facebook as its primary platform of delivery. The second has been the related phenomenon of the constantly-connected player and the statistical analysis of player behavior that enables.  These two phenomenon created a "sweet" spot for a lean approach to games.

Any really new platform starts out with very low consumer expectations.  If you haven't looked at an Atari2660 game in years, find an emulator and play one.  Then remember that this was where game consoles began.  Low expectations means you can get away with shipping a minimal product.  Statistical tracking of user behavior is the perfect way to objectively measure the results and find your success or failure.  Together, they were a fertile field for so called lean development.

The problem, however, is game markets grow up.  With each generation of product the users expect more.  The acceptance of lean casual products was mostly a fluke of timing, as opposed to a model that we can follow into the future.  

How well would the movie "inception" tested, I wonder, if it was first presented to viewers as an animatic?  Entertainment is about experience, and you need the whole experience to truly judge any part of it.

As a final example, I'd like to remind the reader of something.  One of the most anticipated movies due for release this summer is "Prometheus", a pre-quel to the movie Alien.  Another hotly talked about movie in pre-production right now is a Blade Runner sequel.

Alien was a flop on initial release.  So was Blade Runner.  They both took time and word of mouth to find their audience.  If the lean model had been followed, these are two movies we probably would never have even seen completed.

With its focus on ship early/cancel early the lean model fits a mature market poorly and can result in our missing very important products and trends.  It is not a brave model, and creating truly new entertainment is a field that rewards bravery.  It can be brave to try something new, but it is more brave to stick to it even when there are doubts as to its eventual success.  I heard a fellow from Rock Star games speak not long ago.  He said that a secret to their success is that they do no focus tests, no marketing surveys, no user play-testing.  Instead, they commit to a vision and work until they see that vision realized.

They have made great and very successful games... and they do it as un-lean as it gets.