Programming is Easy; Production is Harder; Design is Hardest.

New talk from Jonathan Blow. This time, he was on Game Focus Germany. This conference kinda COMPLETELY slipped under my radar. Too bad, I would have loved to meet Jonathan in person. Note: Visit Game Focus Germany next year.

As for the talk. He raises a question we already discussed before: why doing games if you can do so much other things. I like his observation of the different qualities of programming, production and design. Programming is very hard to get into but when you got over that initial hurdle, it is easy to improve. Design is exactly the other way around: it is easy to have SOMETHING but to improve upon that something is very difficult. That’s because – to quote from the move Solaris – “There are no answers, only choices”. Seems like I did study the right thing after all. ;-)

However I totally disagree with his strategy of making games. Spending 3 years on a game really seems like a lot of time and the thing with Molly Rocket is even worse. I have seen this a lot during my studies: designers sometimes can’t stop designing because they think they don’t have “enough”. Meanwhile, they passed the point of coprehension months ago. You can’t improve in Design if you make no experiences. Gaining experience means releasing games. Of course, just spamming the world with pointless games is not a strategy everybody should follow (I’m looking at you, but I think to some extent, it is healthy to let go of some of that Perfectionism, keep things simple and risk shooting below your expectations. “Everything in life is just for now” anyway. If you spend 3 years on a project, chances are your expectations are way too high anyway. It is also a sign that you might not have enough experience in releasing games to be able to judge the impact of your product.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

7 responses to “Programming is Easy; Production is Harder; Design is Hardest.”

  1. Evil Dan

    Nicely stated.

    The Molly Rocket thing made me think of people first getting started in the field of Art and crumpling up anything that isn’t perfect – which is everything.

  2. Jonathan Blow

    Well, I just disagree. The reason Braid has taken so long is not because I don’t know when to stop, but because I know exactly when to stop, and it’s not yet. There is a lot of work that has to be done for a game to reach its full potential.

    As someone who’s been in the games industry since 1995, the implication that I don’t have enough experience sounds kind of ridiculous to me.

    I think when the game is released, people will be glad that I spent so much time on it, instead of putting out 3 not-very-good games, or something.

    With Casey’s game (the Molly Rocket one), I played a build recently and it is coming along very well. It is going to be something much more special than it would have been had he released his first version.

    When you’re a student, it’s easy to look at these things and think they don’t make sense. But after you have a bunch of experience, and you are striking out on your own, and defining the path of your life by these things that you do, it is different.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    Welcome, Jonathan. Re-reading that post I’ve realized that it sound more critical then it was meant. But I thought you could take it, especially since I already wrote enough praise about your work. ;-)

    The particular phenomenon I was referring to is not the one where a designer has no clear vision and doesn’t know where to stop. Obviously, this is a different, re-occurring problem and I’ve also seen it often enough – especially with freshmen. It seems to come from the lack of understanding what design is about.

    What I was referring to is in a way the opposite – where a designer is so emotionally attached to a particular vision, and where he spent so much working on achieving that goal that he doesn’t consider simpler, easier, quicker solutions because they seem like a step back even if they are “healthier” for the project and the designer as a person.

    I think part of design is alway meta-design: designing the process of how you design. This includes also deciding how much time you want yourself to invest in a project. After spending a few years doing various projects with deadlines ranging between 4 days and 1 year I’ve noticed two things: first, having more time and spending more time on a project doesn’t make it necessarily better. The most successful and most instructive projects I’ve done were often the short ones.

    The second thing is that especially because design is such a hard task, you need to go for a high turnover rate with changing topics if you want to improve. This includes also the tail-end of the project such as documentation and release.

    Obviously, as I haven’t played Braid yet (neither did I play any Moly Rocket game) I can’t judge them at all and it wasn’t exactly a direct critique of those Projects. It was more of a rant inspired by your Talk.

    So I would like to thank for the inspiring talk and your comment and I’m looking forward to play Braid. :-)

  4. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    first of all, hi jonathan – nice to have you posting here, too.

    hopefully the next time, krystian needs not to criticise your way of doing things, before we get another comment from you :)

    to comment on one of your points: experience in design comes not from pure time alone. i have been working in the german games industry for (only) 6 years and have been hand in hand with some well known people here. but even the ones being in the industry since the late 80s or early 90s had no “gurantee” included, that they had experience in designing games.

    yes of course, they did this all the time years and years. but all the time they did not learn anything from what they did. no experience gain, no level up :)

    so it probably is completely wrong, that krystian reasons from some of his thoughts that you lack something. but it is not a ridiculous reasoning just because of 13 years of working in an industry. just think about other industries where people work since 50 years, smart people, skilled research or management. and they seldomly have the kind of experience that is needed to design a product properly.

    but now on to your more interesting point: stoping when something is really done, not before. i’m somebody that has worked several years, releasing games that have reached their deadlines or completed featurelists. but i have to agree with you, only a few games came near a point where they where truly done – due to the fact that they reached exactly the point “where to stop”.

    but this came seldomly from to few time, but from the wrong things inside the games – a lot of the stuff should’ve been ruled out in an early design process allready. which whould’ve helped, to have only the right things in the game and increased the chance, to have all those properly done, when release dates where near.

    my experience often was: more time did not help to have the right things in a game. only if the developers where strong enough to face the fact that a lot of work might be just unhelpfull rubbish and needs to be removed or atleast pushed in the “background” of the games appearance.

    i’m not saying all this, to keep up a point like “blow spends 3 years on games and that is as wrong as the way non-indie gamedevelopers chose”. no. instead i just want to point out what krystian said (or atleast i believe “wanted to say”) in his original post: “3 years does not gurantee to have the right things in a game”. experience from releasing many (smaller) games and carefully looking (back) at what oneself as a designer did with them, delivers experience.


  5. Jonathan Blow

    I hear what you guys are saying, but I’ll just say that I have spent the past many years developing a good sense of what is necessary on a project, and what isn’t. Braid hasn’t taken a long time because of feature creep or unnecessary aesthetic polishing. It has taken a long time because of all the small tasks inherent in getting the game where it needs to be for a successful wide release, with all the gameplay elements adequately supported to the extent they “should be” (in other words, the player doesn’t feel obvious things lacking while playing that part of the game).

    The game itself was fully designed by the end of 2005. Everything since then has just been finishing it up — which is a lot of work. Making games is just a lot of work!

    I hope to make my next game faster, but if it takes just as long, that’s okay, too.

  6. Anonymous doesn’t exactly spam pointless games around does it?

    The site’s contnet is up to its audience. Anyone can upload a flash game of thier own creation, and who’evers there to vote on it will put it on the portal.

  7. Krystian Majewski

    Well yes, it’s the Newsgrounds’ USERS who do the spaming. But then, Newgrounds doesn’t seem too eager to stop them so…


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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