Let me tell you about last year’s NaNoWriMo project. If you’ve never taken part in National Novel Writing Month, it’s a great reason to push yourself as a writer, and it’s something that I’ve done (and completed) for the last three years. This past year, I was working from a story idea that I’d had since college, a set of ideas that I’d been playing with and adjusting for a decade. I had so many great ideas about what to write.
Then I started writing. The first intro was a mess, so I had to redo it. The second one was less of a mess, but it still ran into major issues. I quickly realized that all of the characters I liked writing about were secondary characters at best. The people I wanted to follow weren’t part of the plot, but remaking the plot to be about them would mean reworking the plot entirely. It was an absolute mess and not worth the ideas I had for the ending.
So I finished the objectives for NaNoWriMo and then I put it down as a reminder that having the idea for a long time doesn’t mean it’s any good. That was it.
It’s kind of amazing that it was just last week when we were talking about EVE Online‘s studio explaining that the studio tries new things, fails, and just keeps trying. This was meant to be inspirational, obviously, a sign that the studio won’t be deterred by anything to prevent it from really sticking by games like Project Nova or EVE Valkyrie! Except that, uh, appears to have not happened.
This is a recurring thing for CCP Games; you don’t need me to tell you that. But there’s a certain point when a studio will put forth trying and failing like a virtue instead of perhaps admitting that maybe it needs to make smarter decisions.
I mean, we’re talking about the people who insisted that the studio was going all-in on VR before realizing it was a money pit and cutting it loose, a studio with absolute certainty about all of its business acquisitions after several of them proved to be terrible ideas (and in the case of White Wolf got hamstrung and then abandoned), a team that has tried twice now to make the shooter thing happen in the EVE Online universe without any success. At some point you have to stop seeing this as a virtue of “never stop trying.”
Because effort isn’t really commendable if all you’re doing is slamming yourself a brick wall over and over without understanding that it’s a brick wall.
It seems to me there’s been a culture-wide shift in game development, pivoting away from figuring out a good game that people want to play and into standing by every title no matter how much it becomes clear that this is a bad idea. Heck, it’s not even wholly the fault of studios. It was clear pretty early on that LawBreakers was locked into a downward spiral without major rebranding and re-evaluation. That seemed unlikely to happen.
Am I saying that the developers should have cut and run right away? No. But this is the flipside to the discussion about how a marathon still requires the designers start running. I don’t want developers to feel honor-bound to bring every single project into a year-long development cycle for titles that don’t have a chance in hell of ever attracting enough of an audience to be worthwhile. Trying is only a virtue when it has some chance of actually succeeding.
This is, of course, tough to do. It’s really hard to find an exact telegraphed moment when you can say that a project is officially taking too much time and energy for too little return. But a lot of the problem comes down to that age-old specter of ego.
Consider the novel I talked about in the introduction. If I had decided that I was going to make it work, I could have done so. I have no doubt in my mind that I could have hammered at the concepts over and over until they started to work, found versions of the characters I liked more. Even now part of me thinks that I just didn’t give the idea a fair enough shake, that if I really worked at it there’s some great stuff toward the end…
But no scene is worth a sentence, no chapter is worth a scene, no book is worth a chapter. It’s much better to step back and say that even though I was sure that this was a good idea, I was wrong. I put in the effort, and it was going to take much more of me than it deserved.
You know what company has generally been good about this for a long time? Hi-Rez Studios. Sure, I can mock it for how it’s gotten to where it is (and I have), but by and large the company’s path to SMITE was a matter of trying something, recognizing when it had reached a saturation point, and moving on to something else instead of forcing all of its efforts into trying to create a hit from nothing.
Would I like to see Global Agenda ascend to prominence again? Definitely. But if that had been the approach at Hi-Rez Studios, it’d be just plain gone now. Moving on instead of doubling down on pleasing me was the right call. “Just keep trying at this” would have been a bad plan.
Digital Extremes has also shown a willingness to keep working at things; look at the tepid reaction to Warframe at launch compared to where it is now. The studio seems to be willing to shut down new projects that aren’t going anywhere (although part of me worries that we’re looking at another CCP over time, with a bit too much eagerness to shut things down rather than keep trying).
But the point here is that in both cases, we’re not talking about developers who put “we try and fail and try again” front-and-center as a virtue. Instead, it’s about trying something different. Trying is all well and good, but if you tried and failed you need to go back and re-examine why you failed. It might be that what you were trying to do was never going to succeed.
And that’s the real catch. Trying is only a virtue as long as it makes sense. You can try to break down a stone wall by spitting on it for years on end, you can try to get married by asking out every attractive person you meet before you actually talk, and you can try to learn how to juggle by throwing sharp things in the air and hoping for the best. All of these efforts can involve a lot of trying, and yet all of them would be better served if you stopped trying and started doing something much more reasonable.
Effort is great. Trying is good. But you should always be checking what effort you’re putting forward and why. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re trying to break down a wall with your saliva; what matters is that you could break it down right away by using a hammer. Try smarter.