Time has long been thought as a negative constraint to game development. Huge, multi-million dollar productions sometimes last for 3+ years and still manage to feel incomplete at the end, sometimes even requiring a patch to run properly. The general assumption is that more time and more money will forcibly yield a better game. However, this is periodically proved false.

Ideas are instantaneous events, in the sense that their gestation process is hidden to us. Our brain only presents us with finished ideas, giving us the impression that they just “popped” in our minds. You can have a good or bad idea, but it’s impossible to have just half an idea.

Since you don’t need time to make an idea, why then is it that time is still considered as a quality factor on most games?

Well, you can’t realistically play an idea, so you must spend time creating content to represent and communicate it. And basically that’s the root of the problem: whether you’re carving wooden pieces, 3D models or writing a story, you’re building objects (yes, I am aware of the fact that I’ve just called a story an object) to transform your intangible idea into a cultural product.

For the sake of the argument (and to avoid divisions by 0), lets assume that the time spent in refining your original idea and writing the document to communicate it to everyone is the time you spent having this idea. Let’s also merge the time spent in managing objects to get them to exist properly with each other with the time spent creating them.

Thus timeIdeas + timeAssets ~= totalTime. While making a game, either you’re having an idea, either you’re creating objects.

Objects, by their nature, tend to mean many different things to many different people. The juxtaposition of different objects leads to the emergence of parasitic ideas. Object proliferation may lead to ideas being diluted, buried under parasite noise or worse, corrupted when combined with bad art direction. And the more time you have available, the more will objects tend to proliferate, due to basic human perfectionism and optimism.

Constraints in time impose a limit on the time you can spend creating objects to support your idea. As a result, it will be less diluted and will, in turn, affect more meaning to your objects.

Of course, talented individuals working without time constraints are still able to keep their ideas strong no matter the amount of objects. Typically this is how Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto create, and it’s awesome.

For the rest of us, however, creating under a time constraint can be helpful to test the raw, undiluted value of an idea (and especially avoid spending time on a bad one).

The time constraint is rather obvious and has thus been applied in several ways:

  • In classic videogame production, “deadline” and “planning” are household words. Although they are not explicitly a constraint, they share the same values and yield similar, albeit more focused, results.
  • The Experimental Gameplay Project, which I’ve already talked about, was amongst the first to explicitly recognise time as a creation constraint and to develop videogames accordingly. They chose one week as their self-imposed time limit. Some of the concepts they developed in a week proved so powerful that they were pushed further (flash prototype “Tower of Goo” becoming multi-platform game “World of Goo”).
  • Petri Purho also developed the prototype to his award-winning game “Crayon Physics Deluxe” in one week, but the rest of his works conforms to a one-month time limit.
  • Finally, creator Chris DeLeon has pushed the constraint to what seems to be its limit, at least for computer-supported creations. He develops his ideas in a day, one per day.

I am obviously not being exhaustive, but if you poke around these guys respective bodies of work (and you should), you might notice they all share high levels of undiluted concept. It is my belief that the fact that they all create under the influence of a time constraint is somewhat responsible for that.

More on “time as a constraint” to follow…

2 thoughts on “Constraint: Time of production

  1. Pingback: Balthazar Auger » Blog Archive » Time constraint limits

  2. Fascinating.

    Funny how early arcade games were designed to work in a very constrained time lapse forcing players to insert and insert and insert coinage.

    And some of those players grew up to become designers who found new perversely addictive deadlines.

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